How many times do we hear in popular vernacular people saying ‘it was the perfect day’, or ‘I was given the perfect gift’ or ‘it has to be perfect.’ Generally, people are conscientious and try their best at whatever they do. Realistically though, pure perfection doesn’t exist. As flawed human beings, perfection is unattainable. When perfection is the primary focus, it can have a crippling effect rather than a source of inspired creativity.
What is perfectionism?
Psychiatrist David Burns defines being perfectionistic as having standards that are so high they’re unworkable and unachievable. He believes that when people combine that with measuring their self-value in terms of what they do and what they accomplish, rather than who they are, it’s problematic. This drive for impossible standards can result in an inflexible attitude and way of seeing things. This pursuit of perfection can cause more harm than good.
Types of Perfectionism
Canadian psychologists Paul Hewitt and Gordon Flett came up with three ways to define perfectionism. These include: self-oriented perfectionism, other-oriented perfectionism and socially prescribed perfectionism.
Self-Oriented Perfectionism: to have unrealistic standards and to demand more of yourself than humanly possible. You be highly critical of yourself but also, are not able to accept your mistakes and faults. Combine this with destructive life circumstances and it can lead to dealing with depression.
Other-Oriented Perfectionism: to demand that others meet your personal standards. You may also be unwilling and fearful to delegate tasks to others in case it’s not done ‘perfectly’. This can lead to high levels of anger and difficult relationships.
Socially Prescribed Perfectionism: Believing that others expect perfection from you. This in combination of thinking that the only way to gain approval from others is to be ‘perfect’. The fear of believing you’re not ‘measuring up’ can lead to social anxiety or depression if you think you’re not meeting your standards, or anger at those demanding so much from you.
Perfectionism in everyday life
Perfectionism can infiltrate into many areas of life causing feelings of anxiety of depression if your idea of perfect isn’t achieved. Martin Anthony and Richard Swinson believe these can include how you look, how you speak, how you write, organisational skills, work performance, cleanliness and hygiene. The result being that you can compulsively need, do or find the following difficult:
- Reassurance from others
- Constantly checking and rechecking
- Difficulty making decisions
- Not knowing when to give up
- Giving up too soon
- Doing things too slowly
- Fear of delegation
- Attempts to change others
What can I do?
If you’ve read anything so far that resonates with you, the good news is that you’ve already taken the first step, awareness. Then, start to diarise what you see to be what’s most problematic or crippling for you. That is, start to note key areas that are difficult for you and the thoughts associated with it so you can begin to be clear of which areas of your life are being affected by perfectionism.
If this seems overwhelming to do by yourself, then professional help from a counsellor would be beneficial. You don’t need to carry this alone and struggle when help is at hand.
A book I recommend to my clients who are struggling in this area is by Martin Anthony and Richard Swinson titled ‘When perfect isn’t good enough strategies for coping with perfectionism’. The feedback I’ve received is that they’ve found it very helpful.
In challenging my own perfectionism, I’ve decided that I won’t go over, and over this blog article. I’ll leave grammar and spelling mistakes intact!