Unless you are Superman or Wonder Woman, perfectionism is not a good place to be. Because of course nobody is perfect, and when we strive for perfection in our work or relationships, we set ourselves up to fail. And the sad thing is that in my work with ME (chronic fatigue syndrome), I have met many perfectionists who had driven themselves close to the point of self-destruction.
In fact perfectionism is linked to poor self-esteem, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, relationship breakdown, poor physical health and even early death.1 Perfectionism can play an important role in OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder). Research suggests that perfectionistic thinking and behavior in OCD stem from the effort to avoid the discomfort that results from a sense of uncertainty, danger, judgment from others, or imprecision. Perfectionism associated with an extreme desire to avoid discomfort can lead to the obsessive-compulsive traps all too familiar to those with OCD.
The problem for the perfectionist is that pretty much everything leads to disappointment, and this of course is profoundly depressing. The perfectionist is never satisfied with good enough. And no matter how well they do in their work or in sports, even in parenting, they always feel they could have done better. If you are a perfectionist the likelihood is that you don’t know when to stop. So you push yourself to do better, burning the candle at both ends, expecting your body to keep going when it is way beyond its limits of tolerance. And if you fail to achieve perfection in spite of all that hard work, you get depressed. Even anticipating a new project or next week’s workload can lead to anxiety as you anticipate failing to meet their unrealistic expectations of themselves.
What leads to perfectionism?
This approach to life is generally a product of a particular style of parenting. The kind of parenting where the child’s proud announcement that they got 95% on a test is greeted not by a “well done that’s brilliant!” but by “yes and where did you lose those five points?”
The child who learns early on that no matter how well they do, they’re never good enough, grows up to be the adult who believes that no matter how well they do, they’re never good enough. But we all have a profound need to feel that we are good enough and to be accepted by our “tribe.”
The same pattern can develop within relationships. Most of us find that those little foibles that seemed so charming when we met our partner can become really irritating after a few years of marriage or cohabitation. But becoming a control freak really doesn’t help. No-one likes to be micro-managed, and surely the health of your relationship matters more than the quantity of water your partner pours down the drain when they wash up!
Perfectionism seems to be a generational thing
The perfectionist adult who was never good enough for his parents may become the perfectionist parent who finds that his own children’s achievements are never quite good enough. But it’s possible to break the chain – understanding how this works means we can at least be mindful of our perfectionism when we are raising our children and make sure we don’t repeat the mistakes of our own parents.
How can I deal with my perfectionism?
And it is possible to shake off perfectionism. Again being mindful of it, exposing yourself to small failures that are not life-threatening, cutting yourself some slack when you get things wrong. Just as we learn to reward our children and others for their less-than-perfect achievements, so we can do the same for ourselves. We can learn to live life in colour rather than in black and white. There are not just shades of grey in between perfect and rubbish, but a whole spectrum of colours, because when we start to do what is good enough, we free up time and energy for other pursuits, other people, other passions, and that is what brings the colour back into life.
For some people this process can be pretty challenging and in that case it may be wise to get help from a coach – someone who can help you move forward and develop into the person you want to become. This is something I offer here at BIHC; click here for more information. If you would like to explore issues relating to perfectionism or not feeling good enough, give me a ring on 01234 409538 – I would be more than happy to talk to you on the phone.
Sorrel Pindar, Health Coach & Osteopath
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