No­body’s Per­fect

Do you feel in­ad­e­quate and not up to the task? That may be your per­fec­tion­ist streak speak­ing – and it is sab­o­tag­ing your chances of suc­cess. Here’s how to si­lence that in­ner critic

Women's Weekly (Malaysia) - - CONTENTS -

How to man­age your per­fec­tion­ist streak

When it comes to get­ting what we want in life, hav­ing high stan­dards can be a good thing. It keeps us fo­cused on our goals, makes us stand out from the crowd, and – with the right amount of ef­fort – even lead to some big re­wards.

What hap­pens, though, when that high-achiev­ing mind­set be­comes too big a bur­den and that harsh in­ner critic rears its ugly head all too of­ten?

It may be that you are a per­fec­tion­ist. While it sounds pos­i­tive on the sur­face, this mod­ern-day af­flic­tion can do more harm than good. Whether it is ag­o­nis­ing for a week over a sim­ple task at work or not be­ing able to rest be­fore you have cleaned the house from top to bot­tom, per­fec­tion­ism can hold us back, make us sick, and iron­i­cally, make us fail.

For­mer per­fec­tion­ist Eloise King says it is a mind­set that can turn you into your own worst en­emy.

“You are highly stressed all the time as you are ei­ther beat­ing your­self up for some­thing you have not done per­fectly, or you are wish­ing for some­thing in the fu­ture where life was more per­fect,” she ex­plains. “This self-flag­el­la­tion takes place when­ever some­thing is per­ceived to have gone wrong. You do ev­ery­thing in your power not to make a mis­take, but when you do, you are so flooded with neg­a­tiv­ity that you can­not learn from it or see it as the les­son that it is.”

For Eloise, it took burn­ing out to make her re­alise that things needed to change.

“It just felt like ev­ery­thing in my life had been pro­grammed from a place of con­stant stress and fear,” she says. “I needed my de­ci­sions and ac­tions to come from some­where that was more lov­ing and more creative.”

When Per­fec­tion Be­comes Ex­haust­ing

When does be­ing “Type A” tip over into some­thing more se­ri­ous? Psy­chol­o­gist Sara Chatwin says per­fec­tion­ism is about striv­ing to the point where it be­comes detri­men­tal to one’s well­be­ing.

“A per­fec­tion­ist will try and try and try,” she ex­plains. “It may start off as a de­sire to please oth­ers, but more of­ten than not, a per­fec­tion­ist does not want to ap­peal to oth­ers; they are mostly com­pet­ing against them­selves.

“Some feel the need to be in con­trol, and it does not have to be job-re­lated; it can show up in cook­ing, clean­ing, par­ent­ing… There are lots of ways a per­son can try to at­tain per­fec­tion­ism.”

“For a per­fec­tion­ist, noth­ing is ever good enough. You are never smart enough, witty enough, t enough – it never ends! An­other fac­tor is set­ting lofty goals that are ei­ther im­pos­si­ble or so hard to achieve that the process of do­ing it can make life painful.”

Eloise, who de­vel­oped The Self-Love Project, an on­line pro­gramme to help per­fec­tion­ists squash neg­a­tive think­ing, says play­ing host to a harsh in­ner critic is a hall­mark of the con­di­tion.

“For a per­fec­tion­ist, noth­ing is ever good enough. You are never smart enough, witty enough, fit enough – it never ends! An­other fac­tor is set­ting lofty goals that are ei­ther im­pos­si­ble or so hard to achieve that the process of do­ing it can make life painful.”

While it can be ex­tremely stress­ful for those in its clutches – and ir­ri­tat­ing for those around them – per­fec­tion­ism is par­tic­u­larly dif­fi­cult to nav­i­gate.

“One of the rea­sons is be­cause cul­tur­ally, it is seen as a pos­i­tive trait,” says Eloise. “In the cur­rent ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem, for ex­am­ple, an in­tense fo­cus on aca­demic ex­cel­lence can be one of the pre­cur­sors to per­fec­tion­ism.”

Worse With Age

Sara agrees per­fec­tion­ism of­ten starts young. While kids of­ten make the best of it, once the stres­sors of adult­hood are thrown in, it can be­come too much.

“If you are young, you can prob­a­bly make it work quite well, but once you have other things to deal with while try­ing to main­tain those high stan­dards, that’s when it gets ex­haust­ing,” she says. “When a per­fec­tion­ist hits a brick wall or en­coun­ters fail­ure, the in­ner critic grows. Some­thing else hap­pens, and it grows a bit more, and then a bit more, un­til it gets re­ally dif­fi­cult.”

