By Ruth Fordyce
Alpha Psychology and the Resilience Centre
Yesterday morning I headed off to present a workshop, complete with a PowerPoint presentation which I had spent a long time perfecting. On arrival, it became apparent that I wouldn’t be able to use my laptop to present. This problem was easily fixed, I simply transferred my presentation onto the organiser’s laptop and was ready to go. There was only one glitch – the font I’d used for all my headings wasn’t there on this new laptop. On pretty much every slide, the text looked the wrong size and just …. not right!
Now immediately, your reaction might be, “who cares about a font?!” … Perhaps you wouldn’t be bothered at all by this experience. In which case, this may not be the article for you! However I can guarantee there will be others reading who can immediately resonate with my niggling feeling of annoyance that my great presentation didn’t look quite right anymore! If this is you, it’s likely that more than once in your life, someone has called you a perfectionist.
Perfectionistic thinking is surprisingly common, and there are some great aspects to being a perfectionist! Seeking to live life according to high standards can lead to achieving great results academically or at work, and being someone that others know they can rely on to do their best (and really good PowerPoint presentations too!). However, left unchecked, perfectionistic tendencies can lead to a very strong internal sense of pressure to meet standards that in fact may be unrealistic. There can be a very real sense of fear about what will happen if not everything is ticked off the list, or completed to a worthy enough standard. It’s no surprise then that perfectionistic thinking is a risk factor for the development of conditions such as burnout, anxiety and postnatal depression.
Here are some features of perfectionistic thinking and some ideas about how to address them.
“It really annoys me when things aren’t done properly”
I believe this thinking style is strongly related to temperament and personality style, as well as often being shaped by one’s upbringing. Some parents promote a strong work ethic and push their kids to do their very best. Some children also show a preference from an early age for doing things carefully and thoroughly. Perhaps you have always had an eye for detail or enjoyed the feeling of completing a task. All of the above can be entirely healthy and lead to being a thorough and hard working person. However, there are times when circumstances change and you simply can’t complete something to the same standard that you prefer; for example, if you experience a significant illness or injury. Some perfectionists insist on dragging themselves around, compelled to get through the ‘to do’ list, when in fact their body is crying out for some rest and recuperation. Another common example is amongst new parents, especially mothers. It can be very confronting to feel that “I have done nothing all day except look after the baby”. However, looking after a baby is not only one of life’s most vital jobs, it is also one of the most complex and ever changing jobs as well! But for the perfectionist, it is hard to let go of the other tasks that didn’t get completed. Developing some flexibility here is crucial. Yes, you will always get a kick from ticking things off your list! But recognise that during some times in your life, you will have less energy for getting things done, and will need to let some things go. The other option is to do a less thorough job, and learn to feel okay about that! For example, a quick 5 minute tidy up of your desk or clean of the bathroom when there simply isn’t scope for anything more.
“It’s not okay to fail or make mistakes”
if you resonate with this statement, I encourage you to ask yourself ‘why?’ … Why isn’t it okay to make a mistake? If you do fail or mess something up, what is the worst that could happen?
I find that this kind of thinking is usually fueled by one of two great fears – one is that we are somehow inadequate or flawed; and the other is that people will be disappointed with us. Again, these beliefs often develop as we are growing up. Whether intended or not, children sometimes pick up the message from their parents that they need to perform to a certain standard in order to be loved and accepted. And so when mistakes are made, they get the sense that they are inadequate or a disappointment to their parents.
Neither of these is a pleasant feeling! So we can feel compelled to try and avoid feeling this way by always being amazing and brilliant and competent in the hope that we will somehow be ‘enough’. Of course, the reality is that sooner or later, someone will be disappointed with you. No matter how amazing you are.
Everyone makes mistakes. Of course you are flawed. That is part of being a human being. Learning to embrace both of these realities enables you to strive for high standards while also living with the awareness that you will not meet them every time. When you fail to live up to what you or someone else was hoping for, you will feel bad for a while. But in time, you will be okay.
“I don’t want to burden other people with my problems”
I have heard this, literally word for word, from so many people that I have talked with and worked with over the years. I believe it comes from a place of genuinely good intent – the desire to be a good friend or supportive family member who is not overwhelming or a ‘drag’ to be around. However, what this thinking style fails to take into account is that sharing our struggles is a fundamental part of any human relationship that has moved beyond the superficial.
When working with people who are struggling with the thought of being a burden, I often ask them – do you know anyone seemingly ‘perfect’, who never shares anything that they are finding hard in their life? Usually the answer is no; occasionally it’s yes and I ask what it is like to be around that person.
I wonder how you would find such a person? … intimidating? Irritating? Distant? In any case, it would be hard to get close to this person or feel totally relaxed and at ease with them. I think someone whose life seems perfect unsettles us because we know it is unnatural! If in fact you are holding back your worries or problems from everyone in your life, you are lacking the best relationships of all – the ones where people know you, your weaknesses as well as your strengths, and are still willing to hang around! For more thoughts on this, Brene Brown has a fantastic talk on TED.com about the importance of vulnerability in building truly meaningful and satisfying relationships.
While these tips may give you some ideas for challenging your thoughts, for some, being a perfectionist has been a life long habit and can be hard to shift. Talking with a psychologist can help to identify expectations and beliefs that can be shifted to become more realistic, flexible and more compassionate to both yourself and others.
In time I have learnt to identify the ‘niggling’ feeling that pops up when my PowerPoint font doesn’t look right – and countless other day to day examples of when life is messy, when I fall short of the mark, or when well made plans just don’t work out. Now I try to smile and have a little laugh at my ‘perfectionist’ self, let it go and get on with making the best of it. Not perfect. But my best – which in the end, is all we can ask of anyone.
Ruth Fordyce is a Registered Psychologist at Alpha Psychology and The Resilience Centre. Find out more about Ruth by clicking here.