Updated: Oct 1
OK, so I have a confession. I used to be a perfectionist. When I say that, I don’t just mean that I expected a lot of myself or I was very well organised or that I just worked hard. I mean, I would take hours and hours over things that should have taken me 20 minutes. I over-prepared and tried to cover myself for every single eventuality. I couldn't do anything without thoroughly preparing myself first. A lot of the time I would put things off because I was terrified of making a mistake and somehow getting it wrong.
Can you relate to any of this? If so, you might be a perfectionist.
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.
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?
I will give you just a few examples of the kinds of thinking errors that perfectionists make…
You might often catch yourself using the word “should”.
“I should know how to do this by now.”
“I should have done that better.”
Many of my clients hold the theory that if they imagine the worst then they can prepare themselves for it and nothing can catch them out. I used to think like this myself. However, I finally realised that I spent hours and hours worrying and preparing for the worst-case scenario until I convinced myself that this was the only possible outcome. By the time I got around to doing anything I was exhausted and a nervous wreck! On many occasions in the past, I completely talked myself out of doing something because I was that convinced it would be a disaster. That's NOT helpful. I now imagine the best case and prepare myself for success. I teach my clients how they can do the same.
I was always way more worried about what others thought of me than what I actually thought of myself, which is crazy, isn’t it? Not least because they probably weren't really thinking anything in particular and, if they were, it was most likely a very brief, passing thought. As you can never know what someone is thinking, it's a pointless exercise trying to guess. You often end up imagining the worst.
“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 you can think of many of your own examples. It is not much fun, is it?!
Take a look through the list of cognitive distortions and I am sure you will find more 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 used to spend hours and hours on a task that would only take most people 20 minutes. I would do it over and over again, always believing that it wasn’t good enough. I would check it over and over again looking for mistakes. It took ages to make a decision over even the simplest, most mundane things because I was terrified of making the wrong choice or making a fool of myself.
I made lists and I prepared notes for everything, even when I knew what I was doing. For example, in my job, I used to write down everything I planned to say in bullet points and made lists so that I wouldn’t forget something…no matter how many times I had 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. They look at a task, knowing that there is no room for failure or even low standards. If they are to do this, they have to be the best. They are overwhelmed by the thought of the huge task ahead and unsure where to start. So, they 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 they do get started and find that the task is more difficult than they had imagined, rather than have a go and risk it turning out just OK, they might even give up completely.
So, What Can You Do?
I was a perfectionist from a very early age. I couldn't remember being any different and it still doesn’t feel natural to aim for “good enough” or “just OK”. However, I have learned to let go of many of my perfectionist tendencies. I catch myself now if those old thoughts try to squeeze back in and I have put new strategies into place. I can help you to do the same.
Start with these 5 steps...
1. Practise Realistic Thinking
The first thing I did was to try and be more realistic rather than forever setting stupidly high standards for myself that I was never going to reach. So, I carried these statements with me and kept repeating them until they became a more natural way of thinking.
“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 used to get bogged down by the little tiny details and each one had to be perfect. So, I learned to look at the bigger picture and when I started getting stuck and spending hours wasting my life wondering whether I should use a comma or a semi-colon, I had to 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 idea of failure. The fear of not being good enough or making a fool of yourself. Just as someone with a fear of flying will avoid planes and get very stressed and scared if they are made to fly, I used to get that way if I was put on the spot and asked to do something without adequate warning or preparation. The only way to overcome the phobia was to gradually expose myself to those things I thought would spell disaster so I could prove to myself that I could survive them. I had a hierarchy of things that made me feel extremely uncomfortable so I used hypnosis to visualise myself doing them well and then simply went out there and practised doing them in real life.
One example is the first talk I gave at a local Mind, Body and Spirit Fair. When I was first asked a few years ago if I would like to do it, the thought completely overwhelmed me and my immediate reaction was…NO!!! However, after working on my self-confidence, I actually volunteered and have done many talks since. There were times leading up to the first 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 with 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!
Other challenges I gave myself:
To be ten minutes late for something
To admit when I was getting really tired or feeling ill and needed a break without feeling guilty
To wear an item of clothing with a visible stain, crease, piece of loose cotton or missing button
To leave my bed unmade for a whole day
To send a message or email with a small mistake (or two)
To drive somewhere new without tracing the journey on Google Maps first and having to know exactly which roads I would take and where I would 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.
So, who is going to join me in shaking off the shackles of perfectionism?
If you think you might like to come and work with me, please book an initial consultation and let's talk about how my hypnotherapy programme could help you.