Undoing Perfectionism

What would you say to the man who invested a decade of brutal labour into a project, only to smash it to pieces when things out of his control took his work in a different direction?

Meet Michelangelo, the High Renaissance superstar, who took a sledgehammer to his masterpiece, the Florentine Pieta, pissed off because the marble wasn’t up to scratch.

You could argue that the material was at fault or you could even say that he was a little overkill in his reaction…

Or, you might understand the real issue — an uncompromising perfectionist who got so engrossed in creating a flawless masterpiece that he lost himself in it.

As a recovering perfectionist myself, I know all about the impossibly high standards, unattainable ideals and severe self-punishment for deviating from the game plan.

And the years that I spent striving for the perfect outcome did nothing but put me on a never-ending hamster wheel — spending countless hours fine-tuning a project, obsessing over the minutest details, and tirelessly upholding my flawless persona to the outside world…

From an external perspective, I seemed full of confidence. But even when I got the perfect outcome that I was working for, I hardly ever felt a sense of completion.

It was quite the opposite — the constant chase and excessive self-criticism left me feeling perpetually unsatisfied and totally incapable of enjoying the fruits of my labour.

Let alone my life outside of work.

Now, I’m not trying to say that you’re going to do a Michelangelo and smash your desk or tear your next campaign to shreds…

But what I do want to illustrate to you is that demanding everything to be perfect can cause you to abandon projects mid-way, and lose sight of the goals that matter to you the most.

Or avoid taking any risk at all.

That’s why in this week’s release of The Unbound Leader, I wanted to share bits and pieces of what I’ve learned on my journey, plus a few actionable steps that you can take to avoid becoming your own worst enemy.

But first, let’s start from the top — what is perfectionism?

To put it simply, perfectionism is the belief that if we live, look and act perfectly, we can minimise the pain of blame or judgement. It’s quite literally the desire for everything to be without fault — which is why it is so commended as a positive trait in our culture, despite how harmful it can be to the individual.

It’s often tossed around as a “compliment”, hence why many people secretly harbour a sense of pride that they have demanding, even unrealistic, standards for themselves.

They say that they are not like other people and they don’t want to be mediocre. And sure, it’s often regarded as a positive personality trait, and it may even help you to produce some of your finest work.

But if you hold yourself to these extreme standards in every walk of life, you’ll find that it’s ultimately a self-defeating way to move through the world as it hinders our growth, affects our mental and physical health, and robs us of the joy of new experiences

As such, I wanted to bring some awareness to some of the more common traits of the perfectionist, have you ever noticed yourself:

  • Attaching your worth to your performance and achievements.
  • Believing that you either win or lose, with no middle ground.
  • Struggling to say no to others.
  • Procrastinating when you don’t have every step figured out.
  • Getting stressed out over missing a workout or eating one unhealthy meal.
  • Not asking for help when you need it.
  • Being completely intolerable of the mistakes that you (and others) make.
  • Staying in your comfort zone to avoid embarrassment or failure.

If you have this patterned response, it’s important to know that it has good intentions. As Dr Stephen Porges, the mastermind behind the Polyvagal Theory, wisely said:

“There is no such thing as a ‘bad’ response; there are only adaptive responses.”

Perfectionism is one of them and is amongst the most common patterns that I’ve come across when working with my clients, who’ve often spent their lives — unknowingly — compensating for the heartbreak and rejection they experienced in early life by trying to perfect themselves.

In response to it, they created the mantra “I will be so perfect and so attractive, that everyone will be drawn to me, and I will never have to face rejection again”, which later on in life became the driving force behind their flawless appearance and, often, successful careers.

But scratch beneath the surface, and what do we find?

A cocktail of repressed shame, feelings of rejection, and a deep-rooted belief that they’re undeserving of love, respect, and belonging. Underneath the armour, like with almost every overachiever, perfectionist, people-pleaser and workaholic, hides a younger part, a little boy or girl, who hopes that if it would just do more, give more or be a little bit better, then it would finally feel as if (s)he was good enough.

