Confessions of a Perfectionist
OK, so I have a confession. I am a perfectionist. When I say that, I don’t just mean that I expect a lot of myself or I am very well organised or that I just work hard. I mean, I take hours and hours over things that should take me 20 minutes. I over-prepare and try to cover myself for every single eventuality. I can’t do anything without thoroughly preparing myself first. A lot of the time I will put things off because I am terrified of making a mistake and somehow getting it wrong.
Can you relate to any of this? If so, you might be a perfectionist, too.
There is nothing wrong with being organised and having high standards, but they shouldn’t stop you trying new things or cause you to stress over the slightest criticism, no matter where it came from. Perfectionism is exhausting and it is restrictive and really NOT a helpful trait. So, I am working hard to try and overcome this negative aspect of myself and free myself up so that I can make mistakes and realise that it is OK.
Perfectionism has an effect on your feelings, your thoughts and your behaviour.
Do you find you are often depressed, anxious, frustrated or angry? Do you have this constant feeling that nothing is ever good enough no matter what you do? Do you find it is hard to ever feel pleased with yourself or proud of anything you have achieved, even though everyone else is telling you what a great job you did?
Last week I wrote a blog about Cognitive Distortions. Do you find you are guilty of many of those thinking errors? As a perfectionist myself I know I am. I will give you just a few examples…
I very often catch myself using the word “should”.
“I should know how to do this by now.”
“I should have done that better.”
Some people call it pessimistic but I have always held the theory that if I imagine the worst then I can prepare myself for it and nothing can catch me out. However, I have finally realised over the last few years that I spend hours and hours worrying and preparing for the worst-case scenario until I convince myself that this is the only possible outcome. By the time I get around to doing anything I am exhausted and a nervous wreck! On many occasions, I have completely talked myself out of doing something because I am that convinced it will be a disaster.
I am way more worried about what others will think of me than what I actually think of myself, which is crazy, isn’t it? Not least because they probably aren’t really thinking anything in particular and, if they are, it is most likely a very brief, passing thought. Also, the likelihood is that I will never know exactly what they are thinking anyway. So, as I can’t know, I assume it is negative.
“I bet they think I’m a right idiot!”
“She is wondering why I chose to wear these trousers when I’m so fat.”
I am sure my fellow-perfectionists can think of many of their own examples. It is not much fun, I can tell you!
Take a look through the list of cognitive distortions and I am sure you will find some that you are guilty of, too.
Perfectionism affects our behaviour in many ways. It steals our confidence and self-esteem, not to mention our time.
As I mentioned, I can spend hours and hours on a task that would only take most people 20 minutes. I will do it over and over again, always believing that it isn’t good enough. I will check it over and over again looking for mistakes. It takes ages to make a decision on even the simplest, most mundane things because I am terrified of making the wrong choice or making a fool of myself.
I make lists and I prepare notes for everything, even when I know what I am doing. For example, in my job, I still have to write down everything I plan to say in bullet points and make lists so that I won’t forget something…no matter how many times I have done it before.
Many people think procrastination is somehow related to laziness. However, it is often the perfectionists and over-achievers who are the worst procrastinators. We look at a task, knowing that there is no room for failure or even low standards. If we are to do this, we have to be the best. We are overwhelmed by the thought of the huge task ahead and unsure where to start. So, we put it off and either panic and stress about the fact that time is running out or just back out and decide it isn’t worth the hassle. If we do get started and find that the task is more difficult than we had imagined, rather than have a go and risk it turning out just OK, we just give up completely.
So, What Can We Do? The 5 Steps to Overcoming Perfectionism
Well, I am making more of a conscious effort to overcome my perfectionism. It is not easy, however! I have been this way my whole life and it doesn’t feel natural to aim for “good enough” or “just OK”. I am learning a new way of being me!
1. Practise Realistic Thinking
The first thing I have done is to try and be more realistic rather than forever setting stupidly high standards for myself that I am never going to reach. So, I have written out some statements that I am going to carry with me and repeat to myself every day.
“Nobody is perfect and I am not expected to be.”
“I can only do my best.”
