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The Perfection Trap

Updated: Dec 14, 2020

Let's be honest. We've all been there. We're working on a project and we want it to be perfect. Doesn't matter whether it is of a personal or professional nature, we aren't submitting or marking as complete until we've achieved absolute perfection. We want it to be just right. Perfect or nothing! Perfectionism is portrayed as something to aspire to. High achievers often credit their success with their need for perfection, which confuses things even further. There is however, a huge difference between striving for excellence and needing to be perfect.

How many things have you quit because you could not get it perfect? How many tasks are you are stalling on because you want it to be perfect? How many things have you wanted to try but didn't because you knew you would not be able to do it perfectly the first time? I have quite a few.

I had an ah-ha moment recently while listening to an interview with Elizabeth Gilbert who said that "Perfection is fear dressed in high heels." It made so much sense to me. The reason that you are not writing your book, launching your podcast, starting your business, introducing yourself to your crush or applying for your dream job is fear. You say that you are not ready. You say that the circumstances are not right. You say that the timing is bad. The truth is: YOU ARE AFRAID.

We are constantly bombarded with images of perfection. Online filters allow us to remove/cover anything that we believe to be a flaw. The subconscious message is that you are not enough and that no one will accept you/love you/listen to you/trust you/hire you/support you unless you achieve this ideal state. Hear me when I say this. NO ONE IS PERFECT. Even the people who in our minds are the text book image of perfection will highlight every flaw, fear, insecurity they have if asked. Even Jesus lost his temper.

The good news is that you don't need to be flawless to achieve your goals and to do a job well done. As a matter of fact, it is in making mistakes and learning from them that help us grow both personally and professionally. Imagine if Edison stopped because he didn't get the light bulb right on the first try, or the Wright Brothers stopped after their first attempt to fly did not turn out work out, where would we be? If you are too afraid to make a mistake then you run the risk of never finding out your fullest potential, because you won't try at all or you will quit. You also run the risk of running into challenges in your relationships due to your expectation of perfection in others and the disappointment you feel when you inevitably discover that they are not perfect.

Perfectionism in many cases leads to depression, anxiety, eating disorders (anorexia, bulimia), obsessive compulsive disorder, burnout and in extreme cases can lead to thoughts of self harm. A study from Andrew Hill, Head of Taught Postgraduate Programmes at York St John University and Thomas Curran at the University of Bath found that the current generation of young people in the UK, US and Canada reported substantially higher rates of perfectionism than previous generations, over the last thirty years at the same period of life. The belief is that various cultural changes in modern society is contributing to the increase in perfectionism especially among young people. According to Hill: “Perfectionism isn’t a behaviour. It’s a way of thinking about yourself.” There is a very big difference between wanting to excel and needing to be perfect.

How then do we know the difference between disciplined and tenacious as opposed to being a perfectionist? The answer lies in the self-critical voice. It is the difference in between "I made a mistake. It's okay. I will learn and try again" and "I made a mistake; I am a failure." When you wrap up your self esteem and sense of self worth in the achievement of your goals, you are leaving yourself open to heartbreak. When things go wrong, as they sometimes do, you become unable to differentiate between the thing that went wrong and yourself. Where a resilient person has adapted many healthy tools and strategies to help them pivot when things go wrong, perfectionists turn towards harsh self criticism and rumination, often finding it difficult to recover when things don't go according to plan. Perfectionists also tend to lean towards emotions such as blame, guilt and shame when they make mistakes which is damaging to their self esteem and ironically leads to them becoming even more ingrained in their perfectionism. This then leads to feelings of unhappiness and unworthiness which then further spirals into the unhealthy coping mechanisms mentioned earlier.

When I think about the amount of things I wanted to try when I was younger or tried and stopped because I couldn't master it in the first attempt, I understand now it was fear and shame that held me back and to be honest, still does sometimes. I am happily much better now than I was then and so can you.

How do we get past this perfection trap so we can move through our fears to achieve our goals?

Understand that Perfection is an Illusion: No one can do everything right, every time. It is just not possible. When you understand that while you may get to 100% in some things, you will never be able to get 100% in every single thing that you do, every single day, it takes so much unnecessary pressure off of you and those around you. Additionally, while you are feeding your need to be perfect, those around you are suffering for it. You may think that being perfect may be benefiting them, but in many ways it is harming your relationships, both professionally and personally: maybe you aren't allowing others to do their jobs by controlling everything; maybe you are holding back activities which is leading to frustration in your team; maybe your perfectionism is making it difficult for those who love you to connect with you. Perfectionism leads to the belief that everything is well, perfect. However, more often than not, it isn't. Acknowledging that it is an illusion is the first step.

