Perfectionism: Let's talk about it - Note's from a therapist's desk
Updated: May 20, 2021
Hello, I am a recovering perfectionist.
For a long time, I didn’t recognise that I even struggled with perfectionism. I thought I was setting perfectly realistic and achievable standards and that it was only due to my own ‘laziness’ that I wasn’t meeting them.
I remember preparing for a dinner party I was throwing for some friends. I’d spent too many hours to count preparing the handmade decorations, planning the menu, setting the table, and cooking. I wanted it to be the perfect evening,
And then my cake burned. Or rather one of the cakes burned because I had prepared more than one dessert.
My partner came into the kitchen to find me with my tear-stained cheeks and the brunt cake on the counter and asked what was wrong.
‘What’s wrong!? Can’t you see everything is ruined?’ I said pointing to my burnt cake. ‘It’s a disaster and everyone is arriving in an hour.’
My partner looked at me, looked at the cake, and then took me by the shoulders and lead me through to the dining room. He said to me ‘Look how beautiful and welcoming this space feels and how wonderful the food looks. No one is going to miss a second cake they didn’t even know existed.’
In my mind, I thought ‘ Yes but I’ll know it’s not perfect.’
That was the moment I recognised I might have a problem with perfectionism because I’d experienced that disappointment in myself for not achieving ‘perfection’ quite a few times before.
When I was 5 and decided to sand down and re-varnish a chair by myself. When I was 12 and offered to re-format all of the book reports for my class. When I took on planning a Christmas party for service users at my old job with only a few day's notice and no help.
In each of those circumstances and the countless others, I won’t recount here, no one had set the bar that high other than myself. I gave myself tasks that couldn’t be met or at the very least required a great deal of difficulty and many sleepless nights to achieve. I also didn't just have to achieve them, I had to achieve them perfectly.
If you'd asked me if I struggled with anxiety back then I would have said no. But perfectionism, fear of failure, and anxiety all go hand in hand.
For a long time, I thought if I just did everything perfectly then I didn’t have to worry about something going wrong. I had no need for anxiety. Of course, what really happened was my search for the unachievable (perfection) resulted in constant anxiety and a sense of being an imposter. There was always more I wanted to do and the knowledge I hadn’t done it. I lived in constant fear of failure while feeling I was constantly failing. My own anxiety-inducing Catch-22 moment.
Part of my journey to letting go of my perfectionism has been actively showing people in my life, both personal and professional, that I am not perfect and embracing imperfect solutions to my problems.
In doing this I’ve learned that people’s impression of me has not changed. They still see me as the same accomplished, ‘killer dinner party putting on’ individual that I was before maybe with some more human edges that make me more relatable.
My experience however and where I decide to put my time and energy have changed. Before my energy went into making things perfect often at the expense of the experience of something. Now I try to embrace the experience above perfection.
That dinner party would have been just as enjoyable if I had served frozen pizza and bought ice cream because the experience of being with friends was what really mattered, not the three types of dessert and numerous courses that kept pulling me out of being present with my friends and into the kitchen.
I'm still learning how to embrace imperfection and I suspect it will be a lifetime journey of being in 'perfectionist recovery'.
If you struggle with perfectionism too here are a few things you can try today to help you begin your own journey towards embracing imperfection.
We all receive messages growing up that mistakes and failures are bad while success is good. We don’t need to look further than our experience of school to see that.
This way of viewing failure stops us from trying new things and seeing failure as part of the process of growing. Failure can be a teaching tool and when we embrace it as such, setbacks become opportunities for growth rather than insurmountable obstacles.
Ditch the Uncompromising Approach
I used to add an all-or-nothing stipulation to everything. Now I ask myself why? Why do I need to do that? Why isn’t this other easier way okay? There are so many ways that we can approach a problem and sometimes take some short-cuts if we need them.
Embrace making room for compromise and happy mediums. If you truly enjoy baking make that loaf of bread from scratch. But if the process of making that loaf doesn’t bring you joy, then ask yourself why you’re making it and not buying a beautiful loaf from the baker.
Focus on the Journey
I used to focus so much on the outcome that I missed out on enjoying the process. Happiness tied to achievement is short-lived because the moment we achieve something, we need to set out on achieving the next thing.
When we embrace enjoying the process, then we extract every moment of joy and growth from an experience that we can regardless of what the outcome is.
Lastly, be kind to yourself. I used to tell myself I was lazy if I didn’t achieve perfection.
I have been harder on myself than I have ever been or will ever be on anyone else. I invite you to ask yourself the following questions when you find yourself being critical:
How would someone else I know and respect approach this situation?
Is what I’ve set myself achievable? Does it bring me joy to do?
What would I say to a friend who was having similar thoughts?
If you would like support with your journey to changing your relationship to your anxiety get in touch to discuss how one-to-one counselling might help.