Today we’re going to be talking about the probably most common modern plague of today’s psychology – the idea of perfectionism.
In the mind of a perfectionist, they are somebody who achieves things to a very high standard consistently and holds themselves to a high standard in general.
In reality, perfectionism is an identity that people cling to that causes procrastination, pressure, self-loathing and a whole lot of stress. I believe that perfectionism is a symptom of people-pleasing – that overall mental illness that so many of us are affected by – and it often leads to chronic anxiety and depression.
People often take pride in being a perfectionist, the same way that people take pride in being really busy. But is being a perfectionist really all it’s cracked up to be? Are these people really perfect with really high standards and really high achievements? Or something darker going on?
In my experience coaching people for many years, I’ve found that what is represented as high standards are actually impossibly high standards – goal posts that move with every achievement so that no matter how well you do it’s never good enough. Very few perfectionists actually deliver perfect results, or are even high achievers. Most are average at best – burning themselves out by putting a lot of effort into things that don’t really matter, and sacrificing the things that do… when they’re not procrastinating, that is!
In my opinion, perfectionism comes from fear – two specific types of fear that produce different types of behavior: the fear of failure and the fear of success.
Fear of failure
Perfectionists with a fear of failure tend to be high achievers and like to prevent failure and rejection by being very very good at things.
The problem is that while they do achieve highly, there’s no satisfaction beyond a brief high before they’re on to the next thing. They always feel not good enough. They always feel like they need to be doing more. The satisfaction wears off really quickly and they often end up burnt-out. They don’t ever really get to enjoy things.
Most are wasting time being perfect at things they don’t even like, however the few that are pursuing something they’re passionate about tend to put so much pressure on themselves to do well that they even lose their passion for it and they don’t enjoy what they’re doing.
Fear of success
In my opinion, the fear of success type of perfectionist is far more common – though they don’t identify as being afraid of success, they often think of themselves as afraid of failure.
These are the ones who don’t start. They don’t try. They procrastinate, they put things off, they get busy doing things that don’t matter so they don’t have to do the things that do matter.
This inevitably leads to them not performing well enough to succeed because they’re actually afraid of that success. They’re afraid of the change of doing well.
If they would actually be perfect in the way they claim they’re trying to be, their lives would change so much that they couldn’t handle it.
Perfectionism- as an arm of people-pleasing – is harmful to your life. Even if you do achieve highly you don’t get to enjoy it, and most of you aren’t achieving highly!
You might pride yourself on being a perfectionist but ask yourself: has it brought you a higher quality of life? Do you enjoy what you’re doing? Do you regularly experience joy? Or are you under pressure, stress and fear to achieve all the time – and even when you do achieve, you’re not good enough, you feel like you’ve got imposter syndrome, you never really get to win at all?
Let’s talk about recovery from perfectionism because let’s face it: it’s not a great way to live.
Admit that you have a problem. To be proud of being a perfectionist is like a drug addict being proud of their addiction. It’s unhealthy and harmful.
The perfectionist identification is mental masturbation. You’re patting yourself on the back for suffering. It’s pointless and it is not the best way for you to live.
You’ve been trained to think that this is a good thing to be and yet your experience tells you quite clearly it sucks to be a perfectionist.
Focus. Perfectionists often spread themselves too thin.
The cure to this is to do only what matters, to put all your energy into a few meaningful things rather than trying to do everything well.
It means committing to the 8020 Pareto principle – only 20% of what you’re doing is actually worth doing, so you’re gonna have to cut out like 80%. Perhaps a more realistic goal is to look at your task list and try to cut it in half. Delegate, minimize, delete… whatever you have to do to focus only on the most meaningful things that you need to be doing.
And spend the rest of your time relaxing and recuperating. Go deep rather than wide
Firstly, for the fear of failure types, because you’re never good enough you need to actually implement a conscious ‘good enough’ measurement. Whenever you do any task – before you start you need to ask yourself what would good enough be, and train yourself to stop when you reach that mark.
If trying to reach that mark was very hard and stressful for you, then you set the bar too high and you need to bring it down.
Most of the tasks you overdo – you do them better than they need to be done. Soo bring it down to just the amount they need to be done, and start challenging yourself to stop when you hit that mark.
It’s also worthwhile for you to admit your Imposter Syndrome to people whenever you feel like you’re not as good as everyone thinks you are. Let them know – start to make it normal to talk about this, so you can relieve yourself of the shame of not being good enough.
And lastly, make sure you quit anything that you don’t enjoy. Most of the stuff you’re doing is hard work as you put all this pressure on yourself. So quit and see if you genuinely want to come back to it later. If so, then do so in a low-pressure way – do it for fun rather than achievement.
For the fear of success types – which is most of you – the key is to bring the thing down to its most minimal, manageable, bite-sized chunk. A perfectionist tends to overwhelm themselves with the size of a task, and they imagine the perfect version of a task which is so impossible that they never get started.
They can’t just go to the gym, they have to go to the gym and do this massive two hour workout and have to beat their personal best from yesterday – it’s enough to make you not want to go to the gym at all.
The key is to bring it down to the smallest most basic little tasks that you could handle. Go to the gym for five minutes. Drop and do 10 push-ups. Any small thing is better than nothing.
If you’ve been thinking about doing something for more than 10 minutes, you’re thinking too long. Do a tiny bit of it. Just get started. Forget perfect – just do anything.
Accept that you’re going to continually relapse.
You’ve been conditioned and programmed into thinking that you need to do everything well. It’s going to take you a long time to undo that conditioning. So you need to catch yourself every day.
In fact, when you’re first getting started, in everything that you do pause for five or ten seconds before you start, and ask “Am I bringing perfectionism into this? What would good enough look like? What would be just enough to get by? How can I achieve that tiny step?”
Keep reminding yourself of this, until you replace the old pattern with a healthier more realistic one.
Admit this to people. Instead of taking pride in your perfectionism and bragging about being a perfectionist, tell people honestly that you use the perfectionist identity to procrastinate, to beat yourself up, and to keep going with a self-loathing “not good enough” story.
Ask them to call you out on it. Ask them to catch you when you’re doing your perfectionist stuff and to challenge you on it so they can help you break out of this nasty and unhelpful psychological prison.
Thank you so much for reading/watching. Please share it around and comment below with your thoughts.
And if you find that people pleasing and perfectionism just aren’t working for you, and you’d rather live with integrity and love yourself instead, please get in touch (firstname.lastname@example.org) and I’ll put you on to some more resources or we can talk about intensive one-to-one coaching.