Perfectionism, what is it, how does it affect me, and what can I do to help myself?
“I DIDN’T GET THE GRADE I WANTED… NOW I JUST WANT TO GIVE UP”
Sometimes I procrastinate or put things off completely because I worry that my work just isn’t good enough. I agonise over the tiniest details to get things just right even when it’s good enough already. When things don’t work out exactly as I’d hoped, I find it hard to get over these mistakes… even though most people wouldn’t really see them as mistakes. I’m caught in a trap of constant self-criticism and I think it’s starting to take a toll on my mental health. What’s up with me?
WHAT’S THE ISSUE?
It sounds like Charlie is struggling with perfectionism. Being perfect at what we do is often emphasised in society. This is the biggest issue with perfectionism.
People are expected to achieve sometimes impossibly high standards so it is no wonder that Charlie is finding this a challenge. Because the thoughts and behaviours that come with perfectionism are often encouraged it’s really difficult to recognise perfectionism as a problem.
But perfectionism is a problem. One of the reasons it goes unnoticed is that we often confuse wanting to do things thoroughly with perfectionism. Perfectionism isn’t just about striving to do things well. It’s about trying to attain unrealistic standards that are closely linked to the way we feel about ourselves. When unrealistic standards are in the driving seat, setbacks and failure have a bigger impact on our happiness. This is perfectionism.
HOW DOES IT AFFECT ME?
Not everyone who is perfectionistic will experience mental health difficulties. But going after unrealistic standards to feel better about ourselves will make it more likely, especially when things don’t go quite right.
Thoughts like “am I good enough?”, “do other people think I’m good enough?”, “I must work harder to show people I’m not rubbish”, are common among perfectionists when they hit setbacks, and can make life feel pretty miserable. Even if you do succeed, satisfaction is often shortlived because there is the nagging feeling that you need to do even better next time.
It’s no wonder perfectionism can impact mental health when the overriding emotion a perfectionist achieves is relief rather than joy. String these thoughts out over time, and its clear perfectionism can impact our mental health.
Many people justify their struggles with the old saying “no pain, no gain”. But the idea that perfectionism helps with performance is a myth. In fact, it is likely to make life at school, university or college, or the workplace, far harder. It is important that we can learn from mistakes, develop our skills and enjoy new experiences. By making our mistakes difficult to embrace and accept as learning opportunities, perfectionism allows no psychological space for growth or happiness. Instead, it promotes fear of failure, procrastination, and intense self-criticism when things go wrong. This is not a recipe for happiness.
Ultimately, there are going to be things you do well and things you do less well. and that is okay! To do well at university and life in general, it is important to turn down the volume on perfectionism.
WHAT CAN I DO TO HELP MYSELF?
People can learn to overcome perfectionism with self-help techniques. But this is a personal journey and different people have different things that they are perfectionistic about. Accepting that perfectionism may be a problem can be a good starting point and then thinking about how and when it affects you.
From here, we can start to manage it by making conscious attempts to pinpoint, think about, and change undesirable thoughts and behaviours. Many techniques are available to help with this. They don’t take much time, but they do need a bit of practice.
SPEAK WITH YOUR FRIENDS
When you struggle with perfectionism you often worry too much about what other people think. For example, you may worry about posting a selfie without adding a filter for fear you might not look good enough. Tackle these beliefs head-on by asking your friends what they think. You’ll probably find that few people care about seeing anything other than the unfiltered you!
TAKE A LOOK AT THE BIGGER PICTURE
When you are preoccupied with negative thoughts about a particular thing, take a breather, grab a notepad, and think about the bigger picture. Ask yourself: “what is going well?” or “how much have I achieved so far?” Most importantly, go easy on yourself when thing go wrong, as they often will. With these exercises, turn self-criticism into self-compassion. You are worth more than the number of likes or shares on social media, or your grades at school or university or college, or assessments in the workplace.
MAKE A THOUGHT DIARY
One way to manage unwanted thoughts is to stop them bouncing around in your head by writing them down and rating them out of 10 in terms of how strongly you believe each issue. Reflect and ask yourself: “Is this belief or thought really helping me?” Or “would it be better to view things differently?” Some people call this a thought diary. It’s a good way of keeping track of unhelpful thoughts and challenging these with more constructive ones. After a time, you’ll hopefully be able to do this naturally in your head as these unhelpful thoughts pop up.
Getting started can be hard when you’re worrying about the final product before you’ve even begun – try starting and just focusing on getting the work done rather than how good it is. Try thinking helpful thoughts as you go like “I have written loads of good assignments”, “getting starting will make me feel so much better” or “I can always edit once I’ve finished” – these thoughts can be written on post-it notes and stuck to your computer or notice board as reminders not to overthink things and to keep momentum. And remember that sometimes ‘good enough’ is good enough.
MAKE TIME FOR YOURSELF
Make sure you take a break and make time for activities for yourself, like socialising with friends, reading, or exercise. It might seem like you are compromising achievements at school, college, university or the workplace, but actually, these activities allow you to recharge and give you more energy and focus. Things we know are crucial to happiness!
Managing perfectionism is no easy process: it takes lots of patience and lots of practice. It is often the case that even after trying some of these things, perfectionism remains an issue: but that is okay! It is all part of overcoming the fundamental difficult thought patterns and behaviours. Above all else, it is vital that you recognise where perfectionism is creating problems, address them head-on, and have a happier time at school, university or college, and the workplace.
WHEN DO I NEED TO GET HELP?
Perfectionism rears its head most noticeably when we experience a setback. Often the thoughts that run through your mind when suffering perfectionism in these situations are: “am I good enough?”, “am I attractive enough?”, “do other people like me?”, “I must work harder to be valued”. Catching these thoughts early is a good sign. In the first instance, addressing them with the strategies above is vital. Go easy on yourself, you are worth more than grades, likes, or other people’s judgements. Remember, if perfectionism becomes a real struggle and self-help is not working, you might need to seek out help. This might be if it is affecting your friendships, day to day enjoyment of life, or stopping you from doing the things you enjoy.
WHERE TO GO FOR HELP?
If perfectionism causes you mental distress, then you should consider speaking to your doctor or someone else you trust and seek advice from trained professionals.
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