Do you suffer from the tyranny of perfectionism?
What do we mean by perfectionism? – Perfectionism is more than just wanting to do well. The dictionary defines it as:
- A disposition to regard as unacceptable anything short of perfection, especially in one’s own work
- The doctrine that a state of perfection is attainable.
Of course, we all want to do our best but a perfectionist’s view would be ‘that your best is not good enough unless it results in perfection’. They have a zero tolerance of mistakes and errors in themselves and frequently in others.
As a recovering perfectionist I know that being driven to do well is really about the fear of failure. I was so afraid of making mistakes or being seen as a ‘less than perfect’ consultant, trainer, daughter or friend that I was in a constant state of anxiety and worry.
The link between perfectionism and being a control freak – Perfectionists can become control freaks, wanting everything at work and at home to be just so, which for those living or working with them can be very difficult. So how do you know if you are a control freak? Do you insist that meetings, reports, cooking, washing, etc. be done ‘your way’, which is of course the ‘right way’. Perhaps not considering that there may be other ways of doing things, even better ways, which might just be different. I call myself a recovering control freak and noticed the other day as a friend was driving us (I am rarely a passenger) and we were late, that she took us on a different route from the one I usually take which avoids all the traffic lights. I noticed that the old control freak wanted to say something but I managed to just about keep quiet!
Do you let others do things differently? How could you hold back on wanting everything done your way?
‘The battle to keep up appearances unnecessarily, the mask – whatever name you give creeping perfectionism – robs us of our energies’ Robin Worthington
Can ‘approximate perfection’ lead to a happy perfectionist? – Although I have written about the tyranny of perfectionism in my book (see the right hand column for more details), it was actually an article in the Family Guardian by Oliver James that spurred me to write this edition of Inspire. It appears that research backs up what I have been saying regarding a concept that a colleague of mine, Peter E Makin, came up with, which is ‘approximate perfection’. This is an idea that I took to heart as I challenged my tyranny of perfectionism, and it is something I work towards today. This seems to fit in with what Oliver James says:
‘Healthy perfectionists derive real pleasure from their strivings, which are for the highest standard, but about which they are prepared to be flexible, depending on the situation – they realise that pursuing perfection may carry costs (such as excessive work or workaholia) that are not worth incurring.’
He goes on to say that ‘unhealthy perfectionists are insatiable and compulsive – they feel as if they have no choice about their standards – 99% is failure because it’s imperfect.’ He said it can lead to anxiety, depression, eating disorders, alcoholism and OCD. Therefore it seems that to be a healthy perfectionist, and a happy one, developing flexibility and aiming for approximate perfection is the key.
What would approximate perfection look like in your life?
‘Let the world know you as you are, not as you think you should be, because sooner or later, if you are posing, you will forget the pose, and then where are you?’ Fanny Brice
Perfectionism, mistakes and learning – One of the specialist areas that I work in is around how we learn, change and develop. Research has shown that mistakes when we are trying to understand concepts, theories and ideas, actually help us to learn. This is because if we find out that our ideas were incorrect or that the question or the statement that we made was wrong, and we take on board the new information, we expand our level of knowledge and understanding on a topic.
The problem with perfectionists is that if they make a mistake they spend so long beating themselves up and feeling bad about it that they often fail to stop and learn from the experience!
It took a long time for me to become confident enough to accept that I, along with everyone else, make mistakes, and that mistakes are often an essential part of learning. I thought as a well paid consultant I should know everything! It took time for me to have the confidence when someone mentioned a book or theory that I had not heard of to be honest (instead of trying to bluff my way through) and simply ask the other person to tell me about it, which of course expanded my level of knowledge and understanding.
However, we do need to avoid making mistakes when learning facts or certain physical skills as it is hard to unlearn these mistakes once we have made them. Once facts are stored in the wrong compartment in our brain it is hard to retrieve them. With physical skills once we pick up bad habits they are much harder to change, although not impossible.
How have mistakes helped your understanding of something? Has perfectionism ever got in the way of your learning?
What can you do to become an approximate perfectionist?
- Master your inner critic – for me and many others, our inner critic drives us to think we must be perfect. See the right hand column for my book which is crammed full of exercises and techniques for mastering your inner critic.
- Watch out for when you start to control others – take a step back, hold onto what you were going to say, think about whether you are helping or hindering them.
- Aim for glass half full thinking – list out all that you do, have achieved, all your strengths, good qualities, rather than always thinking about what is missing. You also might want to do this in terms of how you view others.
- Be flexible – recognise that approximate perfection will usually be perfectly good enough in many situations. In fact your approximate perfection might be better than most people’s efforts!
‘The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.’ Anna Quindlen
What can you do if you live or work with a perfectionist? Living or working with a perfectionist, who might also be a control freak, is not always much fun. Obviously there can be benefits if they insist on doing everything because they don’t trust you to do it correctly! However, it can be annoying, frustrating and also upsetting if you see them getting stressed out, worried, even burning themselves out. So what can you do?
- Encourage them to get help!!! – A coach or counsellor can help them to unpick the beliefs and thought processes that might be driving their behaviour, and help them to learn new ways of thinking and being.
- Have compassion for them – If you are going to help them to change, compassion and understanding might work better than irritation and frustration.
- Gently challenge their thinking – If they will listen to you and take on board what you say stay in an Adult mode and gently challenge their perfectionist thinking.
- Use humour – Where you have rapport, humour can work well to assist someone to see quite how extreme their thinking or behaviour might be.
‘Really good friends are those who interrupt your usual pattern with a reminder to be gentle on yourself and take the easier option.’ Anne Dickson
For training and coaching call Melanie on 01865 377334 or email by clicking here to arrange a time to speak in confidence. For more information about Grovelands visit our website by clicking here.