Confessions of a perfectionist

I'm writing this blog today because just when I thought I was getting my perfectionist tendencies under control, circumstances just yesterday caused all the old feelings of failure to crash down on me; because I felt I had handled a situation badly (a.k.a. not as perfectly as I would expect of myself).


According to the Cambridge English Dictionary, a perfectionist is...

a person who wants everything to be perfect and demands the highest standards possible:

For me, the perfectionism monster normally only rears its ugly head in relation to something I'm doing, or am responsible for. I want the things I do to be right, and I get really annoyed with myself when they are not.


Unlike other perfectionists I've come across in my life, I tend not to have the same high standards for others as I have for myself (there are a few exceptions). It's like when you can see flaws in others and simply accept them; yet the same flaws in yourself seem to be an abomination.


Now, intellectually, I know these things:

  • Perfectionism doesn't serve

  • There is actually no such thing as perfect, just varying degrees of OK; from not OK to extremely OK.

  • Done is better than perfect.

  • Most times no-one else notices when it isn't perfect

  • Most people don't expect perfect, so you're not actually letting anyone down

  • Letting yourself down only happens because your expectations were unrealistic.

So why do I continue to strive for the illusive "perfect"?


Having given this topic quite a lot of thought over the course of my career and at the risk of diving down a psychology rabbit-hole I'm unqualified to enter, I believe it is these things (at least for me):

  1. Fear of failure

  2. Imposter syndrome

  3. Feeling like you're not quite enough

  4. Dissatisfied with 'average'

  5. Unrealistic perceptions about success

  6. Confusing 'achieving' with 'doing', but wanting to be considered a 'high achiever'


So, if you're a perfectionist (even sometimes) what can you do to overcome it?


Here are my tips:

  1. Develop a perfectionist-busting mantra. Mine is: 'does it really matter in the scheme of things?' [it's a rhetorical question]

  2. Learn to read your physiological signs. When I identify a 'failure', I get a sinking feeling in my stomach and feel my blood-pressure rise. Take some deep breaths and repeat your mantra.

  3. Place yourself in circumstances where perfect isn't an option. Start with games. My favourites are pictionary, scategories, or cranium. Other than your pride (or no-loss streak), there's not much at stake when playing a game; and if you want to win, you will be forced to deliver outcomes without the time to be perfect. I've learned that a squiggle on a page with a fork at one end can actually look like a snake... This learning can then be transferred to your professional life in small chunks.

And if you are dealing with a perfectionist, or a nirvana (a group of perfectionists*), what can you do to manage them and support them to overcome their perfectionism?


These ideas may assist, depending on the type of perfectionism in play:


DO:

  • Ask them if they think they are a perfectionist. If they say yes, discuss. If they say no, provide some examples as to why you think they might be. Like anything, identification is the first step.

  • Point out the things they have done well

  • Praise timely delivery of outcomes

  • Notice when they 'let things go'

  • Discuss goals and expectations they have set for themselves and whether these are realistic, and if not, why. Perfectionists notoriously set themselves up to fail.

  • Be clear about your expectations for an outcome. Remember a perfectionist will often want to over-deliver.

DON'T:

  • Criticise or belittle them for being perfectionistic; this will only add fuel to the fire

  • Tell them 'it doesn't matter' when they make a mistake; in a perfectionist's mind 'it does matter', and to suggest otherwise simply confirms their failure

  • Publicly point out errors, omissions or failures

  • Entertain conversations where they re-live their perceived failures.

As I learned yesterday; sometimes, in the pursuit for perfection we actually make the outcome worse, not better.

Had I, when I identified the issue that was triggering my perfectionisitic response, simply shrugged, repeated my mantra and put the issue out of my mind; the stress, anxiety and feelings of failure I caused for myself and others would not have occurred.


Strive to be the best you can be in the circumstances, considering the time you have, the resources you have at your disposal, and the talent you have.


This is my 'note to self' ... and perhaps to you, or someone you know.



* A 'nirvana' is a made-up name for a group of perfectionists; loosely based on the perfectionistic christian cult called utopians; and perhaps interestingly, Kurt Cobain, lead singer of the band 'Nirvana' was allegedly a perfectionist... his perfectionism may have been a major contributing factor to his early death.

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