Perfectionism and procrastination
A compulsive drive to be flawless and the setting of unattainably high standards and goals (perfectionism) often goes hand in hand with imposter syndrome. Perfectionism is then combined with harsh self-criticism and disappointment and dissatisfaction when you are unable to reach those impossible ideals.
I class myself as a ‘recovering perfectionist’. Some psychologists believe there is a healthy version of this – ‘striving for excellence. This may be so, but in my practice, I see numerous clients who are unable to cope with mistakes and failure – anything that they feel makes them ‘imperfect’. So why do some of us feel the need to be perfect? It’s a mixture of neuroscience and how we were raised. When we are afraid, part of our brain (the amygdala) triggers the release of chemicals that results in the ‘fight-flight-freeze response.
This reaction helps to keep us safe when faced with physical danger, but we experience the same response when we make a mistake – we are afraid how others will react. In addition to this natural brain response, how we were raised directly influences the degree to which we berate ourselves. So the extent to which we were reprimanded or punished for getting something wrong, and how much success we had to achieve to gain praise and love, will determine our levels of self-punishment in adult life.
You can see how all of this might affect you on a practical level: beneath the surface perfectionism also causes anxiety, depression and even eating disorders and body dysmorphia (because of the need to be physically ‘perfect’ and to be in control at all times). Perfectionism has been linked to OCD, social phobia, workaholism, self-harm and substance abuse, as well as to physical illnesses such as chronic stress and heart disease. Studies have found that perfectionists have a higher than usual mortality rate due to the additional stress and worry caused by the belief that everything should be perfect. The pursuit of perfection will stop you from living a full and happy life.
If you want to the break the cycle there are three key steps you can take:
01. Set realistic goals
Perfectionists can find it difficult to distinguish between achievable goals and fantastical ones that only lead to angst when they are not reached. Going for unachievable goals can also lead you to push yourself beyond healthy, sustainable levels. By setting excessive targets, you activate the fight-flight-freeze response. By lowering your goal levels to those that are actually achievable without stress or anxiety, you take yourself out of panic mode and back to a state where the front of your brain – the part that is concerned with strategic thinking and problem-solving – is engaged. You will actually get more done, and do it far more successfully because your brain is functioning at a higher level.
02. Practise and celebrate failing
Failure is an unacceptable word for a perfectionist, but failure is not a measure of your worth, it is actually an essential part of learning, growth and development. One of the most effective ways to beat the pressures of perfectionism is to learn a new skill or to do something that takes a lot of patience and trial and error – and yes, to get things wrong along the way. When we step out of our comfort zones, we make mistakes. Every time you mess up or don’t hit the mark – celebrate it – it means you are growing and learning.
03. Accept who you are
Remember that if no one explicitly accepted, acknowledged or celebrated who you are when you were growing up, you may have turned to achievement as the measure of your self-worth. Consequently, the best antidote for perfectionism (and the most challenging) is to be brave enough to just be your unpolished imperfect self – with all of your flaws, faults and limitations. By accepting who you really are, with some self-compassion, you can free yourself up to be your best version, and to succeed. I only ask that you separate out these old beliefs – your ‘successes’ are not who you are. ‘Achievement’ is not a measure of your worth! You are perfectly flawed, and perfectly wonderful all at the same time – as we all are.
Perfection is not a prerequisite for anything but pain.’
SYMPTOMS OF PERFECTIONISM
These are pretty far-reaching, and there are many I have worked on with my clients to overcome. They include:
- The feeling that you can never reach where you want to be.
- Spending hours and hours trying to get something ‘right’.
- Procrastinating or not being able to finish something – both stemming from the fear of not getting it ‘perfect’.
- The feeling that you ‘fail’ at everything you try
- Not being able to take compliments or acknowledge your own ‘successes’ because you feel you could have done better.
- l Struggling to relax or switch off because you are thinking about what’s next or how to do things better.
- l Constantly working and achieving, or thinking about work – often at the expense of relationships, your own wellbeing and physical health
The next time you take on a task or project, choose one of the steps below, and the following time try another one.
- Instead of going for a 10/10 in achievement and effort, purposefully go for an 8/10 – whatever that looks like to you. Notice and write down the effects – are they positive or negative? Notice the difference in the amount of time and energy spent on the task
- Make a mistake (yes, I know how difficult this one is). But do it, and write down the impact and effects.
- The next time you make a ‘mistake’, or you ‘fail’, shift your mindset from one where you tell yourself, ‘I’m an idiot’, ‘How could I have been so stupid?’, ‘How could I get that wrong?’, to one where you ask, ‘What can I learn from this?’ Write down a few positive suggestions to help you reframe a new mindset
- When you find yourself slipping into ‘perfection anxiety’ let go of what you haven’t yet done, stop worrying about what you still have to do, and come back to ‘now’ – the present moment. Value the ‘now’. Make a list of all the things you’ve already achieved that day – however small
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