Become Aware of Your Critical Self Talk: You know the voice I'm talking about! The one that says you are not doing enough, you are not good enough, you are failing, you are not trying hard enough. Perfectionists are prone to focusing their flaws and mistakes. Practice showing yourself compassion and kindness. Self criticism is both unhelpful and unhealthy. Everyone makes mistakes. Everyone has shortcomings. No one is infallible. Show yourself loving kindness by cultivating a practice of self love and acceptance. Some tips include: creating a mantra to repeat in those moments when you need it. You can also create a list of affirmations that you can start your day with. Call a friend who sees the best in you and is always on your side. You can also contact a counsellor or therapist to help you create healthy strategies to draw upon.

Reevaluate Your Standards: This is a bit of a challenge for perfectionists, since we all believe that our standards are realistic and attainable. But let's be honest, are they really? Have you ever been able to achieve the standard? Has anyone? Is having that standard helping you towards achieving your dreams and goals or is it hurting it? For example, is training those extra hours really going to get you to your goal, or is it causing major physical damage? Is the extra two months you've spent on that one line in your book helpful? Can you move on and then come back? The one I use the most is the cost factor. For example, what will it cost me if I don't click send on this report now? By cost I don't just mean money, it could also mean mental health, quality of your relationships, quality of your life. Those extra hours at work, what are they costing you? Are they worth it?

Develop a Growth Mindset: Part of learning and growing is making mistakes. The only way to achieve mastery is consistent practice along with a healthy appreciation for failure. Instead of trying to avoid making mistakes and failing, focus instead on embracing the learning opportunities those mistakes have created. Also appreciate the fact that sometimes mistakes and failings are really signals that we are going in the wrong direction and an opportunity to go in a new one.

Enjoy the process: One of my favourite mantras is "Progress not Perfection." I've found that when I focus on the process and embrace my progress along the way, I am significantly less stressed. I am also less self critical, because focusing on the process removes our ego out of the equation. It allows us to step back and look at what we are doing from an objective point of view. This is important because as a perfectionist the tendency is to wrap up our self worth in outcomes. We are now free to do something just for the fun of it, or for the experience or because we've been curious about it and always wanted to try it.

Focus on Your Character: As I said before, perfectionists tie their self worth to their achievements, which is a recipe for distress and dis-ease in our lives. A few years ago, I came across an exercise which starts with the sentence "I am the kind of person who....." At the time I was burning the candle at two ends and the middle. Sometimes I would tell myself "I am the kind of person who knows her limits." or "I am the kind of person who knows how to rest," "I am the kind of person who knows self compassion." I found it very helpful. What are the character traits that you want to focus on to help you develop healthy self worth and a healthy life? Focus on those instead. As you self esteem rises, your need to be perfect will dissipate. You are worthy and valuable. You don't need a list of accomplishments to give that to you.

Break Up Your Goals: Nothing is wrong with having audacious goals but perfectionists leave no margin for error. This leads to intense stress and unhappiness. By breaking up those audacious goals into smaller bits, it gives you room to breathe. You have the opportunity to course correct when things go awry. You can learn from your mistakes and forgive yourself for them. You have room to be more patient with yourself as you grow. It also allows you to celebrate small wins which then helps you to build your confidence as you go along.

Stop Trying to Please Everyone: The minute you start putting everyone else's wants, needs, value and opinions ahead of yours, you teach yourself that yours do not matter. So many of us are living lives to please other people: our parents, our spouse, our friends, the society we live in. Your needs matter. Your desires matter. Your dreams matter. Your values matter. Your hopes matter. Your opinions matter. When we embrace ourselves; our most authentic selves, we give ourselves permission to live our best lives. That is true freedom.

Learn to Receive Feedback: This is a tough one. Feedback almost always feels like someone is pointing out our failures. It feels like a personal attack and why wouldn't it? Your self esteem is tied to your results so it always feels personal. As a matter of fact, even when someone points out something good, we often don't trust it and it makes us work harder to prove ourselves. Feedback both positive and negative are opportunities to learn and grow. Even when someone is being overly harsh, there is value in the feedback. Sometimes the value is practicing the ability to receive negative feedback without breaking your spirit. Ask yourself, where is the opportunity to learn here?

Learn to Let Go: As you embark on your new journey you will have to face the reality that you cannot do it all. With that comes a feeling of sadness, sometimes even a sense of loss. We will all fall short. We will all disappoint someone. Will will all have to break a promise because things did not go according to plan. In these moments, take a deep breath, acknowledge that you are doing you best then.....let it go. Something that helps me greatly is keeping a "things done list" as opposed to a things to do list. I also take the time to celebrate little wins. It keeps me in perspective, that I am doing better than I think that I am.

Like all habits, perfectionism can be tamed. It takes self reflection and commitment as well as, self compassion. Be patient with yourself. It will take time, but you will overcome it.

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