You might think it's good to have high standards, and in some ways it is.
Still, one of the dangers of high standards is that you can become unrealistic in your expectations, both of yourself and of others. The Chambers dictionary says:
perfectionism noun 1) the doctrine that perfection is attainable. 2) an expectation of the very highest standard.
As noted in the wikipedia entry for the use of 'perfectionism' in psychology, it is 'a personality trait characterized by a person's striving for flawlessness and setting high performance standards, accompanied by critical self-evaluations and concerns regarding others' evaluations.
Bringing this down to the actual experience and effects, Psychology Today says it is: 'a fast and enduring track to unhappiness', and that it 'often it leads to procrastination'.
If you tend to perfectionism you may see yourself and the world in a very black-or-white way. If you do something that isn’t perfect, you think it’s absolutely dreadful. There is no half-way-house. It’s all or nothing, and most of the time that means like you feel you are nothing. Self-critical thoughts are very common.
And of course, self-critical thoughts and negative self-talk generally mean that you will feel bad about yourself. Although you are striving for perfection, you more often end up with low self-esteem, and potentially depression.
Catastrophising and Generalising
There are two related issues here. One is catastrophising, and the other is generalising.
With catastrophising, you think that if you do something a little bit ‘bad’, it’s absolutely terrible. For example, you think that saying something a bit bitchy is horrendous, and that the person you said it to will now hate you forever and tell everyone that you are a dreadful person.
With generalising, doing something a little bit ‘bad’ now means that everything you do, everything you have ever done, everything you will ever do, is bad. It means that you are a bad person, through and through.
While these might seem extreme examples, the thought processes are quite common.
I’ve Blown It
Another problem with perfectionism is that you may end up in what some term the ‘I’ve blown it’ state. For example, you do something you consider wrong, think ‘I’ve blown it’ and so you decide ‘may as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb’.
So, you might feel you shouldn’t eat anything with sugar in, but once you’ve had one biscuit, you figure you may as well eat the box. Rationally, you see that eating a whole box is far worse. In terms of your perceptions and your actions, though, the day is ruined so what the hell!
Ironically, as a perfectionist you are also often a great procrastinator. Seeing as you won’t be able to live up to the high standards you set yourself, you get overwhelmed and decide you may as well not bother trying. Better to do nothing than to fail. Yet that is also a failure, for which you will beat yourself up, metaphorically.
Even when you do get something done, you may spend ages checking and rechecking it, to get it ‘right’. So, a simple email to your boss (or boyfriend, or mother, or…) can end up taking hours.
Low Self Esteem
One effect of perfectionism is low self-esteem. After all, you can never live up to those standards, so you must be worthless! I've written about ways to combat low self-esteem before.
What is important to note here is also how low self-esteem is a stressor. It raises your cortisol levels and so encourages depression, poor sleep, and weight gain. Of course, there are other factors that can help with these effects, such as exercise helping with sleep. Fundamentally, though, it is good to approach the source of the problem, as well as addressing the specific effects.
Ways to Help
1) Challenge negative self-talk
One thing that you can do to help with perfectionism is to challenge that negative self-talk. When you notice you are being self-critical try turning it around with simple statements like:
everyone makes mistakes,
it’s okay to get things wrong,
nobody is perfect,
it’s alright not to be nice all the time,
everyone has a bad day now and then
2) Get a different perspective
Ask yourself some of the following questions, to try to see things from a different point of view:
How might someone else see this situation?
What would you say to a good friend who was in this situation?
3) Look at the big picture
Once again, asking yourself some simple questions can help you get out from being mired in the details.
Does it really matter?
What is the worst that could happen?
If the worst does happen, can I survive it?
Will this still matter tomorrow? How about next week? Next year?
4) Combat procrastination
I’ve written on this topic in depth already, so I’ll just link to that post, with numerous helpful tips 🙂
5) Face your fears
Along the lines of behavioural therapy, it can be useful to challenge yourself. For example, to purposefully not be perfect.
You could try being late for a change, or go into a meeting unprepared, or send an email knowing that you haven’t spell-checked it. Start little, and make sure it’s in circumstances where the consequences won’t be too serious.
6) Compassion, Acceptance and Forgiveness
Many different people, religions and therapeutic modalities advocate one or more of these as the way to find happiness. Buddhism, hinduism, christianity, islam, yogic practices, and therapies such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), to name but a few.
Castigising yourself constantly for what you are doing or not doing won’t lead you to be a better person, nor a happier one. For one thing, doing so causes you stress, spiking your cortisol levels. When you are stressed, you function in a fight-flight-freeze mode which is not good for joy, inventiveness or well-being.
This also goes to the question of negative self-talk. Critising yourself leads to low self-esteem, rather than to any actual behavioural improvement. And when your self-esteem is low, you are more likely to feel depressed and not do anything to help improve your situation.
On the other hand, forgiving yourself, accepting yourself, and offering yourself compassion do not mean that you don’t see room for improvement or the potential for change. What it means is that you accept where you are, who you are, and love yourself anyway.
How I can help
Tapping is great for helping with perfectionism, as the concept of compassion and acceptance is built into the framework of what you do. Every round of tapping starts with stating what your current problem is, and that you accept yourself anyway.
If you really struggle with those words, you can change them at the outset. For instance, try ‘I’m okay’, or ‘I’m doing the best I can right now’ or 'I forgive myself for not being perfect’.
Tapping is also excellent at removing emotional blocks and reducing stress. So, you can target beliefs that hold you back, the stress that mutes your innovative thinking, or perfectionism itself.
Here is a brief tapping session to demonstrate how you can target perfectionism and implement some of the suggestions above:
Perfectionism often comes about due to internalised critical judgements from parents and others in authority during childhood. One thing that can be targeted in hypnotherapy is these critical inner voices.
Hypnosis can also be helpful in reducing your stress levels so that you can think more creatively. It can help you to emphasise the positives in your life, so that you can release negative self-talk and focus on the good, also improving your self-esteem.
As part of the issue with perfectionism is connected with unrealistic standards, and failing to achieve what you feel you should, coaching can really help. Focusing on clarifying your goals, and making them realistic, can aid you to get more done, and feel better about it.
If you'd like some help dealing with perfectionism, why not get in touch? Call me on 07561 231 281 or email me at email@example.com.