What if perfect isn’t possible – how to overcome high expectations

Are you the kind of person who likes to take time (usually a lot of time) to make decisions and take action? Do you often leave the office much later than you plan to? Have you ever had family and friends tell you to stop overthinking everything in your life, such as relationships, purchases for the home environment, career decisions, or everyday things like what to wear that day, or what kind of hairstyle would be suitable before leaving the house? Are you a performing artist striving to achieve the ultimate performance or industry accolades? Well, it could be that perfectionism is hijacking your quality of life and it could well be time to explore other ways to manage your schedule and yourself.

What do we mean by perfectionism?

Perfectionism is not as straight forward as you might think (i.e. being labelled a perfectionist), and is actually quite a complex phenomena that comprises helpful and unhelpful parts. Oftentimes, perfectionism is mistaken as ‘being perfect’ or ‘doing something perfectly’ and so it is assumed that it must be a good thing. Other times people may highlight perfectionism as being annoying, disruptive, frustrating, and even embarrassing. So it a good or bad thing?

The helpful parts of perfectionism

When people pursue excellence or set high standards they tend to

  • set SMART goals
  • put in a lot of effort to achieve those goals,
  • organise themselves and schedule activities in a manageable fashion, and
  • end up challenging themselves.
  • This can lead to learning new skills, achieving good results, building self-esteem, and contributing to the person’s overall subjective happiness and wellbeing.

The unhelpful parts of perfectionism

Sometimes the drive and motivation to do well, can actually impair performance and make things worse. This is the paradox of perfectionism! Having standards is not a bad thing, as people generally achieve less without any standards at all, but I am here to tell you that there is a stark difference between unhelpful striving for perfection and the more helpful pursuit of excellence. Ask yourself this……is it ever really possible to be 100% perfect?

Here are some of the unhelpful perfectionistic parts to look out for:

  • Setting extremely high standards for yourself and/or others, and placing unrelenting pressure on yourself and/or others to achieve them. For example, approaching work tasks with the high standard of never making an error, and checking and re-checking your work to search for errors and to identify areas for improvement, OR expecting your partner to complete domestic tasks in an ‘identical’ fashion to you which in time can lead to arguing, contempt, criticism and defensiveness, and maybe even relationship breakdown over time.
  • Judging your self-worth largely on your ability to strive for and achieve such unrelenting standards (i.e. telling yourself you are not good enough if you don’t achieve High Distinctions for every assessment in your university course).
  • Experiencing negative consequences of setting demanding standards, yet continuing to pursue them despite the huge cost to you. Negative consequences may include; feeling on edge, physically tense and stressed, social isolation, worry, depression, relationship difficulties, eating disorders, obsessive compulsive symptoms, rechecking of work, insomnia, excessive time taken to complete tasks, procrastination, poor health, low self-esteem and persistent sense of failure
  • No longer being satisfied with your best, but striving to do even better than your last attempt at the expense of personal well being and happiness. Many people tell me this can be exhausting and is a vicious cycle of perfectionism!

How to change unhelpful parts of perfectionism

  • Set realistic goals and standards for change so that you are likely to achieve them and feel a sense of satisfaction and fulfilment, rather than frustration and subsequent self-blame for not being ‘perfect’.
  • Weigh up both the positive and negative consequences of being a perfectionist. Start by addressing any rigid rules for living (i.e. I must always be the best) and the modify unrelenting personal standards to more attainable and realistic ‘grey shades’ i.e. instead of striving for a perfect dance audition performance with rules such as “I must be the best”, work towards an attitude of “I can try my hardest and focus on executing my movements well, but it won’t be perfect and that’s ok. My performance will still be of a high standard”.
  • Don’t try and tackle a task all at once. With procrastination being a common symptom of perfectionism, combat this perfectionistic problem by breaking down the task into smaller parts and complete one small step a day (e.g. If you are a mum at home with a newborn or young children, rather than feel completely overwhelmed that the house isn’t perfectly clean and hygienic all the time, select just one or two tasks each day to complete that will help to keep the most used room in the house (i.e. the kitchen) clean and hygienic). Placing pressure on yourself to maintain a ‘perfect’ home environment with a young family may mean that you are unnecessarily critical of yourself which can contribute to poor self-image and happiness. In time, this can affect the quality of relationships in and out of the home, and of course interfere with the process of bonding with your precious and beloved children.
  • Set aside time for relaxation and learn to tolerate your mistakes. Remember that perfection as a mindset is an illusion. It is an inability to be happy or satisfied with something until it is perfect, without any perceived flaws. Start to practise NOT being perfect and give yourself permission to make mistakes!
  • Challenging perfectionism involves seeing the world in shades of grey. It is more helpful to view life as a journey, rather than seeing the world in black and white and life occurring in ‘fixed events’. Start to develop a ‘growth mindset’ which understands the pursuit of happiness and success is a never ending journey of ups and downs to be learnt from and to grow from each day in every moment.
  • Learn mindfulness of everyday living and mindfulness meditation. Research has shown that mindfulness is helpful at teaching people to relate differently to negative, critical self-talk (i.e. perfectionistic thinking can be judgemental and harsh criticism of our efforts (and others’ efforts) and can hold us back from living fully and being fully in the present moment). Mindful meditation is the practise of “non-doing” and involves focussing on the present moment without imposing judgement on the actual experience as it happening. Also interesting to point out, is that mindful meditation involves accepting reality and the present moment for what it is, not trying to change anything or make it better (or perfect) to meet our personal standards. Mindfulness has been associated with lower levels of anxiety, depression, anger (the primary emotion for frustration!) and worry.

As Leonard Cohen writes:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything,
That’s how the light gets in.

Try one of these exercises:

If you want to go one step further in overcoming your perfectionism, I challenge you to try one of the following exercises:

1. Ask yourself “what would I do if I knew I couldn’t fail?”.

Answering this question can highlight some of the things that are important to you in life, but that you have not pursued due to perfectionistic rules and unrelenting standards, procrastination and a fear of failure. So what would you start today if you knew it was impossible to fail?

2. Just Complete One Goal Today

Think of a small project that you would like to complete and just give yourself to the end of the day to finish it. It can be anything, the simpler the better: write a poem, decide on a birthday theme for a children’s party, clean out the fridge, choreograph a short dance to a piece of music, phone or email a friend you haven’t contacted for a while. The point is to just do it, and not obsess over the final product. Give yourself permission to say, “It’s done!” without needing to second-guess yourself or judge yourself negatively or harshly.

If you think that perfectionism may be wreaking havoc on your relationships, study activities, performance satisfaction (work, dance and music), self-esteem, quality of sleep and personal wellbeing and happiness then the Psychologists at Attuned Psychology can help you to address the more harmful parts of your perfectionism and improve your overall quality of life.

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