The Perfectionist Problem
This article forms part of the “Comfort Over Coffee” series – a range of articles seeking to tackle the trickier issues faced in the legal world.
Full disclosure: I am a recovering perfectionist workaholic – and I always will be.
Ironically, as I sit down to write this article, I can feel my perfectionist coming out:
- “This article needs to be perfect if people are going to resonate.”
- “There needs to be the perfect balance between fun and information.”
- “How can you write about perfectionism when you still struggle with it?”
Well, the reality is that:
- this article will resonate with some of you and not with others (and that’s ok).
- for some it will be fun and informative, but possibly not for others (and that’s ok).
- I’m not perfect (and that’s ok).
Aside from telling you a bit about my personal struggle with perfectionism, this article is going to delve into why we feel we need to be perfect, the false belief that perfection brings success, and some ideas that have helped me to let go of the need to be perfect.
Our need to be perfect
From childhood perfectionist …
Society has encouraged us to be perfect from an early age.
- Aptitude testing was a regularity to test potential and capacity to learn (from as young as two years old in some cases): Thursdays featured 100 multiplication questions (7×8, 9×6 etc.). Mondays oriented around spelling tests (I still can’t spell ‘occurrence’ confidently). Everything was graded. 90% got praised! 70% not so much (even though it was 20% over the pass mark).
- We grew up with the daily mantra from our teachers and parents of: “Success comes from hard work”. And hard work reaped rewards: being selected for the national netball team, winning the school music competition, being voted as Head Boy / Head Girl.
- As others worked hard to achieve success, competition to be the best heightened – pushing us further towards the need to be perfect.
- Hard work alone was no longer enough – we had to be multi-disciplinary: a good person, someone who helps others, someone who is likeable, someone who is self-sacrificing – the “good all-rounder”.
- The muscles in our brains connecting success with hard work and being multi-capable strengthened, as did the muscle that linked success to perfection.
To adulthood perfectionist …
As we entered into adult life, our view as to what constituted “perfection” was further embellished:
- The romantic-comedy genre solidified the belief that happiness was derived from the perfect relationship / being the perfect partner. The fact that these films focused on the “getting together” part rather than the actual long-term relationship is by-the-by.
- Social media portrayed “perfect” to be normal and constantly achievable (never a bad photo in sight).
- The fitness industry constantly reminded us of how we could achieve the perfect body, perfect abs, perfect legs – as if there was such a thing! I vividly remember when the size 0 phenomenon hit the media with Nicole Ritchie’s emaciated figure flaunted across magazine covers for the world to see. Dangerously thin was portrayed as the ideal body shape. Another area in our lives in which we had to be perfect in order to succeed.
Is it any wonder that this constant assault of unreaslistic “perfection” resulted in so many of us becoming stressed out, over-achieving perfectionists?
My perfectionist story
Well, this is what perfectionism looked like for me.
This photo was taken back in 2014 on a night out with a friend in a bar, downing tequila shots after a long day in the office and yet another failed romantic liaison (it never actually qualified as a relationship).
- the perfect lawyer – I worked hard, led the most prestigious deals, volunteered on all the committees and went the extra mile. But, I was not paid my market value nor did I have a clear career path.
- the perfect romantic partner – I was fun, slim, always smiling, putting everyone else’s needs before my own, being their cheerleader and daily support. But, I was not respected or supported (by them or myself) which led to back-to-back failed relationships and a disastrous impact on my self-worth. Not ideal when the rest of your friendship group are happily married and moving into parenthood.
- the perfect friend – I raced around the world to be at friends’ weddings, visit new-born babies, spend time with my god children. You name it – I barely sat still! But, my closest friendships suffered because quality time wasn’t spent with the people I cared most about and with those who cared most about me.
- the perfect all-rounder – I was the epitome of a multi-tasker. I was sporty. I loved a challenge. I raised funds for charity. I organised parties and pub quizzes. I could converse about Turandot as much as I could about how Liverpool were performing in the Premier League. But, I was exhausted. I stopped enjoying the things I loved doing. I felt resentment when my time was taken away from me. I’d chameleoned into so many versions of myself that I’d forgotten who I was at my core.
Had perfectionism led to success?
The dangers of perfectionism
The problem with perfectionism is that it is an ideal. There is no finite point which can be reached to confirm that “perfection” has been achieved. It is, by virtue, unattainable.
So, by seeking perfection, we are setting ourselves up for constant failure which, in turn, can have a severe impact on our mental and physical health.
Perfectionism also results in an unhealthy level of resistance to failure – as if failure was a bad thing. The irony is that success is achieved as a result of our failures. If we did not fail, how would we ever learn, improve and grow?
Failure is a necessary part of being a human. It’s a necessary part of success.
How to let go of the need to be perfect
Wouldn’t it be nice just to chill out and relax sometimes? To kick back and enjoy your days without worrying about how you are seen, the impression that you are making, the value that you are bringing to the table. To spend your time enjoying what you are doing. To be comfortable with the very real fact that you are enough.
Telling a perfectionist to just do things imperfectly is never going to work though. It is not a switch which we can just turn on and off. It takes time and effort to change behavioural patterns.
But here are a few things that helped me to reduce my perfectionist tendencies:
Acknowledge the existence of your inner perfectionist: We adopt perfectionist behaviour to protect ourselves from underlying fears and insecurities. For many perfectionists, their self-worth is derived from praise, where praise is identified with perfection. Seek support from a coach to help you identify these underlying fears and build up your self-esteem. Learn to let go of your perfectionist tendencies and lead a much calmer and stress-free lifestyle.
Let go of the idea that “perfect” exists: It doesn’t. If “perfect” existed, I am quite certain that evolution would have created identical human beings by now, removing any irregularities. What a humdrum world that would be! Our flaws, our differences, our quirks are what make us unique. It is in our differences that we find our superpowers – the real things that let us shine.
Stop comparing yourself to others: EVERYONE struggles with something, no matter how they portray themselves in the outside world. Whether it is the perfect family; the huge book of clients; the holiday home in the Hamptons – this is all external messaging. No one brags about the fact that they are feeling like an imposter, worrying about money, not having sex, struggling with their kid’s behaviour. Stop comparing your internal version of the world (the lens through which you look at your own life) with someone else’s external version of the world.
Reframe success: Knowing that “perfect” is unattainable, what does a successful life really look like to you? I don’t care if it is on the “what it should look like” list. I want to know what would make you happy, healthy and fulfilled. Take a moment to really think about that. Now consider how you can start implementing that.
Celebrate your accomplishments – no matter how big or small: As perfectionists, we achieve a lot, but when do we ever take time to celebrate our accomplishments? You’ll soon see that accomplishment and success can still be achieved in the absence of perfection.
If perfectionism is something with which you struggle and which is causing uncomfortable levels of stress for you, please know that these behaviour patterns can be changed. It takes time and effort – but it is achievable. And life is a lot less stressful on the other side.
Through coaching, we can address the underlying fears and insecurities which the perfectionistic behaviour is masking. Together, we can identify ways to reduce the self-criticism and increase your self-esteem, so that you can be confident in who you are, in everything you do and in how you are seen in the world.
You are enough!
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“The dangerous downsides of perfectionism” by Amanda Ruggeri (senior journalist for the BBC) – definitely worth the read: https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20180219-toxic-perfectionism-is-on-the-rise