The art of imperfection
We’d all love to get everything right, all the time: always putting our best ideas forward, always producing our best work. But what if the pressure to always be the best becomes so overwhelming it begins to rule your life?
That is the reality for perfectionists — those of us who put enormous and unrelenting pressure on ourselves to always be the best of the best. Perfectionism, though, can in fact have the opposite effect and stop people acting at all for fear of failure.
Is it possible to make your perfectionism work for you?
What is perfectionism?
Perfectionism is a way of thinking and behaving based on extremely high and unrealistic standards. For many perfectionists, their self-worth is intricately tied with achieving these standards. Unless it’s perfect, they are not happy and they beat themselves up endlessly for not being the person they think they should be. For some people, this threat of not being able to meet their own standards means they delay, procrastinate or simply give up on a dream or task. If it’s not perfect, it’s not worth doing!
Perfectionism can occur in many areas of your life: work, study and home. It can affect how you think you should be as a partner, friend, parent, colleague or business owner. While most people will have certain standards they believe everyone should meet, including themselves, perfectionists demand an even higher standard of themselves. The problem is that often those standards are simply unachievable and so the perfectionist’s sense of self and confidence begin to crumble.
Lilian Wissink has over 20 years experience as a counselling psychologist and is the author of The Creative Seed: How to enrich your life through creativity. She says people with perfectionist traits experience extremes in emotions if they don’t reach their own standards of behaviour and success. Whereas most people may feel disappointed, upset or annoyed if something or someone does not live up to their expectations, a perfectionist feels devastated, often ashamed and fearful of what other people will think.
“I’ve counselled many students who suffered from perfectionism at university,” says Wissink. “They often did very well and achieved high grades, but at the expense of their own wellbeing and other important parts of their lives, such as friendships. They were often tense and anxious and more likely to become depressed.”
The important thing to remember here is that perfectionism is different from just setting high standards and striving for excellence. The perfectionist believes that making a mistake means they are a failure, whereas someone who strives for excellence sees a mistake as something to learn from.
Where does it come from?
It’s not unusual to want to be good at what you do, or to be a success. It’s not uncommon to want to be the perfect parent to your children, or the perfect friend. It’s when your desires to be good at something mean you set the bar so high that they consume you that problems begin to arise.
How does striving to be excellent turn into perfectionism? It can vary from modelling behaviour you saw in childhood to the reaction to having great success very early in life and expecting that will be the norm from now on.
Explains Wissink: “It may be that perfectionism was role-modelled by someone significant in your early life. Quite possibly, you witnessed a parent being pedantic in areas such as housework, their diet or how they did their job. Maybe they gave you lots of rules — ‘shoulds’ and ‘musts’ on how to get on in the world. Or perhaps you were bright and creative as a child and your parents always very positively rewarded anything outstanding. This is not a bad thing, but sometimes a child comes to the conclusion that they are only OK if they don’t make mistakes.”
It can also stem from a negative experience in life. “You might have been punished for making mistakes and quickly learnt to do everything you could to avoid this,” Wissink explains. “You might have been a carefree child, but certain teachers scolded and moulded you to conform to their tight constraints of being a ‘good’ or perfect pupil.”
However, perfectionism doesn’t have to come from your childhood. It could be that at some stage in your work or creative life you experienced a couple of surprising early successes and you started to expect that level of success in everything you did. This then conditioned your future behaviour, to continue to strive to get things perfect.
The fact is, whether your perfectionist qualities came from an early childhood experience, from others’ expectations or your own, if not managed, the unrealistic pressure to be perfect all the time can lead to a very unhappy and unhealthy existence.
The fear of not getting it perfectly right can be debilitating. Your anxiety and critical self-judgement can cause you and your health to suffer because, in reality, you are setting yourself up to fail. No one could reach the lofty heights you expect of yourself, but you can’t see that. Or, if you do indeed reach those heights, the consequential effect on your health and relationships can be devastating.
Learning that perfect isn’t perfect
Rachel Jones is a performance psychologist based on the Queensland Gold Coast with Mental Notes Consulting (mentalnotesconsulting). Most of her work is with high achievers, especially athletes. Jones has found that with many of the perfectionists she works with there is a fear that if they change their standards and thought patterns, they will simply stop achieving. In other words, it is their perfectionism that has allowed them to be so successful.
“I have worked with many athletes from a variety of sports who are perfectionists,” says Jones. “One of the biggest challenges I find is their fear that if they manage their perfectionism by thinking differently, they will not be able to perform at the same exceptionally high standard as previously. Together, we have to find a way to overcome their fear of changing their way of thinking while still setting themselves goals and working hard to achieve those goals.”
