The paradox of perfectionism

Many of my clients are successful in business or in a professional role.

Their success can be attributed to their individual characteristics such as being highly motivated, having an eye to detail, and a determination to do the best they can.

A healthy level of perfectionism can be a positive and can and typically will contribute to a successful career and life. However I see clients who strive for perfectionism in every aspect of their life holding within a ‘taskmaster and slave’ mentality whereby the bar is continually set so high that the slave within cannot, and never will, achieve all of the demands the taskmaster makes.

When perfectionism becomes unhealthy in this way it is defined as ‘Clinical Perfectionism’ or ‘Dysfunctional Perfectionism’, and it can lead to a number of mental health problems including anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, eating disorders, and catastrophic thinking.

The role of a Life Coach or Therapist in such instances is to enable his/her client to recognise the problem and to thereafter make positive adjustments.

This will involve testing and challenging unhealthy restrictive thoughts, reactions, and behaviours in the first instance. If you see these traits in yourself it’s probably time to seek help and make change:

  • You have a ‘all or nothing’, ‘black or white’ outlook on life. If you fear the task, or the meeting, or even a social situation will not go ‘perfectly’ you engage in avoidant behaviour either deciding to not do the tasks or to avoid the meeting. This negatively impacts your life and denies you achieving your true full potential.
  • You feel your performance in work and all that you do in life is just not quite good enough. Your successful, everybody around you can see that but for you there are few moments when you enjoy or celebrate that success. Instead your focus is on the moments where it just doesn’t go as the taskmaster within demands it should. You focus on ‘failings’ and where praise and accolades come your way you cannot accept them.
  • Your aspirations and the goals you set make you stressed, anxious and depressed. Rather than feeling motivated and energised you find yourself stuck, procrastinating, and your thoughts of the future are catastrophic.
  • Your thought processes are compromised. Where once you had a vision, a take on the ‘big picture’ so to speak you now find yourself focused on the detail of one particular thing you want done to absolute perfection. It takes an age. You are swamped with self-doubt and worry. You become exhausted and the cycle of self-defeating thoughts and feelings becomes self-perpetuating.
  • You cannot accepts mistakes no matter how small. You engage in ruminating, revisiting past mistakes in an all-consuming way to the detriment of yourself. Your mind is clouded and the positive opportunistic you seems a distant memory.

So what to do?

Well if you do recognise some of the above in yourself then congratulate yourself on the awareness and insight you have. This is step one in making change. You have other changes to make and one essential is around perceived failure and criticism and how you are affected by such.

Achieving this may involve reflection around your history and nurturing an understanding of the origins of unhealthy perfectionism. A CBT ‘Mind Management’ approach that helps you construct more enabling positive thoughts, reactions, and behaviours will help you make change. However there are strategies you can try to implement in a ‘self-help’ way:

  • Try to be easier on yourself and accept that changing path, being flexible, and letting go of rigid thinking re your aspirations and goals is ok. Other opinions and criticism can help you rather than threaten you.
  • Connect with all that you learn and experience. You may or may not achieve the end goal. Life happens and the world is dynamic meaning much of what you experience is in reality beyond your control. It’s something you can influence but if things do not go exactly as you planned compromise and be comfortable with yourself.
  • Where a target is missed, or a meeting in work or your personal life does not go as you hoped accept it. Recognise that it is ok to have failure in your life. It’s part of the human condition and all of us will experience it. Framing it this way builds resilience for future moments.
  • Trust others around you to help. Unhealthy perfectionism stops people from delegating. Yes it feels uncomfortable but not doing so means you are overwhelmed. Test the catastrophic thinking around doing so by delegating in stages. The easiest tasks first so you learn that it is actually ok to pass responsibilities to others.
  • Seek help. There are a number of therapeutic models and strategies that can help you make change. Invest in your future and that of the business or profession you are in.

Russell Hoyles

Clinics at Spire Fylde Coast Hospital, Fairfield Independent Hospital, and in Garstang, St Annes, and Ormskirk.

Mob 07921 212728

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