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Pain of Perfectionism

Updated: Sep 7, 2022

“I’ve got to get it just right.“

“I won’t let myself make a mistake.”

“I’ll do whatever it takes to get top marks.”

“I won’t countenance failure.”

They sound like someone with an incredible drive to succeed, who’s motivated to push on through all obstacles and challenges. They sound determined to achieve their ambitions, however aspirational. They sound like a bit of a perfectionist. There’s nothing wrong with that if its healthy, if the end goal is motivating.

But if the goal is the only thing that matters, then it’s probably toxic perfectionism and it can be destructive. It has a real cost. We can be left feeling mentally and physically exhausted, depressed and anxious. Instead of getting the energy and drive we need to push on and make progress, we’re frozen to the spot, unable to do anything or take a risk. The fear of failure overshadows everything.

I have lived with perfectionism for years. I don’t demand it of others. I accept and value flaws and differences. It’s not about the way I look either. I could put more effort in here but it’s not how I judge myself. Instead it was about how I am, how competent and able I am. I couldn’t ask for help because I should already know the answer. When I’ve had feedback on essays or at work, all I’ve remembered is the criticism. I commonly would take on jobs, at home and at work because I know the other person won’t do it right – pretty undermining for people around me! It’s left me tired and burnt out and perhaps mostly importantly, angry with myself because, predictably, I never get it right!

It’s not surprising, because what is right after all? What is the perfect article? What is the perfect way to stack the dishwasher? What is the perfect way to hang out the laundry? What is the perfect response to your child in a given situation? There is no perfect! It’s not a difficult concept to get and I came to terms with it pretty quickly. But it’s taken me a lot longer and a lot of hard work to learn to embody it.

Social media probably drives a lot of perfectionism. People are free and easy with their criticisms online in a way they never would be face-to-face. Attacks are made on the way people look, how they behave and what they say. Comparison drives it too. And not just comparisons with the touched up photographs. People’s lives are curated on social media. I told a friend recently their holiday looked brilliant, in particular, it looked like the kids had a great time. She had posted pictures and stories on Facebook and Instagram. She replied, “I only put up the good stuff”. If I think about it, whatever your opinion of it, the image I am projecting in this blog is curated. Even admitting vulnerabilities can be a curated exercise.

Our social discourse also has an effect. We talk about meritocracy, mostly, in my opinion, without due consideration for people’s social, financial, psychological and emotional starting positions. The idea is the best will always rise to the top so if you haven’t, you’re clearly not the best. You’re a failure!

On their own, though, social media and the general discourse are unlikely to turn someone into a perfectionist from nowhere. There will already be a vulnerability, a psychological process that creates the potential. For me it was repeatedly being told when I was young that if I only I was a little neater, worked a little harder, did things a little differently, altered this or that a bit. Nothing was said with malice or any form of attack, but it wasn’t long be the message I got was I would only be okay if I did it perfectly. I became the equivalent of a well-prepared seed bed for every critique, however constructive, that came afterwards. Perfectionism flourished.

I’ve worked hard to get to know, understand and ultimately accept and care for the part of me driven by perfectionism, the part which has often been aggressively self-critical. I have softened and accepted my vulnerabilities. It’s not been easy and at times it’s been emotional and distressing, but it has been rewarding.

There are plenty of strategies you can use for tackling perfectionism.

Taking time out to identify successes is one. Even if it’s only for five or ten minutes a day, noticing and saying out loud or writing down what we’ve got right can be really helpful. Celebrating the distance travelled rather than the destination also helps. Sense check every goal. What would you say to someone else who set the goal? Talk to others about what seems reasonable. Calibrate according to their perspective.

Strategies are great but if the perfectionism has deep roots it can be difficult to engage with and stick to them. Making them habitual can feel impossible. I needed to dig down and loosen the roots first. I can help if you need to do the same.

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