Sure, having high personal standards is associated with high performance and results, but there has to be some tolerance for error, a realistic acceptance that mistakes will be made and lessons can be learnt from those mistakes. As Jones says, perfectionists need to see their mistakes and failures differently, and begin to view them as an important part of reaching their goals.
“It’s important for people who are being ruled by their perfectionist standards to be taught how to deal with failure. It’s about teaching skills like positive self-talk and relaxation, and changing the emotions around mistakes. This can help them to still reach their full potential but overcome the negative consequences of perfectionism at the same time.”
Wissink agrees. She suggests writing out the positives and negatives of being a perfectionist and taking a close look at the negatives (eg stress, impact on relationships, anxiety, insomnia etc). “Then ask yourself, ‘What will happen if I keep going on like this?’ ‘Is this way of thinking and behaving worth all the negative consequences?’ ‘What will the advantages be for me if I make some changes?’ You may find that those standards you have been setting yourself are actually holding you back and making you miserable.”
You are more than your achievements
As previously outlined, someone with unrealistic expectations of themselves often feels their achievements are closely tied with their self-worth. They are their success. To begin to break down that belief that you are nothing without your achievements, a perfectionist needs to start working on valuing different parts of themselves.
“Perfectionists need to learn that their self-worth is not dependent on their performance,” Jones explains. “This belief can be reinforced through supportive relationships with people such as coaches, mentors, partners and parents, who value the individual for who they are, not what they do.”
It’s about challenging your belief that your are only OK or worthwhile if you are perfect and working both with your own thoughts and those around you. Begin to congratulate yourself on other parts of your life that are not measured by your previous ideas of success. Take the afternoon off one day, for example, and simply do something relaxing. Just because you deserve it. Try not to feel guilty or judge yourself while doing it and make sure you congratulate yourself afterwards.
You have to practise being imperfect, according to Wissink. “Start off with small goals that are not so important. For example, if you feel you must look perfect at all times and wear makeup around the house, practise going without makeup for an hour or a morning. If you usually spend all day cleaning the house, experiment with giving yourself half a day instead. If you are aware of excessively checking an assignment for school or work, limit the amount you do. Allow yourself to feel the anxiety that will come with doing things differently and practise ways to self-soothe, like reassuring self-talk or relaxation techniques.”
Make your perfectionism work for you
Perfectionism doesn’t have to be a dirty word. In fact, perfectionists are often the most successful people in our communities in terms of achievements. It’s about taking those exceptionally high standards and making them work for you, not against you.
Emma Grey is the director of life-balance consultancy company WorkLifeBliss (worklifebliss.com.au), which provides online and face-to-face training on managing time, energy and work-life balance, and is the author of Wits End Before Breakfast! Confessions of a Working Mum. She has a number of techniques that she uses with her clients to make their perfectionist habits work for them.
“First of all, stop colouring in the title page,” Grey says. “Perfectionists often get stuck at the preparation stage, scared to move on in case the results aren’t perfect. Meanwhile, non-perfectionists are getting stuck into the task, falling over and scuffing their knees, brushing themselves off and making progress. Find someone who isn’t afraid to give things a go, regardless of the results, and dare yourself to spend a week modelling their approach. You’ll be astonished how often you get in your own way and how much further you can go when you loosen your grip on ‘perfect’.”
Similarly, Grey suggests beginning before you are ready. “There will never be an ideal time to start. The ducks will never line up or if they do it will be a fleeting meeting. Waiting for things to be perfect, ‘information-gathering’, researching and equipping yourself to begin provide an illusion of real work. In reality, these are stalling techniques and very little progress is being made.”
Finally, she suggests to her clients that they learn to embrace failure as a necessary step towards success. “We came into the world with the ability to set our minds to a task — like learning to walk — and the courage to fail at that over and over, while learning how. At some point when we were a little older, we learnt that mistakes were a ‘bad thing’. They’re not. Unlearn that. If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not trying hard enough. You’re clipping your wings.”
Like everything, working through perfectionism is a journey, so don’t put too high an expectation on yourself to get the unlearning of perfectionism perfect. As Wissink points out: “Perfectionists need to accept that they will not unlearn their perfectionism ‘perfectly’. It will take time and practice to develop new ways of thinking and behaving.” You can’t be perfect at not being perfect.
Amy Taylor-Kabbaz is author of the e-book 21 Days to Master Reconnection with Yourself (While Still Being a Great Mum!). You can find her book and writing at amytaylorkabbaz.com and follow her on twitter at @amytaylorkabbaz.