Moving past perfection
That almost sounds like me talking sometimes. What’s wrong with being a perfectionist? You get good stuff done, working hard all the way, right? Maybe some of the time. Always hard-working – possibly – but not always getting stuff done. Sometimes, getting stuff done can be compromised by being so driven.
Perfectionists start by setting very high standards. You want to be brilliant and the only way to do this is by expecting the best of yourself. But in the perfectionists’ case, ‘the best’ becomes perfection. That automatically becomes a problem. Perfection isn’t a high standard. It’s an impossible one.
Imagine you are at the World Breathing Championships. Everything depends on you being able to breathe perfectly. How are you going to do that?
I guess you might eventually come to the conclusion that there are many ways to breathe well, depending on what you are trying to do. And even then, there might be many ways to breathe well to enable you to do that particular thing. Trying to breathe perfectly becomes meaningless.
- At this point, let’s imagine a work-related goal, you can maybe see that you can’t reach your perfection goal. You keep trying, but you always seem to miss – ever so slightly. You hear other people give you good feedback about your performance, but you’ve a way of dismissing that. You like to point out how your performance wasn’t quite up to par. Other people might tell you to ease up on yourself. But inside, you tell yourself that is rubbish and you need to push yourself harder or you’ll never achieve your goal.
- Maybe you start to feel like you spend a lot of time feeling like you’re not quite hitting the mark. You feel down but at the same time aware of the burden on your shoulders. You might start to feel like giving up, or avoiding what it is you were trying to do.
- Maybe now, you start to give yourself a hard time. You chastise yourself for not succeeding, and try to get yourself up again with punishment and self-critical language. You think to yourself, “If I just try harder, I can do this!”. You harden yourself for the next round, only to find yourself in the same cycle again, felling more and more despondent and miserable.
The perfectionist loop is completed. Sound familiar? Welcome to low self-worth, maybe even feelings of anxiety or depression. Maybe you feel like you are in a fog, or you think that you won’t bother doing the things you love because you feel you aren’t good enough to participate. Maybe you expect relentlessly high standards of your team-mates (or family members) too. You can perhaps find yourself being rigid or impatient, even though you don’t mean to be. Not a pleasant place to be.
What can you do?
- Acknowledge that perfectionism isn’t a desirable end-point. The challenge then is to notice your thinking and whether it is aligned with this standpoint.
- Realistic and challenging goals are the way forward. Where are you right now, and what should your next steps be?
- Set short-term goals. Don’t set any more until you reach that goal. Allow yourself to feel the sense of achievement, instead of denying yourself and moving on to the next one.
- Watch out for ‘should’ and ‘have to’ in your language, especially internally. If you think about what you ‘want’ to do instead, you’ll perhaps be surprised about how different that feels.
- Try thinking excellence instead of perfection.
- Playing the long game also allows you flexibility for when mistakes happen, or progress is held up.
- Watch out for black and white thinking. You don’t just succeed or fail – it is much more likely to be a mix of effective and not-so-effective.
- Cultivate an awareness of your expectations of yourself and others. Practicing self-compassion, and compassion for others will help you to access more reasonable thoughts.
- Love mistakes. See them as ways to learn. Make learning not to make the same error over and over again your new goal.
- Pay attention to the positive feedback you get – reflect on it, and resist the temptation to brush it off and move on. Appreciate it,and appreciate noticing and giving it to others too.
- Remind yourself that you are not lowering your standards – you are re-defining them.
Dr Sarb Johal is the Director of Equanimity Limited and Associate Professor of Disaster Mental Health at Massey University’s Joint Centre for Disaster Research. He spends quite a lot of his work time providing advice to the Ministry of Social Development and CERA on aspects of recovery from the Canterbury earthquakes. When not working, Sarb spends a bit of his time writing and running, though not at the same time. He has completed numerous half-marathons, 4 international marathons and 1 ultra-marathon from 2010-2012. He is a certified Leader in Running Fitness, and is also training to be a Personal Trainer.
You can read more of his thoughts on health, wellbeing and mental fitness at completecoach.wordpress.com