Most people would consider having high standards a good thing. Striving for excellence can show a good work ethic and strength of character. Perfectionism, on the other hand, involves a tendency to set standards that are so high they either cannot be met, or are only met with great difficulty.
For example, making mistakes from time to time is commonly accepted as part of life.
However, a perfectionist tends to believe that making a mistake will mark them as a failure or a bad person.
Perfectionism often is described as a phobia of making mistakes. Trying to be perfect all the time is more likely to make us feel stressed, depressed, frustrated and anxious as we struggle to meet our unrelentingly high standards.
What makes perfectionism so toxic is that while those in its grip desire success, they are most focused on avoiding failure so theirs is a negative orientation. And love can feel too conditional on performance.
The need for perfection is usually transmitted in small ways from parents to children. It can be passed on with a raised eyebrow over a B rather than an A.
With perfectionism comes a strong tendency to procrastinate and put off tasks that we don’t feel confident we can complete to our high standards and are likely to take a long time as we strive for perfection.
So what can you do if you recognise perfectionist traits in yourself?
The first step is to acknowledge that you are a perfectionist. Once you have decided that your current approach to life is hindering, rather than helping you, you can start to change the way you think and start thinking more realistic thoughts, such as “I made a mistake, but that does not make me a failure”, or “It’s ok not to be liked by everyone. It does not make me a bad person”.
It is also helpful to learn to look at an issue from another’s perspective and to look at the bigger picture.
Perfectionists tend to get bogged down by detail and lose track of the long-term perspective.
Make yourself comfortable with the concept of “good enough”. What level of imperfection are you prepared to tolerate? Once you accept that mistakes are part of life you can start changing your behaviour to allow for imperfection.
If tidying up the house takes you the best part of the evening every day, start by reducing the time you allocate to this task a little at a time until you find the house is “tidy enough” and you have also managed to carve some time for yourself.
Anna Dallavalle is a counsellor working with individuals and couples and has a private practice in Morpeth. For information visit www.steppingstonesne.co.uk