Being a perfectionist is something I know all too well! I remember back in my university days, waking up with overwhelming anxiety thinking about upcoming exams and projects. I would tell myself, today will be the day that I will tackle all the things on my to do list for school!
The day would slowly go by, as I watched my favourite TV show, I’d look at the clock… 2 pm already! My mind would chime in, and start beating me up: you will never get any of this done, you might as well give up and leave university, you do not belong here!!
You might be thinking, hey, this does not sound like perfectionism! I thought a perfectionist was someone who overworked themselves, set high standards, and consistently strived to be the best.
Or perhaps you relate to my story, maybe it’s one you know well yourself.
The Unhelpful Cycle of Perfectionism
While it is true that some perfectionists find themselves in a cycle of striving, the cycle of perfectionism I found myself in was one of avoidance. I was avoiding failure at all costs, so much so that I did not even try. If you don’t try, you can’t fail, right?
We used to think being a perfectionist was a personality trait, something we are born with, and in a sense stuck with. Now we know that this is not the case, perfectionism can be thought of a as cycle of learned behaviour.
We become stuck in an unhelpful cycle of perfectionism when what we are doing pulls us away from the life we are wanting to build.
If I think back to my university days, deep down I wanted to be an engaged student, but my behaviour was all about avoiding feelings of failure, which pulled me away from the student I wanted to be.
As humans, we are kind of built to avoid stuff that makes us not feel good. It is like our default setting. The things we do to avoid difficult thoughts and feelings often work for us in the short term, but at times can be unworkable in the long term.
Sitting in my dorm room, watching the latest Grey’s Anatomy episode worked to quiet my inner critic, and got rid of my fear of failure… but not for very long.
How To Overcome Being a Perfectionist
It can be helpful to ask yourself a few questions to better understand your cycle of perfectionism. You can write them down in a notebook if you like.
- Are the actions I am taking to strive to be perfect and never fail at anything pulling me towards the life I want, or away from the life I want? If you said, TOWARDS, then great, you can stop right there. Your perfectionism is working for you! If you said AWAY then continue on:
- What are my perfectionist actions helping me to avoid thinking and feeling? Fear of failure can look a little differently for each of us. Maybe it is a fear of not being liked, or a fear of looking incompetent, or a fear of being judged by others? What is it for you?
- Is there something that really matters to me that I am avoiding because I don’t want to fail at it? Would I be willing to put myself in that space, and bring the difficult thoughts/feelings along for the ride? If you answered no, is there a smaller step you would be willing to take?
Antidote to Perfectionism: A Willingness to Fail
My encouragement to you is… can you get a bit more willing to fail? A bit more willing to feel what shows up when you fail? Kelly Wilson, co-founder of ACT, put it best:
“If we don’t allow ourselves to fall, then we can’t really play”
When we can allow ourselves to fail, the world really opens up to us. There is so much more possibility in where we might go! What do you want to move your feet towards?