“Making mistakes is human and part of learning.”
“Everybody has bad days.”
“Nobody is ever liked by everyone. So what?!”
2. Compare Me to Me
We are surrounded by images of perfection and forever being bombarded with messages about how great everyone else’s life is and how we should all look and behave. Whether it is the models or film stars in magazines or on the TV screen or the friends and relatives on Facebook showing pictures of their perfect children, beautifully decorated houses, exotic holidays or proclaiming their love for their perfect spouse. You get the idea!
We are only told half the story and I have learned, especially since becoming a hypnotherapist that NOBODY has a perfect life, no matter what they portray on social media. We are all struggling with something and not one of us knows what is really going on either behind closed doors or in someone else’s mind.
It is much better to compare yourself to yourself. By that, I mean compare yourself today to the person you were yesterday. As long as you can say you are doing the best you can and moving in the right direction, that should be enough for any of us.
Move away from those who put undue pressure on you and spend time with people who build you up and make you feel inspired. Go ahead and unfriend or block the selfie-addicts who only ever portray perfection and make you feel like you are somehow inferior. They are not real, anyway!
3. Focus on the Bigger Picture
I don’t know about you, but I get bogged down by the little tiny details and each one has to be perfect. So, I am going to attempt to look at the bigger picture and when I start getting stuck and spending hours wasting my life wondering whether I should use a comma or a semi-colon, I will ask myself…
Does it really matter?
What’s the worst that could happen?
If the worst should happen…will I survive it?
Will it matter tomorrow? Next week? Next year?
Will anyone even notice or care?
Where should I be spending my time and energy?
What should I prioritise?
4. Hypnotic Systematic Desensitisation
So, this is something I do with clients when they want to overcome a phobia. With perfectionism, the phobia is the fear of failure. The fear of not being good enough or making a fool of myself. Just as someone with a fear of flying will avoid planes and get very stressed and scared if they are made to fly, I get that way if I am put on the spot and have to do something without adequate warning or preparation. The only way to overcome the phobia is to gradually expose myself to those things I think will spell disaster and see that I can survive them. I have a hierarchy of things that make me feel extremely uncomfortable so I am trying my best to overcome them in hypnosis and then go out there and really practise doing them in real life.
One example is the talk I just gave at a local Mind, Body and Spirit Fair. I was asked last year if I would like to do it and the thought completely overwhelmed me and my immediate reaction was…NO!!! However, this year, I actually volunteered. There were times leading up to the event that I had moments of sheer panic and wondered what I had signed up for. So, I practised it over and over in my mind and kept seeing myself looking relaxed and confident and enjoying the experience. Usually I would have had everything I wanted to say written out and timed to perfection, but I wanted it to be natural and I was also testing myself. I wanted to think on my feet and be able to chat to people and focus on them rather than hide behind a piece of paper or some notecards. So, I decided how the structure of the talk and the group session would go and that was it. No making notes, no rehearsals…no ridiculous amounts of preparation. It was great and so liberating!
So, some of my other challenges to overcome:
Be ten minutes late for something
Admit when I am getting really tired or feeling ill and need a break without feeling guilty
Wear an item of clothing with a visible stain, crease, piece of loose cotton or missing button
Leave my bed unmade for a whole day
Send a message or email with a small mistake (or two)
Drive somewhere new without tracing the journey on Google Maps first and having to know exactly which roads I will take and where I will park
5. Just Do It!
As I have already explained, procrastination and perfectionism go hand in hand. Everything is so time-consuming, stressful and hard work that it is often easier to make excuses and put things off rather than do them. The answer is that we have to just have a go, get on with it and do the best we can with the resources we have available.
I am going to look at some of the tasks I have been putting off because I may not be perfect at them or I don’t have exactly the right equipment or whatever it is. I have enough. They are possible to do with the limited skills, money and equipment I do have. They might not be the best, but I can easily make a start.
It may mean that I need to start writing a plan and breaking things down onto smaller goals to start with, but that is OK. The main thing for me is that I take some action and complete a small task that will eventually lead me to my bigger goals.
So, who is going to join me in shaking off the shackles of perfectionism?