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The Curse of Perfectionism

Jenny Gould of The STP Consultancy

We all fail. That’s because we’re fallible human beings just doing the best we can. Isn’t it ironic though - perfectionists ‘fail’ more often than the rest of us! That’s because of the way perfectionists think; in their minds they will never be ‘good enough’. Actually, it seems to me that there’s a bit of the perfectionist in many of us.

Of course we all want to be competent, to be good at what we do, but trying to be ‘perfect’ can be pathological, because it involves putting ourselves under an unhealthy degree of pressure. Perfectionists feel the need to constantly push themselves, often driving themselves into the ground. They can find it difficult to relax, impossible to make decisions and often fuss over small unimportant things. Their underlying hope is that they will somehow feel good enough – it’s about the need for approval. But the price they pay is high – overwhelming levels of stress, anxiety, guilt, procrastination, self-recrimination, fear – and that’s just for starters!

Perfectionists are constantly afraid of making mistakes, and this fear of failure prevents them from trying new things. They feel paralysed at the prospect of being outside of their comfort zone. It’d be so ‘awful’ to make a mistake! But that means they deny themselves the opportunity to learn and to grow. Perfectionists tend not to learn from mistakes – heck, there’s no time for that, they are far too busy beating themselves up! We don’t expect perfection from other people so why are we are so hard on ourselves? Would we be so unkind to a friend? Progress almost always includes setbacks, in fact you could say that failure is the foundation of success. Actually though, ‘successful’ people don't see failure as failure in the way most of us do. If they attempt something and it doesn’t give them what they want, they are more likely to put it down to experience rather think in terms of failure. Understand that and you’ll be prepared to take more risks, accept more challenges and feel more alive!

I love this quote from Ann Lamott’s book “Bird by Bird, Some instructions on Writing and Life”

“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life and is the main obstacle between you and a rubbish first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it”

Perfectionism is often linked to what we call ‘good girl syndrome’, where the person spends a lot of time trying to please others, but neglects to pay attention to their own needs. They have a tendency to make assumptions about what others think of them too - jumping to conclusions, mind-reading and so on. They make lots of demands about themselves, about other people and the world in general. Beware of the ‘musts’ ‘shoulds’ and ‘have to’s’ !. It’s important to learn how to stand back and observe the ‘thinking’ self, to tune into our thoughts and challenge those unhelpful thinking habits.

If you don’t fail sometimes then you aren’t really living your life. Let’s face it, it would make you a pretty unpleasant person to be around if you could achieve perfection! Being authentic, keeping it real, warts and all is what connects us with other people.

Would you like to learn to cope better when things don’t go according to plan? Here are some tips for handling ‘failure’:

  Ask yourself what you can learn from what happened. Think of it as a learning experience – something that will help you grow.

  *Resolve to move on, and take some action – that helps to quickly rebuild your self confidence.

  *Remind yourself that all the most successful people have failed, some of them many times!
.
  *Get it into perspective. We can be too ready to blame ourselves 100% when things go wrong -
  invariably there are other contributing factors. If however it really was your fault then face up to
  it. Be gracious, embrace it and take responsibility.

  *Watch what you’re thinking – ‘I’m rubbish’, ‘I’ll never make it’, ‘This always happens to me’.
  Negative thoughts will make you feel worse, so challenge them and replace them with more
  helpful ones.

  *And watch what you’re saying too – never say anything about yourself you don’t want to be
  true!

  *Remind yourself of your successes – write them down and take time to celebrate them. This
  is one of the ways to develop emotional resiliency.

  AND ….say after me ‘Good enough IS good enough!’