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
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