Do you remember the heart wrenching post-race interview with swimmer Emily Seebohm after she won a silver medal at the London 2012 Olympics? She was distraught and inconsolable following this incredible achievement, viewing it as anything but remarkable. She said, “I feel like I’ve disappointed my parents and my coach…I don’t know what went wrong…I wish there was more that I could have given…unfortunately I got second.”
Do Emily’s reflections indicate perfectionism? Quite possibly, at least in the context of her sporting achievements.
What is Perfectionism?
Psychologists view perfectionism as having three key components. First, there is a relentless striving for extremely high standards that either cannot be accomplished or are only achieved with great difficulty. Second, perfectionists judge their self-worth on their ability to achieve these standards. Third, they continue to pursue these standards despite negative consequences and at great personal cost.
Most people believe it is important to try to do one’s best and not to make mistakes. However, most also consider that making mistakes from time to time is inevitable and it does not mean they have failed entirely. Conversely, those with perfectionism tend to believe that they should never make mistakes and that making a mistake means that they have failed, or worse, they are a failure.
Tips to Tackle Perfectionism
Learn where perfectionism occurs in your life. Perfectionism does not necessarily mean that you have unrelenting standards in every area of your life, although this may be the case for some people. Where does it show up for you? At work? Study? Relationships? Health and Fitness? Grooming? Housework?
Recognise that changing perfectionism isn’t about giving up your standards altogether, it’s about relaxing them a little so that there are fewer negative costs associated with pursuing them. It’s about replacing unrelenting high standards with reasonable and realistic high standards.
Strive for excellence. This means that you still aim for high standards and use this as a positive motivation to spur you forward. You are still committed to your goals but the inevitable failures and mistakes don’t weigh you down or define you. It’s not uncommon for perfectionists to worry that compromising on standards will lead to having NO standards and making mistakes ALL the time. Let’s be clear, this is not about abandoning your standards. Having standards is important and can definitely help us achieve our goals. However, there is a big difference between the healthy pursuit of excellence and the uncompromising drive for perfection. Generally, problematic perfectionism can be distinguished from high standards by the negative impact that it has in your life.
Challenge your mindset. The ‘all or nothing’ mindset is a big problem among perfectionists. Perfectionists tend to think in terms of very strict dichotomies, such as ‘black and white’, ‘all or nothing’ and ‘success or failure’. This kind of thinking is self-defeating and unhelpful. Try to replace these beliefs with more helpful and balanced thoughts, such as “if I don’t accomplish my goal, I can try again” or “it’s okay to do things well, rather than perfectly” or “everyone makes mistakes”. Or follow the example of Thomas Edison who declared “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work”!
Accept that you (along with everyone else!) will make mistakes – and that is okay. Fear of mistakes or failure can immobilise and stop you from achieving your goals. It creates much stress and anxiety. When failures or mistakes happen, learn from them, knowing that these are a step toward eventual success. On reflection of her own failure “on an epic scale”, J.K Rowling opined in a speech to Harvard graduates that “it is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all, in which case you have failed by default”. Her full speech is on You Tube – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Ov2IayHqPQ . If you have a few minutes, watch it – it’s inspirational and wise.
Practice self-compassion. There is a lot of negative self-talk and self-rebuke that happens for the perfectionist, especially when the going gets tough. Acknowledge your effort, recognise what worked, accept that challenging times will happen, give yourself credit and be kind to yourself.
Keep in mind that we all have flaws, fears, and failures. It is these that make life interesting and they help us grow into a stronger more resilient person. We’re all perfectly imperfect!
This article was written by our Counselling Psychologist, Dr Tara Yewers. If you would like you book with Tara or any of our other Psychologists please contact us.