De­spite what pop­u­lar cul­ture may lead you to be­lieve, ex­perts say it af­fects men and women in sim­i­lar num­bers.

“In my prac­tice, I’d see about 60 per cent women and 40 per cent men with per­fec­tion­ism, so it is more equal across the sexes than you might think,” says Sara. “Women tend to be more ver­bal about it. They may feel more stretched if they choose to have re­ally high stan­dards be­cause they are of­ten wear­ing more than a few hats. By a cer­tain age and stage, they are of­ten some­one’s mother, some­one’s wife, some­body’s col­league or em­ployer, so they may feel it more acutely.”

Aca­demics say per­fec­tion­ist traits tie in with our mod­ern cap­i­tal­ist cul­ture, the demise of com­mu­nity liv­ing and the wide­spread move to­wards a more in­di­vid­u­al­ist out­look on life.

“Since the 1970s, the West­ern world has had this ne­olib­er­al­ist po­si­tion, which has el­e­vated a com­pet­i­tive cul­ture,” Eloise says. “Rather than work­ing to­wards the com­mon good in com­mu­ni­ties, we are more pit­ted against each other. It is sheer sur­vival th­ese days

Women tend to be more ver­bal about it. They may feel more stretched if they choose to have re­ally high stan­dards, be­cause they are of­ten wear­ing more than a few hats

to be bet­ter, smarter, more at­trac­tive or have bet­ter so­cial net­works. Peo­ple have be­come more self-in­ter­ested; it is about hav­ing fi­nan­cial se­cu­rity in a very cap­i­tal­ist world. How­ever, it is stress­ful and feeds into an anx­i­ety about whether we will be able to keep up.”

Not only is this mod­ern malaise af­fect­ing our well­be­ing, it is a mind­set we are pass­ing on to the next gen­er­a­tion.

“Ex­perts are now say­ing two in five chil­dren are ex­hibit­ing per­fec­tion­ist ten­den­cies,” says Eloise, a re­searcher who healed her­self from her own de­bil­i­tat­ing burnout in 2015. “We are feel­ing this need to com­pete against each other, so in turn, we think, ‘If my child does not know how to write per­fectly, com­pete ath­let­i­cally and have this abil­ity to strive to­wards ex­cel­lence, they they are go­ing to get left be­hind’.”

Break­ing The Habit

Although mod­ern-day life and cul­tural norms might work against us when it comes to keep­ing per­fec­tion­ism un­der con­trol, it is not all doom and gloom. With the right tricks and man­age­ment, per­fec­tion­ist ten­den­cies can be over­come, and Sara says hav­ing an hon­est look at how it fits into your life is a good place to start.

“It may not even be that you have to change it, but it helps to check in with your­self to see if it is af­fect­ing you neg­a­tively,” she says. “This process can be think­ing about your own be­hav­iour and ask­ing peo­ple close to you for feed­back. Is it con­trol­ling you or do you con­trol it? If you feel in con­trol of it, then it is prob­a­bly fine.

But if you are feel­ing edgy, then it might be at least in­for­ma­tive to go and check it out with a pro­fes­sional. Talk­ing to your GP is a good first step.”

Ex­perts say it is im­por­tant to note that be­havioural pat­terns are part of a con­tin­uum, so un­der the same ban­ner of per­fec­tion­ism, an ex­treme case could look very dif­fer­ent from a milder one.

“It is not a bad thing to have a high stan­dards and to want to achieve or pur­sue your goals,” says Sara. “How­ever, at the other end of the spec­trum, it can be dan­ger­ous. As with many things, if you take it to the ex­treme, it is not go­ing to have a good out­come.”

For Eloise, who bat­tled with anx­i­ety is­sues and an eat­ing dis­or­der be­fore re­al­is­ing her per­fec­tion­ism was at the heart of the prob­lem, the so­lu­tion was to learn to con­trol the self-crit­i­cism.

“I think a big part of it is notic­ing and meet­ing your in­ner voice,” she says. “It is amaz­ing how harsh and how strong that in­ner critic can be. It is about be­com­ing in­creas­ingly aware of the qual­ity of the con­ver­sa­tion go­ing on within your­self.

“It may take a bit of train­ing and re­flec­tion to live from a self-lov­ing place rather than a place of self-loathing, but over time, it will get eas­ier and eas­ier.

“Even­tu­ally, in­stead of that in­ner critic con­stantly jump­ing out, it is the cheer­leader who is there cham­pi­oning

you in­stead.”

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