Part 1: Perfectionism
I often find myself faced with a task that I find completely overwhelming and impossible to start. It feels as if to be able to start (let alone complete) my task, I need to know that I will be able to do it perfectly, flawlessly and without fault. For me, this is the place where perfectionism, overwhelm and procrastination meet. In this post I am going to focus on perfectionism and will tackle procrastination and overwhelm in future posts.
Why do perfectionists feel this way?
What is it that causes us to set the bar so impossibly high that it leaves us feeling overwhelmed and not good enough?
For me, in most cases I have the skills to do whatever it is I need to do – writing this blog post is a good example. I have put it off for a while to allow me to do “enough” research so that I know everything there is to know about perfectionism so that I can’t possibly get anything wrong. The fear underpinning all of this is that I will be exposed as not being good enough.
This is probably at least partly to do with the fact that for a long time my sense of self was built on what I achieved academically. To me, being “clever” meant that I had value and other people would accept me and perhaps not notice my other shortcomings and failures.
Setting perfection as my standard was supposed to help me avoid the fear of being judged as not good enough and then rejected. Until it didn’t. Sometimes I just couldn’t meet my own extremely high standards and then felt as if I had utterly failed. Even if what I had actually achieved was acceptable and good enough.
Alongside this there is a rational part of my brain which tells me that these things are not true. How can I tame the very real sense of having to do things perfectly and tune into the part which says “I can do this well” instead of “I must do this perfectly”?
First of all, understanding why we might be driven to do things perfectly is important. I was talking to someone recently who had represented Great Britain in the Olympics. She said that as an elite athlete perfectionism was the only way to achieve her goal and she experienced it as a positive driving force rather than a hindrance. So what is the difference? Why do some people experience perfectionism as a positive force which helps them achieve their goals and feel good about themselves, whereas others experience it negatively and as a hindrance?
Psychologists describe two types of perfectionism – adaptive and maladaptive (Bieling, 2004). Adaptive perfectionism is probably what the Olympic athlete was talking about, and maladaptive perfectionism is probably what I have been experiencing whilst writing this blog!
What causes maladaptive perfectionism?
Perfectionism usually begins in childhood. Sometimes children are overly criticised at home or school and this brings shame. No one wants to be told off or called out for doing things wrong, so perfectionism develops as a defence against this. If I raise the bar impossibly high, then I won’t get it wrong and I will avoid the pain and shame of being criticised. Often, this type of defence will result in the child internalising these critical voices and developing a very loud inner critic, meaning that the judgement then comes not only from outside but from inside too.
Feelings of having to be in control are also associated with perfectionism – if I can do everything perfectly and keep control of everything, perhaps by taking on ‘everything’ and not allowing others to help, then I can stave off the fear of being judged for getting things wrong.
Often, underpinning perfectionism are feelings of being not good enough, unworthiness and low self esteem.
What can we do about it?
Inside most perfectionists there is a frightened and hurting inner child. Being able to connect with the ‘inner child’ part of us – the part which feels unworthy and not good enough, is the first step. Perhaps we can sit quietly and ask ourselves what it was that we needed when we were small when we made mistakes or got things wrong, but didn’t get? Perhaps it was a hug, or some words of comfort? Maybe reassurance that everyone gets things wrong sometimes and that doesn’t make us a bad person. Maybe what we really needed was reassurance that we could try again. This is the practice of self-compassion.
If you are struggling to get started on something perhaps you could look at your goals closely, is what you are trying to achieve realistic? Could you Practice being ‘good enough’, rather than perfect and lower the bar so it is more achievable?
Give yourself permission to make mistakes and comfort yourself when you do. Sometimes it is helpful to imagine how you might speak to a friend or loved one in a similar situation. Would you be overly critical and berate them or would you speak to them in a comforting and kind way?
Moving away from perfectionism and into acceptance of being good enough is not easy and takes patience. For those of us who have grown up using perfectionism as a defence, being ‘good enough’ can seem extremely unnatural and even undesirable. Digging down into your own story and discovering the roots of your experience of perfectionism so that you can bring yourself soothing and compassion can be life changing. Perhaps you might choose to journal, talk to a friend or seek therapy. All of these things can help you live a life where you are more accepting of yourself and what you do, just as you are.
Beiling P., Israeli A., Antony M. (2004) Is perfectionism good, bad, or both? Examining models of the perfectionism construct Personality and Individual Differences 36(6):1373-1385