We’re living in a world where there’s such a thirst for perfection….the media fills our heads with images of perfectly beautiful ‘celebrities’ living their perfect lives…but how real is this?
Every Tuesday at 9.30am I run a workshop at a psychiatric hospital where I see people who are suffering from anxiety, depression, addictions and chronic burnout – all manifestations of what is loosely termed ‘a breakdown’. Many people might think that people who end up in such places are weak, they just can’t hack it. But actually most of the time this really isn’t the case. In fact, it’s often the individuals who are very strong – perhaps too strong – that are the ones who break down. And why? Because their so-called strength comes from extreme perfectionism. They drive themselves hard, with no limits or boundaries.
I don’t just see this at my clinic. I see it in the companies where I deliver workshops, with groups of mums at the school gates. Worryingly I’m even seeing this with children these days. And I see it in myself (but I’m working on it!). Being a perfectionist is hard work. It comes with a host of other symptoms – neck and shoulder tightness, nocturnal teeth grinding, insomnia, exhaustion and other symptoms. A perfectionist’s life is ruled by a constant deluge of have to do’s, must do’s, should do’s. They feel guilty if they are doing nothing and while they find it impossible to ask for help, they go around in a constant state of self-righteous ‘Why do I have to do everything around here?’ In fact, at one point I toyed with writing a book called ‘who’s Hanging the Washing Out?!’ because I was seeing so many women (usually) hitting burnout and trying to do everything themselves but not letting their partners help (because they might do it perfectly!)
A perfectionist’s life can be driven by fear of not being good enough, a desperate need to control everything ‘out there’ when they’re not feeling good ‘in here’.
Do you recognise yourself in any of this? As I said, I constantly work on my perfectionistic tendencies. For me a really stark wake-up came after my first book ‘Tired But Wired’ was published. I received my author’s copy on the same day that I got my copy of Stieg Larsson’s ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ in the post from Amazon. Instead of cracking open a bottle of champers to celebrate something I’d wanted to achieve ever since I was a child (writing a book), I stood there, a book in each hand, and noticed how slim my book was compared to Larsson’s. I turned my book over and instantly noticed a typo on the back of my book. It wasn’t perfect!!
I have celebrated since then. I’m proud of my book and of myself for writing it but it didn’t come naturally. I’ve always been wired to try harder, feel it’s not good enough, compare with others and come out worse. It’s my default pattern but I am changing it, slowly but surely.
Being a perfectionist comes at a price. It’s draining and it can make you sick – physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. When we constantly beat ourselves up, tell ourselves we’re not good enough, we become dispirited. Like a small child who really has tried hard but only ever hears ‘could do better’.
This vicious cycle of perfectionism can actually be broken and here’s how:
- Notice when you are telling yourself ‘I can’t stop’ or ‘It’s not good enough’ or whatever you tend to say when you’re pushing yourself. Become aware of the voice that’s driving you to keep going.
- Notice that the voice isn’t your voice. In fact, give ‘it’ its own name. I have a name just for my perfectionistic ‘writing’ voice. Her name is Miss Trunchbull and she tells me I can’t write, to stop wasting time and go to the gym instead, or that I’ll never get a publisher etc etc.
- Notice when he/she pops up into your head and what it does to your body, your shoulders, your jaw, your forehead, or wherever you tend to hold your tension.
- Release – Stop, breathe deeply, relax the tension and pause before you decide whether to buy in to the story or not. Realise that you have a choice.
And now for a real power tool…. Are you ready for it?
5. Practice being imperfect! What can you let go of in life? Where can you settle for being less than perfect? Where can you relinquish your grip on control?
Personally, I now have several areas where I have let go of feeling I have to be in control/perfect but just to name a few of my domestic favourites – I celebrate my messy cupboards, I let my husband hang the washing out (imperfectly), and wait for it…. I rarely do the ironing!!
Over to you. If you’re feeling increasingly drained and overwhelmed by your to-do list, maybe it’s time to cut yourself a bit of slack and start celebrating your imperfection. And with Christmas around the corner and that to do list growing even longer, now might be just the perfect time to do this!
Yours in amazing health and energy.