A long time ago, when I was involved in recruitment, I remember someone saying to me, “When I’m asked about my weaknesses, I say I’m a bit of a perfectionist”. Deep down, they saw perfectionism as a quality rather than a weakness.
In a way this is not surprising, is it? Generally, we live and work in a world where we need to be ‘switched-on’ most of the time.
- We believe we must respond to emails and requests virtually 24 hours a day
- We worry that if we don’t do something well, it could cost us our jobs, especially if we are in a job that has a queue of people waiting to take it on
- Those taking exams may feel significant pressure to obtain very high grades both for their own progress but also as a reflection of the educational establishment they attend
- It’s not unknown for parents to be dissatisfied with As when an A* could be achieved
- Reputation is also something that concerns many people and sometimes it can be all too easy to have this reputation destroyed inadvertently by a quick post on social media.
It is also worth considering that our backgrounds can impact a drive toward perfectionism. For example, some members of marginalised groups can feel a disproportionate pressure to be ‘perfect’ to fit in and be accepted.
Yet striving for perfection, whether conscious or unconscious, can be crippling. I have had clients who barely allow themselves to sleep because it takes so much time to complete things to their exacting standards. Perfectionists can be reluctant to delegate (because of a belief that others won’t do ‘it’ as well) and can make life miserable for those working for them through all the nit-picking and impossible deadlines.
Checklist of possible perfectionist behaviours
- Regularly being late because you try to fit in too much in too little time
- Checking and rechecking work, focusing on every little detail believing it’s important to do, to get ‘right’
- Berating yourself for making a mistake
- Is your idea of success about hard work, discipline, focus, work first, play later (or not at all because there’s no time?)
- Having impossibly high expectations of yourself and feeling down when some of them are not met
- You judge your worth through being perfect
- You get upset if you forget or miss something that’s relatively small or trivial
- You lash out at yourself, or others, if something doesn’t go perfectly
- Having a strong need to be in control
- Tendency to focus on end results rather than enjoying the process
- Defensiveness, creating excuses and/or looking to blame others
- Dissatisfaction with body image
- Things don’t get done because there is always one more thing that needs to be checked out before you can say it’s finished or even before you can start
What to do if you have perfectionist tendencies
First and foremost, recognising and acknowledging you have perfectionist behaviours, is very important. Without being aware, you cannot address the issue. The list above might help you to get started in understanding.
Secondly, reflect on your life and identify how or when perfectionist tendencies arise. Are these tendencies present in all areas of your life? Maybe they happen more when at work, or with your family of origin?
Thirdly pick one behaviour, or situation where perfectionism is not serving you and chip away at making small changes to reduce it. For example, if you go to sleep late because you are still working, cut down your work by 10 minutes. So if you work until 11.30 pm, aim to stop at 11.20pm. When you’ve done this for several nights, reduce by another 10 and so on.
Another remedy is to consider what the impact might be if you reduce the standards you set yourself. Reflect on what the minimum ‘pass’ standard might be of any given task. What would you deem acceptable, good enough? Perhaps weigh up the time and stress of continuing to improve on something against the relief of a task being ticked off as complete. Often, “Done is better than perfect”.
A useful exercise is to visualise who you might have on your perfectionist committee? For me, and often for my clients, it can be significant others from our formative years. However, often, it’s a broader committee that can include parents, partners, friends, bosses and ex-bosses, teachers, colleagues, imaginary people or people you don’t know personally yet influence you such as journalists, politicians, influencers etc.
Who is on your committee and governs your life? Try not to edit who is on your committee, rather accept them as they are.
Then reflect on who is in charge?
How does each member perceive you?
Do they all agree on their assessments of you?
Who is holding back your progress?
Who is being listened to the most?
Who is not being heard?
How nurturing is this committee for you and your life?
Is there any one you would like to remove?
Or anyone you’d like to add?
In conclusion, perfectionism really is not a healthy driver of behaviour. Becoming aware of perfectionist tendencies and taking small steps to address them will undoubtedly help you to feel more relaxed and fulfilled. Remember “Done is always better than perfect”.