Why is perfectionism a problem?
You hear a lot of people talking about perfectionism along the lines of – “well its my high standards and hard work that has got me where I am today”. Well, yeah sure, to an extent. But perfectionism by its very definition is unrealistic:
So what’s the problem with perfectionism?
Perfectionism is associated with a range of psychological problems, including depression, generalized anxiety and worry, social anxiety and shyness, obsessive-compulsive problems, anger difficulties and issues related to body image and eating
(M.M. Antony & R.P. Swinson 2000: 29).
Yes, yes and yes to pretty much all of that other than I’m not shy.
How do you know if you’re a perfectionist? Well here is a story from my life for you, see if it sounds at all familiar:
Back when I used to play netball (before retiring from injury) one evening my team was playing to win both the league and the cup. We won one and lost the other. That night I was so livid and so upset that we didn’t win both that I actually threw up, and I couldn’t sleep. I was just replaying in my mind what I could have done differently, what my team could have done differently. My housemate at the time couldn’t understand why I wasn’t chuffed that we won the league – and, of course, she had a point but I couldn’t see it. My achievement was entirely overshadowed by the loss and it made me sick. I have so many stories such as this from my life that I could relay to you.
So, in a nutshell, that’s the problem. Its the same whether its sports, business or your relationships – you can’t celebrate your successes, you’re never satisfied because you always could have done better. In this area I see such a strong correlation between sports and business, just as I do around all kinds of leadership theory, teamwork, motivation and resilience; more blogs to follow on that.
Not only is perfectionism tough on you, but it’s tough on almost everyone else around you too. They have to see you struggling to achieve utterly unrealistic goals, and quite often they’re held up to the same ridiculous standards. A great example of early “socially-prescribed” perfectionism was seen in this year’s series of Child Genius – the pressure the parents put on their children to win was too much for any child to take and needless to say tears ensued, “[w]e have to ask ourselves as parents when we’re pushing our children, whose agenda are we running?”. (J.Bluestein 2015: 40) – here, here.
As Dr Jane Bluestein states:
Perfectionism is not a good thing. I’ve witnessed (and experienced) its toxic and corrosive effects on our thinking, our bodies, our relationships, our work, and our sense of worth. […} It’s the voice of the inner critic that screams “failure”, “loser”, “fraud”, regardless of the authenticity of our efforts, progress, or success.
(J.Bluestein 2015: 04)
So what can you do about perfectionism?
Firstly you have to recognise your perfectionistic tendencies. It often helps to have a good friend to point this out to you – is that a realistic goal? Are your current emotions reasonable by someone else’s standards? Helpful questions to ask yourself.
You’ve got to know which areas of your life your perfectionism is at its peak. For me it is sports, any kind of competition and my career. For you it might be your children, or your relationships, your artwork – it can affect almost any area of your life.
Check yourself, don’t allow yourself to have that endless negative self-talk – “I could have done it this way and then maybe it would have been better” OR “why didn’t I do it like that?”. Don’t berate yourself, try and keep perspective and always, always celebrate your successes (and if you’re a leader, the successes of your team!).
Be kind to yourself and remember that comparing yourself to others is very rarely helpful, relevant or realistic. Practice self-care, it is so incredibly important, although, arguably, one of the hardest goals to achieve for many of us (myself included).
As always I would love to hear your thoughts on the subject. Any comments of feedback would be greatly appreciated.
For further reading:
Never Good Enough: How to Use Perfectionism to Your Advantage without Letting It Ruin Your Life by M.R. Basco (Simon & Schuster)
Overcoming Perfectionism by Jenny Gould (Ventus Publishing ApS)
Perfectionism: What’s Bad about Being Too Good? By M. Adderholdt-Elliott, M. Elliott, & J. Goldberg (Monarch Books)
The Perfection Deception: Why Trying to Be Perfect Is Sabotaging Your Relationships, Making You Sick, and Holding Your Happiness Hostage by J. Bluestein (Health Communications Inc.).
When Perfect Isn’t Good Enough: Strategies for Coping with Perfectionism by M. M. Antony & R. P. Swinson (New Harbinger Publications)