Is it really perfect to be a perfectionist?
We live in a world where we are constantly bombarded with social media posts and photos that depict other people's perfect lives. Everyone looks polished and well put together, their houses look immaculate and beautifully decorated and their holidays are always full of sensational views and once in a life time experiences. It can be hard not to 1) believe everything you're seeing (filters are wonderfully deceiving remember!) and 2) not feel bad that our lives aren't as perfect. It makes sense therefore that perfectionism traits have increased in the last two decades.
"Shame loves silence. That's why it loves perfectionists - we're easy to keep quiet"
- Brené Brown
Strictly speaking perfectionism is having high personal standards combined with excessively self-critical thought processes. We may offhandedly say "Oh I'm a perfectionist" but are you really? Or are you actually conscientious, hard working, and thorough? The difference is in the excessive nature of the standards set and the extreme self-critical thoughts. Someone who is conscientious may feel bad if they don't achieve what they wanted to but be able to get past it whereas someone who is a perfectionist, will react very strongly and negatively to their high standards not being met. Understandably there are links between this type of negative thinking and other psychological disorders such as depression, anxiety, insomnia, eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorders and even self-harm and suicidal thoughts; these links make sense due to the constant self-criticism and negative feelings.
Signs of being a perfectionist
All or nothing thinking - you are more likely to think in black and white; you will see things as good or bad... there is no in between.
Standards, for self and others, are very high - not only are the standards you set for yourself almost unachievable, you also expect others to reach these standards. The implication for this is that relationships may struggle to thrive, therefore resulting in isolation.
Nothing ever feels finished - because you're always reaching for an impossible standard you will continually move the goal posts as you will think there's more you can do!
You think about 'shoulds' - You always feel that you 'should' do something not that you 'could'. The expectation you put on yourself is always very high causing a sense of pressure and anxiety.
Procrastination - Starting a project at all can be difficult for you as the fear of failure can be paralysing; the thinking being "If I don't start it, then I can't fail at it"
Self-confidence depends on achievement - your self confidence is completely dependent on you doing something well and on other people acknowledging your success.
Extreme responses - you may experience extreme ways of thinking e.g. "I will never be able to do this....", "I will always be bad at...", "I've eaten one chocolate so I may as well eat all of them"
How to overcome perfectionism?
1 - Learn to recognise perfectionism
Try to focus on your thought processes and how you're responding to things. Perhaps writing them down will help with seeing the patterns in the way you're thinking? Ask yourself: Do people tell me I have high standards? Am I ever happy with what I (or others) achieve? Do I often feel frustrated, depressed, tense or angry when trying to achieve my goals?
2 - Challenge the perfectionist thinking
Use realistic, positive and helpful thoughts to challenge the overly self-critical thoughts. It may be that at first you struggle to connect with this way of thinking so you could perhaps write some thoughts down and say them to yourself every day; gradually you'll internalise them. Examples could be: "everybody makes mistakes" or "it's okay as long as I did my best".
Challenge negative thoughts by taking perspective of the situation; what may others think about things?, what would you say to a friend in this situation? Is there another way of viewing it? Does it really matter?
As a perfectionist you may look at things in a black and white way; challenge this by purposefully thinking about what level of imperfection you could tolerate. This will help you lower your standards.
3 - Reward yourself
Make sure that you take stock of what you're doing and acknowledge your hard work and what you are accomplishing. Small and regular rewards will help to change your self-critical way of thinking.
4 - Seek advice or help from a professional
Many perfectionists are able to move away from their unhelpful thinking and behaviours by purposefully trying to change to way they approach situations and tasks. If you've tried connecting with the above methods and they're not working for you, or if you are experiencing any of the psychological disorders listed above, then talking therapies can be beneficial; the therapist will be able to guide you step-by-step through how to change your thinking and also help you understand why you have developed these thoughts patterns.