Updated: Oct 19, 2020
When I was growing up, my bedroom was immaculate. My mother used to proudly tell her friends, ‘It’s so perfect, she could find anything at any time – even in the dark.’ It was an accolade to my neatness – and at the time, I took it as a compliment - but little did my family realise that if anything ever did get moved out of place, I’d feel paralysed with acute anguish, and the voice in my head, full of retribution and loathing, would tell me what an utter loser I was. You see, I continually strived for perfection, but of course my life was the polar opposite of perfect, and so whenever things didn’t quite go along with my so-called meticulous plan, my entire perspective of what made me a worthy human being was devastatingly knocked off kilter.
These days I still like a tidy house, but I’ve learnt that going all out for a perfect state of affairs is the route to unhappiness. And what the hell does ‘perfect’ even mean? The dictionary describes it as ‘flawlessness’, ‘excellence’, ‘magnificence’… In short, these are adjectives that sum up very few people or situations. And, let’s be honest here, how daunting, alienating and downright irritating would someone be if we continually referred to them as ‘exemplary’.
“The maxim ‘Nothing but Perfection’ may be spelled ‘Paralysis’.” Winston Churchill.
And while aspiring for excellence can be okay in moderation, sadly, for many of us who are constricted by the pursuit of perfection, there is a plethora of other negative traits that can have serious clinical effect: depression, OCD, social anxiety, eating disorders, insomnia, the list goes on. And often, the higher the levels of perfectionism, the more psychological problems a person will experience.
In a meta-analysis of rates of perfectionism from 1989 to 2016, carried out by experts in behaviour change, Andrew Hill and Thomas Curran, it was found that the average college student was much more inclined to have perfectionist tendencies in recent years than students in the 1990s or early 2000s. It doesn’t come as a huge surprise that this trend also translates into increased feelings of shame, guilt and anger around not being perceived as ‘good enough’.
Even the most successful amongst us admit to being burdened by their drive to be a 10/10 achiever. Melinda Gates practises daily meditation and keeps a spiritual journal to help her manage. She says, “I had to work so hard on my perfectionism for a while. Now I’ve let go of that. I’m not even close to perfect. I have good days and bad days and that’s ok.”
In Brene Brown’s Netflix documentary The Call To Courage, she talks about why it is essential for us to experience feeling uncomfortable and vulnerable to achieve progression and change. She stresses that when we build cultures at work where perfectionism is rewarded it hinders essential conversations around equity, diversity and inclusivity.
“Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best… It’s a twenty-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us, when, in fact, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from flight.” Brene Brown.
Unfortunately, one of the most irrational aspects of perfectionism is that organisations tend to value it – because it gets results and standards are exceptionally high (but don’t mention the burn out, catastrophic thinking around making a mistake or the agony around ticking the box on detail).
Because perfectionists push the stakes sky high, and the illusion of the ultimate scenario is so unattainable, many sufferers have a deep, and often crippling, fear of failure. This translates into a destructive cycle of wanting to be the absolute best, but never actually trying to get there because messing up is too unbearable. You know, that person who wants to write a novel but never does because it might not win a Booker prize. And the jogger who dreams of running the marathon but won’t do it unless they qualify for the elite team.
But what they are actually missing out on is the crucial benefit of making mistakes. Endless studies have proved that expertise is strengthened by failure. It’s what makes us learn a different approach, to try harder next time and, if embraced, it can fortify our resilience to criticism. Elizabeth Day, a journalist, broadcaster and novelist has enhanced her career ten-fold through the process of failure. Her popular podcast and best-selling book of the same name, How To Fail explores the different benefits of mucking up. Day says, “I have evolved more as a result of things going wrong than when everything seemed to be going right.”
At Untapped we embrace those who admit they’ve made mistakes, simply because the vital key in this revelation is the courage and honesty to face up to being fallible. It’s only when we can understand that slip-ups happen to everyone and they won’t be the cause of our destruction that we can go on to be our true selves – human!
Yet for confirmed perfectionists, realistic thinking is hard. Sufferers say, ‘If I let my standards drop, everything will fall apart’ or ‘People won’t want me if I’m not the best’. In these cases it’s worth exploring how much imperfection a person can stand? If they experiment gradually and consistently with exposing some of their fears they can work towards becoming more comfortable with being mortal. Experts recommend taking simple steps to consciously lower the bar - ie cutting back on prep time for a presentation, admitting to others that you found a task hard, or as in my case, learning to leave a little mess around the house. A perfectionist may never find it easy to say, ‘What the hell’ but by understanding that nobody is truly perfect they can be released from the unreasonable weight of an impossible ideal.
Written by Jenny Tucker