Managing Perfectionism

Often we regard the idea of perfectionism as a positive attribute to a person’s character. Phrases such as ‘I’m such a perfectionist’ are thrown about as a marker of a person’s tenacity, diligence and quality of work. It can be healthy, motivating and helping one to achieve great things. However, many of us do not realize that perfectionism can quickly become quite problematic and unhealthy for a person. It causes anxiety, blocks achievement and impacts upon mental wellbeing. If you believe you are struggling with an severe and unhealthy form of perfectionism, it may be worth consulting a psychologist.

Perfectionism manifests in many forms, and ironically not always in the most obvious of places. For example, procrastination is a big part of perfectionism, which seems counter-productive but is often indicative of that person’s mindset that is focused on success or failure. Psychology Today summarises: ‘Perfectionists set unrealistically high expectations for themselves and others. They are quick to find fault and overly critical of mistakes. They tend to procrastinate a project out of their fear of failure. They shrug off compliments and forget to celebrate their success. Instead, they look to specific people in their life for approval and validation, ‘ and in Harvard Business review, Matt Plummer, founder of online coaching service Zarvana says: “A lot of perfectionistic tendencies are rooted in fear and insecurity.”

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Perfectionism can mean that a person sets unrealistic expectations to be perfect in oneself, which can lead to an obsession with fitness, or greatness among other traits. It can also mean that they set unrealistic standards for others too. Further, perfectionists can derive their standards from others. There are many different traits associated with perfectionism, and different people may have different traits. Perfectionistic behaviors can include, striving for success, hypersensitivity to failure or rejection, reassurance seeking, excessive list making, an inability to let go of arguments and a difficulty in making decisions. It can cause unnecessary anxiety, causing a person to become paralyzed with the idea of failure that they give up on a task or failure because perfectionism is often striving for high and impossible standards, or ‘to be perfect’ and anything less than that is a failure.

If you believe that you do often fall onto the unhealthy side of perfectionism. Try challenge your perfectionistic beliefs. Begin by considering what thoughts go through your head when you are being a perfectionist. What beliefs to you hold? For example, you may not want to delegate tasks to somebody else because you fear they will not be done properly. Is this belief true? Have you tested it? Perhaps you feel like if you undertake that new task you will fail. Is this belief realistic? Can you recount similar tasks you have done where you haven’t failed? You may even want to show a trusted friend or colleague a draft of a project you are working on, if you find you are spending an unhealthy amount of time stressing over it. You may be surprised to find that they think that it is already good enough.

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By challenging and testing your perfectionistic behaviours to see if they hold true will not only give you an indicator as to whether they are rational or not (someone else may not be able to do the job to a good enough standard), if they prove incorrect, it may help you to let go of these standards. Also try to listen when other people compliment you, challenge yourself judgement and try to engage in practices such as positive self-talk, regularly reminding yourself of the times you have succeeded or mindfulness exercises. When you do succeed, set aside time to congratulate yourself and celebrate those successes rather than overlooking that success or even setting yourself even higher standards.

Try to consider and reframe your understanding of your particular branch of perfectionism, is it actually helping you, or does It often hinder you? Desiree Dickerson wrote in Nature:

‘Perfectionism slows us down. It makes tasks feel too hard. It drives ‘just one more’ literature search and the need to rewrite the same sentence over and over, despite diminishing returns. When the expectation is perfection, then procrastination is commonplace. You feel that you don’t have the time to immerse yourself fully, so you don’t start.

Perfectionism also makes us miss out on critical learning opportunities. Failing fast allows for useful iterations of an idea to happen early in the picture, and lets us learn from what works and what doesn’t. Perfectionism inhibits that iterative process. The black-and-white lens of ‘perfect or fail’ means that even the most constructive feedback is seen as implying failure.

Perfectionism raises the bar, and our anxiety levels along with it. That tension in the back of your neck, that headache, that upset stomach is impacting on your clarity of thought, not underpinning your success.’

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