The Danger of Perfectionism
2nd July, 2013
Written by: Jo Painter AC, Dip LC, NLP Prac, MRPharmS
How often do the phrases “anything worth doing is worth doing well” or “practice makes perfect” come into your head? In today’s perfection-obsessed society, many women are finding that trying to keep up with their inner perfectionist is having a negative effect on their health and happiness.
Perfectionism isn’t always the enemy though; it does have a positive side as a great motivator. Many successful people have strong traits of perfectionism, such as Margaret Thatcher, Barbara Streisand and Emma Watson, who recently described herself as, “a bit OCD about perfectionism. I’m my own worst critic...think that’s really hard, but it also spurs me on.”
Most perfectionists believe they are valued by their achievements and accomplishments. As a result, their sense of value is dependent on others' approval and they are overly sensitive to opinions and criticism. As a form of self-protection they decide that to be perfect is the only defence against that criticism.
Do you recognise the common characteristics of a perfectionist? They are:
- A fear of making mistakes or of being a failure. Feelings of failure damage self-worth resulting in a fear that others won’t approve of them.
- A fear of disapproval. If others see they are not perfect they won’t be accepted.
- A focus on ‘should’ rather than ‘it would be good if’ – which means they often ignore their own wants and desires.
- An expectation of perfection from others.
- A belief that others achieve excellence more easily than they do.
- A difficulty in asking for help and accepting help.
- Being competitive in all situations.
- A need to do something ‘just right’ or not at all, rather than 'good enough is good enough'.
Gemma, 43, is a self-confessed perfectionist. She has a successful career as a solicitor but puts herself under a huge amount of pressure trying to achieve perfection in all areas of her life. “Everything I do has to be perfect and better than anyone else, whether it’s in my job or baking cupcakes for a school fair. I also have extremely high expectations of my own behaviours and those of my children. This means I constantly feel stressed. I have very little time to do anything I want to do and I don’t get to enjoy it when I do, as I’m worrying that it isn’t good enough”.
So how can you break this vicious cycle of perfectionism?
- Check your expectations are realistic. Can you really expect to attend every school event, field trip and committee meeting, as well as keeping up with friends and running your own business?
- Be yourself – this is much more challenging than being perfect, but is also more satisfying.
- Show others your weaknesses – it makes you seem more human and therefore likeable.
- Accept your mistakes – to be human is to be fallible. Look for the lesson in them instead.
- Stop black and white thinking. For example: 'I’m either the best at my job or I’m going to get fired'; 'I’m either the most involved mum at school or I’m a bad mother'. Find a middle ground. It’s okay to be good enough.
- Take small steps. If you procrastinate about a job because you’re scared about making a mistake, then break the job down into smaller steps.
- Avoid competitive situations as much as possible. This may even include book groups or slimming clubs.
Working on these techniques will enable you to set yourself free from the ties a fear of failing creates. It’s helpful to remember that good enough really is good enough and that it’s also an opportunity to learn and change. Changing your thinking and behaviours doesn’t happen overnight and requires practice - and this time practice doesn’t need to make perfect!
“At its root, perfectionism isn’t really about a deep love of being meticulous. It’s about fear. Fear of making a mistake. Fear of disappointing others. Fear of failure. Fear of success.”
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