How would your life be if you could stop being too hard on yourself, if you could lower that high bar of perfectionism and find a new ‘perfect’?
Think about it for a moment . . .
When I talk about perfectionism, I’m talking about your eternal quest to:
- Finish everything on your list by the end of the week
- Have a spotless house that stays that way because you maintain it with eyes in the back of your head
- Finish ALL your projects and tasks at work to the highest (im)possible standard
- Plan and prepare delicious and nutritious meals for your family each and every week (with zero need to resort to take-away or left-overs)
- Contact and catch up with those friends you’ve been feeling guilty about neglecting for ages
- Lose weight and keep it off
- Exercise daily
- Finish the book club book before the meeting
- Keep up with the latest movies
- Achieve more than one good-hair-day a month
- Feel refreshed and re-energized each morning after a minimum of sleep.
Being a perfectionist means striving to reach that bar you placed as high as you could sometime early in your life. You probably don’t remember putting it so high, because it seemed like such a natural decision to make.
But it’s been the bane of your life ever since.
But let’s face it: the quest for perfectionism is seductive.
When you get close to reaching those lofty heights of perfectionism you feel amazing. Side note: the very nature of perfectionism means you can never actually achieve it as that bar keeps getting nudged higher.
Perfectionists are very, very good at what they do. Their friends and colleagues murmur satisfying things like:
- I don’t know how you do it
- You’re my inspiration
- I wish I could be as motivated/dedicated/in control as you.
Who doesn’t love feeling admired and on top of their game?
But perfectionists have a dirty little secret.
It’s that bar – it’s too bloody high ALL the time.
And that means there’s no rest. Ever. No slobbing around on the couch watching crap TV. No 80% (or even 95% completed tasks at work). And no ring around the bathtub.
Your dog’s de-flead like clockwork each month. The petrol gauge never goes below a quarter full. The kid’s school uniforms are always ironed (there’ll be no creases in your family). And you work longer, harder, and faster than anyone else in the company, often taking work home because it’s impossible to contain it to a work day without resorting to an unacceptable not-good-enough standard.
How do I know all this?
I’m a reformed perfectionist. And I work with a hellava lot of perfectionist clients who spend a lot of time explaining to me why they need to keep that bar so high.
It usually has something to do with the world stopping dead on its axis, or the sky falling in.
Like a reformed alcoholic, being a reformed perfectionist means I always have to be on my guard for slip-ups. With ‘up’ being the operative word.
A reformed alcoholic may well be tempted to ‘just have one drink’. And those around her will be justifiably concerned. Because we all know how one leads to two, leads to too many. In times of stress (or what our high-achieving culture calls ‘weakness’) the reformed alcoholic is at risk of defaulting back to well-trodden path of alcoholism.
It’s just like the stupid-phone which will default back to the factory settings if you’re silly enough to download the latest iOS update. And reformed perfectionists are no different, defaulting back to unachievable heights at the first sign of stress.
That’s because we’ve been programmed by our family growing up, or other external forces to internalize certain beliefs about ourselves. And to react to those beliefs with certain behaviours.
So if you fear ‘I’m not good enough’ or believe ‘I have to do better’, or need more than your fair share of approval, the resulting behavior of setting the bar unrealistically high, becomes a default position. And even though we can change if we have enough insight and support, the default position kicks in so fast and so silently, if you blink you miss it.
So how to you kick the habit of perfectionism? How do you reform?
In my experience, it’s different for everyone. Sorry, I’m not a fan of one-size-fits-most. But here’s some thoughts that have worked for me and my clients over years of close encounters with perfectionism.
- Think of your best friend. Would it be okay for her to run herself into the ground and make herself miserable striving for unattainable perfection? Of course not. And in fact, you’d be the first person to try and rescue her from herself. So if it’s not okay for your BFF, why is it okay for you? (You might need to ponder that one for a while).
- When you’re a perfectionist, you’re actually sabotaging yourself as often as humanly possible. You’re setting yourself up for failure, because perfectionism is rigid, unrealistic, and unachievable. Now does that make sense? (In case you’re wondering, the answer is no).
- Practise lowering the bar. Take a look at where ‘normal’ people set that bar, and have a go at it. As one of my gorgeous clients said recently, “not perfect in now the new perfect in my house”. (I’m so proud of her)!
- Recognise how your need for perfectionism has chained you to a life sentence on the hamster wheel. Apart from being pointless and exhausting, does sprinting round and round in circles even make sense to hamsters? Perhaps, but they’re animals with teensy brains. We’re much more evolved. So prove it and break the shackles.
- This one may be a bit confronting (but hey, that’s what you keep me around for). What are you avoiding by striving for the impossible? Are you avoiding yourself? Are you avoiding truly living and experiencing your life? Have you ever taken the time to find out who you really are? You’ll need to lower that bar to find out . . .
Are you too hard on yourself? What difference would it make to your life if you gave yourself a break?