I have an inner critic who I like to call “Little Miss Perfect”. Little Miss Perfect is a cross between an angel-faced prefect and Cruella de Ville. She pops up nearly every day and is pretty clever. She comes in all different guises. At times I think she is being very reasonable and I believe what she says is true. When I follow her advice though, I quickly become full of fear and shame with all joy and motivation zapped out of me.
What is Perfectionism all about?
Perfectionism is really rubbish. As a recovering perfectionist I feel I can say this with confidence. It’s when you have a set of self-defeating thoughts and behaviours, which are aimed at reaching excessively high and unrealistic goals. It can be a confusing one at times. This is because perfectionism is often mistakenly seen in our society as desirable or even necessary for success. However I’ve found perfectionism to be truly detrimental to my success.
I adore Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way – if you’re a creative you must read it if you haven’t already. She describes perfectionism as “a refusal to let yourself move ahead. It is a loop — an obsessive, debilitating closed system that causes you to get stuck in the details of what you are writing or painting or making and to lose sight of the whole.”
How being ‘Perfect’ can lead you astray
- Fear of failure and making mistakes. Failing or making a mistake can seem like the worst thing ever as a perfectionist would immediately link not meeting goals with a lack of self worth. In order to avoid this, you may orientate your life around avoiding mistakes which leads to frustrating procrastination and missed opportunities and adventures to learn and flourish.
- Fear of disapproval from others. If they reveal their flaws (and we all have them), perfectionists often fear that they will no longer be accepted by others. Doing their best to be perfect is a way of trying to protect themselves from disapproval and rejection. The trouble is this way of thinking can affect a person’s ability to have a healthy relationship which includes being vulnerable when it’s appropriate. At times they don’t realise that actually these ‘flaws’ make them more human and even more loveable.
- Black and white thinking or all or nothing thinking. Perfectionists frequently believe that they are worthless if their accomplishments are not perfect. Having a more balanced perspective is difficult when you’re seeing things in black and white. I coach a lot of students and, for many of them, receiving a “B” instead of a “A” can be very threatening for their self-worth. For example, they might tell themselves, “I am a total failure.”
- Perfectionists ‘should’ all over themselves! There lives are often structured by an endless list of “shoulds” and “musts” that work as rules for how their lives must be led. This means that following their own wants and desires is not on the agenda.
- Negative or distorted comparisons. Perfectionists have a tendency to think that others are easily successful. They believe that these others are successful with minimal effort and hardly any mistakes or emotional stress and so in comparison the perfectionist often feels like they are not good enough.
So what causes perfectionism?
It’s possible that when you were younger you learned that others valued you because of how much you accomplished or achieved. Perhaps when you passed a test you got a treat? Or when you made a drawing it got put on the fridge for others to see. Sounds pretty normal doesn’t it to get treated for doing well and having your work displayed. However, through this “I pass a test, I get praise” experience, you may have learned to value yourself only on the basis of other people’s approval.
This can mean that your self-esteem may have come to be based mostly on external standards. This can leave you pretty vulnerable and also sensitive to the opinions and criticism of others. In attempting to protect yourself from any disapproval – which I just want to point out is completely inevitable as not everyone in the world will like or approve of you – you may decide that being perfect is your best line of acceptance and defence.
Okay so perfectionism sucks big time, so how do we change this pattern?
First step in resolving this pattern is actually spotting when you’re unintentionally doing it. This pattern can be very subtle so I recommend getting down and dirty with it so you can be really aware of when it shows up for you.
I recommend taking a piece of paper and at the top writing Hello Perfectionism. We need to be friendly and compassionate when working with our patterns. There is absolutely no point meeting resistance with resistance if you want to change. So be light hearted and if you like drawing, doodle what perfectionism would be like if you could personify it? Would it be similar to mine – a cross between prefect and a Disney baddie? Or something else? Also use words to express how perfectionism appears in your life. What does perfectionism help you to do? Procrastinate, fear of failure, black and white thinking, berate yourself, say you’re not good enough, obsessively think about things? All of the above?
This is good. You now know how and when your version of perfectionism rears its head. Now that you’re aware of it. You can change your response.
Be clear on the difference between perfectionism and healthy ambition.
Doing your best and working for something in a healthy way crucially means setting goals based on your own wants and desires rather than in response to external expectations. Your goals are usually just one step beyond what you have already accomplished. I’ve made the last sentence bold, because this is often what trips a perfectionist up. They unintentionally make unrealistic goals for themselves. If you are now becoming ‘healthily ambitious’, your goals will instead be realistic and attainable. You would also enjoy the process of doing tasks at hand rather than focusing only on the end result and the task feeling like agony. When or if you experience disapproval or failure, your reactions would generally be limited to specific situations rather than generalized to your entire self-worth. Having this spelt out for me was truly life changing and I hope you’re loving it too!
Next Steps…becoming less perfect, but more authentically you
Now that you have compassionately addressed perfectionism it’s time to start living a different way. You don’t have to change everything overnight – this would be the perfectionism talking again! Instead start to apply the learning of this post in bite-size chunks.
My top tips would be:
- Start to use “good enough” as your new mantra. For example, this piece of work is good enough, this outfit is good enough, I’ve completed some of my to do list today, that’s good enough. This perspective alone will resolve your tendency to procrastinate.
- Ditch the idea of rights and wrongs for now. For example, “I hope I’m doing this right”. Instead ask yourself, “is this thought useful” or “what’s more useful at the moment?” I love the word, “useful”. It cuts to the chase and stops you losing yourself under an avalanche of rights and wrongs and black and white thinking.
- Start to love your imperfections. Notice the imperfections in others that you tolerate in others and even love in others. Take inspiration from Leonard Cohen’s song, “Anthem”:
Ring the bells that still can ring,
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything,
That’s how the light gets in.
Your perceived imperfections are what make you even more interesting and loveable then you already are. You don’t like cats – hey that’s okay, you secretly collect rubber ducks – that’s cool. You like to write bad poetry from time to time – brilliant! This is what adds the colour and sparkle to life. It’s time to ditch being perfect and start being you instead.
I really hope this blog post was helpful to you today. I would love to hear how you get on. And if you have any questions, please do get in touch. You can catch me on .