Oh the irony of me writing this blog...I've been sat searching for the 'perfect' image to catch your eye for the past 30 minutes. Getting frustrated with myself and thinking, 'Come on Liz, you've only written a bloody title!' In terms of wanting things to be just right, I feel is something most of us strive for, however, if this desire begins to develop from a young age does this then sow the seed to the path of perfectionism, and what ultimately does that mean for our perception of the world we live in, our focus and our well-being?
What is Perfectionism?
The dictionary definition of perfectionism is the 'refusal to accept any standard short of perfection.'
Some people may perceive this to be a positive trait to have, having high standards and expectations would undoubtedly result in success, wouldn't it? But striving for perfection isn't the same as being competitive or aiming for excellence, to regard anything short of perfection as unacceptable does not only put you into a state of exhaustion, as you begin to feel like you're running a race without a finishing line, but it also feeds into one of the most problematic traits of perfectionism, self-talk. This self-talk manifests itself in behaviours that tend to have you working hard, getting everything ready and perfect, but then, not actually doing anything productive, often because of the fear of failure. The fear of failure isn't a great motivator and results in us feeling demoralised with guilt and worry, often because of our perceived lack of achievement. Holding ourselves to an impossible standard that cannot be achieved will undoubtedly set us up for perpetual failure and so the cycle begins.
For me personally it's not so much that I fear failing, (I've been working on my mindset with that one) but my desire to have things 'just right' often leads me to procrastinate; putting off doing those little things every day to achieve goals. Like this blog for example, I planned time to focus on different points over the week, so as not to feel overwhelmed the weekend before its release. But some way, somehow other things crept in to fill that time; which has resulted in me locking myself away five days later putting pen to paper, if you get my drift. Luckily for me, I have Gemma on my tail and her drive, support and inspiration often pulls me from my pit of perfection and procrastination, to change my thinking to 'Liz, just do it - you're going to learn from this!' And it's weird really, because when I do complete the steps towards a goal I do learn new things and always feel fulfilled and proud, so why is it I put things off?
Is Perfectionism a Mental Illness?
Perfectionism impacts massively on one's mental health and well-being but in terms of it being a Mental Illness it is often associated with an array of mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders, self-harm and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). The constant drive to be perfect can also contribute to stress, fatigue, headaches and insomnia. So in terms of our well-being, taking control of our perfectionist mindset and changing our habitual way of thinking is paramount in avoiding this negative impact on our mental health. First understanding and recognising the flavour of our perfection is important. Is it self-orientated where we demand perfection from ourselves, is it other-orientated where we demand perfection from others around us (children, partners, colleagues etc.) or is it socially prescribed where we feel external pressure from the larger world and from within society to be perfect? Understanding the type and then what sowed those initial seeds helps us challenge this mindset when it comes home to roost.
What causes Perfectionism?
Is perfectionism primarily driven by internal pressures, in trying to avoid failure or harsh judgement? Or, is the seed of perfectionism sown by those influencers around us, those role modelling behaviours as our mindset is moulded from birth to age 21? In terms of the different flavours of perfectionism I feel elements of all three (self-orientated, other-orientated and socially prescribed) all play a part at the varying stages of our mindset development.
One of the worst phrases I heard growing up at home and whilst in school was 'Practice Makes Perfect' the phrase itself implies 'perfect' exists and we all know it doesn't. The messages given to us from parents, peers, siblings, teachers all develop our inner belief system and reinforce the behaviours, language and actions we adopt for ourselves.
Our perfectionist mindset begins to persuade us that people will think less of us if we make mistakes. That if you don't do well all the time people won't value and respect you and if you partly fail at something it's just as bad as being a complete failure.
On social media there's consistent swathes of Teachers displaying children's perfectly displayed books all with the DUMTUMS included (Date, Underlined, Miss a line, Title, Underline, Miss a line, Start!) with everyone praising how beautiful they look. I've had conversations with children who perceive themselves to be 'rubbish' at writing because their handwriting isn't perfect enough to have achieved their 'pen licence', irrespective of their content, to them how it looks is what matters. To some children receiving feedback on how to improve, but being reluctant to make changes because their work looked so 'perfect' and they'd rather forego that element of learning to improve, than 'spoil' their work. As teachers what pressures for perfection do we unknowingly give in our classrooms as an other orientated influence?
As parents do we tend to create connections with our children when they're doing really well at something, emphasising test scores, sports results or high achievements. Placing the focus on the outcomes rather than the learning that took place to achieve that outcome. Don't praise for completing work quickly, easily, without mistakes as that then means if you don't do something easy, quickly, without mistakes you are not praise worthy. Let's encourage our children to not waste time with easy but sink their teeth into something that will challenge them. Changing the perception of words like struggle, hard, challenge, mistakes and effort, linking them to learning and growth as values. So who's up for sitting round the dinner table tonight and asking the question "Who had a fabulous struggle today?"
Is Perfectionism Bad?
One thing someone who resonates with perfectionism must NEVER do is internalise it in a negative way, in that it makes you a bad person. Your influences and life experiences have moulded your mindset, your thought processes and your beliefs which determines your inner dialogue, behaviours and actions. Perfection is a filtered way of seeing yourself and the world around you. Once you recognise that your perfectionism trait is not propelling you on a path of success but is sinking you into a pit of stagnation you CAN do something about it.
Can Perfectionism be Cured?
Our mindset is not fixed, set in stone, the way it has to be. Taking back control, becoming mindset aware and making shifts in our thought processes is our journey to letting go of our comparison mindset. This results in us being more compassionate with our self-dialogue and challenging our negative self-judgements.
"The fixed mindset does not allow people the luxury of becoming, they already have to be, and be perfect. Being a work in progress, isn't that better than perfect? Setting high standards, striving to learn, working, struggling towards hard things that we value. Failing and bouncing back, isn't that better than perfect? By giving up the idea of perfection, we can begin a lifelong, rewarding journey to becoming ourselves." C Dweck
As parents and teachers let's be more open with our own mistakes. Avoid engaging in self-critisicm or negative self-talk as we role model our experiences with challenge, setbacks, struggle or mistakes. By showing as adults we are not perfect develops a healthy attitude towards achievement. Modelling the strategies we use and the resilience we show blasts the 'Practice makes Perfect' phrase into oblivion and replaces it with 'Practice allows for Progress!'
If you love a good read, why don't you check out our other blogs about mindsets.