Not knowing that by constantly striving for their idealised self-image, they only reinforce the belief that there is something fundamentally flawed in them. That they are only worthy of love, respect and admiration if… they live, look and act perfectly.

Which is why it’s so important to recognise that the pattern of perfectionism isn’t necessarily your enemy, but is instead just another coping mechanism doing its best to try and get you to love and safety — even though what it’s doing is sabotaging your growth & well-being.

And this is something that millions of people experience worldwide because perfectionism — as an epidemic — is fast growing.

Katie Rasmussen, researcher in child development and perfectionism at West Virginia University, discovered that as many as two in five kids and adolescents are perfectionists.

And this isn’t just a “one-off” discovery.

Thomas Curran and Andrew Hill conducted a meta-analysis of rates of perfectionism from 1989 to 2016, where they found that the average college student last year was far more likely to be berating themselves over slight faults than a student in the 1990s or early 2000s.

But this rise in perfectionism doesn’t necessarily mean that the coming generation will join society with the plug-and-play desire for achievement that you would expect…Instead, it suggests that we’re becoming sicker, sadder, and strangling our own potential on a truly terrifying basis.

And when you consider that the ever-growing use of social media is exposing more and more people to the world of make-believe, it’s not surprising to see so many people are stuck in the paradigm of worthiness-through-perfection.

This can quickly spiral into a negative impact on your work, your relationships, and your overall well-being — with fear of failure coupled with the quest for perfection crippling your ability to take risks and dive into new opportunities. Let alone bounce back from mistakes.

But the thing is, you can heal from the side effects of perfectionism.

And the first step in doing so is to realise that you don’t need to meticulously make sure that all of your i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed; instead, try just working for “good enough” — which, when you think about it, could well be somebody else’s “perfect”.

Every time you allow yourself to be “good enough” you give your nervous system more proof that you can be human, and even mess up and not be isolated, hurt, shamed and end up alone.

Over time, you will grow your capacity to take calculated risks, explore new horizons, and accept mistakes — freeing yourself from the chokehold of your survival responses and allowing you to navigate life‘s twists and turns with greater ease, joy and resilience.

But, of course, this is easier said than done. So, I wanted to share 8 practical ideas that have worked for me:

1. Acknowledge that it’s you, not your environment that sets ultra-high standards. It’s easier to change your behaviour than something in your external environment.

2. Understand why you have such high expectations. Perfectionism must be serving some part of you, even if it doesn’t serve your growth and well-being. You’ll be surprised!

3. Question your expectations: What or who are you comparing yourself to? Are your expectations realistic? Who’s standards are you trying to meet? Be honest.

4. Face the worst-case scenario. List out all the worst things that can happen versus the most likely scenario. Then talk them through with someone you trust (preferably not a fellow perfectionist!).

5. Challenge your perception of “perfect” as the standard for everything you do. Make sure you identify the standard needed so you know what and how to deliver it.

6. Set realistic goals and expectations. Remember that your 80% is someone else’s 120% and that you don’t need to be perfect to continue making progress.

7. Try new things and take calculated risks. Allow yourself to try, fail, learn, recover and grow.

8. Define specific outcomes and set clear limits. Aim for good enough and learn to move on.

I wanted to leave you with this quote from Anne Lamot:

“I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it”.

Remember, embracing imperfection doesn’t mean that you need to lower your aspirations or settle for mediocrity… it means learning to accept that you’re a human being with flaws and limitations. Just like everyone else.

Trying to get it perfect is part of what’s keeping love, success and even money out of your experience.

So let yourself be human, mess up, learn to repair, move on, and you will notice that things work out.
They tend to do it every time (but maybe not the way you expect them to!). Your love life, relationships and bank account will thank you.

And, you will be able to make an even bigger impact on the world, too.

Now, remember to get out there, take action and do it your way.

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