Overcoming perfectionism

For many of us, during these recent times there is a need to be focused on high performance standards, be it at work, in our domestic relationships, or in the pursuit of our exercise routines and even leisure. The need for flawlessness seems to be set at an even higher bar than before the pandemic, this in spite of the obvious extra challenges these times now bring for us.

What is it like to experience perfectionism?

There are different aspects to perfectionism including having an internal critical voice, perhaps one resonating with childhood demands, which seems to continually ask for excellence or something closely approaching that, the same voice that scolds us when we fall short in this respect. The drive towards perfectionism and the fear of imperfection, which may originally have been fueled by a perceived threat of abandonment, then are two sides of the same coin.These often produce a loss of the sense of being alive, a deadening down where optimism can be thin on the ground.   Perfectionism can also mean a predominant concern with imagined, or actual, critical evaluations of others. (Significant) others around us may experience perfectionism as controlling, and often with difficulties to be present with them in the here and now.  However, because of the habitual nature of perfectionist striving it can be very difficult to recognise that it is anything other than a ‘necessary’ part of the normal challenges of everyday existence.

The issue with perfectionism is that it can feel a bit like a dog chasing its own tail. Chasing the goal to be perfect can resemble the horse that never actually catches up with the carrot dangled in front of it. So too when we finally get to examine what has been achieved at considerable cost, only for us to experience our attention being disproportionately drawn to the minor shortcomings instead of the overall success. Perfectionism can seem relentless. Even when we find ourselves achieving something that does pass muster, before we can fully acknowledge our achievement and applaud ourselves for getting there, this sense of accomplishment can swiftly vanish once we become aware of the shadow of the next pressing commitment which then begins to cloud our spot in the sun.

Most of us live in a world where the demands for perfectionism, also echoed by the advertising industry, are difficult to escape. ‘Analytics, optics, metrics’ are just some examples of the targets and outcomes culture that has long since left the confines of the workplace, and can be seen to dominate many other aspects of life as well. Many of us with a perfectionist way of being may be naturally inclined to match ourselves with performance contexts which are known to be very exacting and have a normalised culture of continuous high demand. In such a culture high rates of burnout and unsustainable working practice are not uncommon.

Procrastination and perfectionism

Often times, it may be that our fear of imperfection is so strong that we find ourselves horribly trapped in an experience of stalling. Of not being able to start at all, not being able to mobilise ourselves for fear of falling short of our own unobtainable standards. By avoiding starting we side-step and are spared the wrath of our inner critic commenting that the outcome was below expectations. This buys us some time in an otherwise unrelenting marathon of needing to be ‘up to the mark’. In the long run however, there is no winning and this stuckness almost always leads us to beat ourselves up mentally for being ‘rubbish’ at deadlines (self-imposed or otherwise).

Adopting a perfectionist stance can also rob us of our creative potential. I for one, have found that the creative aspects of my thinking often require me to be away from outcome-oriented environments (desk, etc.). I tend to have my best creative thoughts when away somewhere. Invariably somewhere in nature where I can experience more of full sensory connection. I find that there it is simply easier to be more free from the anxiety of imperfection, to be more playful, more imaginative with thoughts. It may sound paradoxical but by the compulsive striving for excellence, we seem to create circumstances which are actually less likely to bring it about.

How can I experience being different?

What can you do when you find yourself struggling with trying to accommodate this inner naming and shaming, this habitual addictive pattern around flawlessness striving?  We can learn to empower ourselves to disrupt this game we play with ourselves. The pathway to this involves a number of small steps, all of which have in common listening to the invitation for self-compassion.

The first step is about allowing ourselves to become aware of the kind of perfectionist game we are playing here. After this we can invite ourselves to try to identify what makes the game particular to us and personalise it further by giving this game a name tag to recall this form of self-judging by. Something that seems appropriate and belonging to you. During the next step we allow ourselves to feel how we experience this fear of imperfection living in our body. Does it manifest itself as an ache, a pain, a clenched or stifling feeling? Can we locate it in specific body parts? The more we engage with this last step the more likely it is that we can welcome in self-compassion and kindness and guide our curiosity of how this compulsion has come to take up so much energy, and at such considerable cost, in our life.

In this process we aim to enlarge the sense of who we are, creating a new relationship with the here and now without the need to be so future-directed. We pay witness to the person beyond the ‘bad’ who often failed at being excellent enough, and to the procrastinator. Instead we are able to call out the nature of the game we are so attracted to, inviting better choice making. We can be curious and trust our other assets and see beyond this narrow landscape that seemed to largely want to define us.

Introducing self-kindness to the distress of perfectionist striving is not a kind of wishy-washy ‘false sense of reality’, instead the gentle use of positive self-appraisal can be a critical survival tool allowing for a new self-connection in which we become to see our world not just in the absolutes of failure or victory but instead a as a rich patchwork of in-betweens. Here better and healthier choice making can arise where ‘mistakes’ are valued for their contribution to learning and creative risk-taking. In the same way the ‘good-enough’ principle in parenting challenges the need for ‘mistake-free parenting’ and replacing this with a healthier way of being where rupture followed by repair is valued for the insight and learning it brings about.

The notion here is not that aiming for excellence is a bad thing per se. Spinelli makes a useful distinction between ‘the need or must’ to achieve perfection and the ‘want’ to do so. Wanting to achieve something comes with the ability to forgive ourselves (and appreciating the learning) from less than perfect outcomes. In needing to achieve something, there is an absence of self-kindness.

Applying effective self-care to an anxiety of imperfection invites a degree of awareness and intention.  We might notice for example the similarities in feeling the distressing effects of striving for perfection when we experience the work environment as triggering thoughts around targets and outcomes with similar feelings we may have from our monitoring and recording data when we are out exercising with the aim of providing a counterpoint to the pressures of work.

What can Counselling offer in challenging the fear of imperfection?

Because perfectionism is often well hidden to the self, counselling can play a part in revealing new meaning here in terms of your relationship to performance and productivity, your relationship to others and to self. Counselling can also help bring in to view what you might be experiencing as bodily complaints that frequently accompany the striving for excellence or the fear of imperfection, and help address the question of ‘how could I experience myself if I was not living with the continual anxiety to be perfect?’