Many schools and academies in the UK have become extremely competitive and place a great amount of pressure on students to meet the very highest academic standards. As a result our children are conditioned to push themselves to achieve the highest results that they are capable of at school and university so that they can go on to secure the best jobs possible upon graduation.
When high expectations are held of us from an early age we can start to develop an internal drive to meet the standards set for us and feel chronically unhappy or dissatisfied if we don’t achieve the level of success we set out to accomplish. This develops into perfectionism in adulthood and results in the relentless quest for excellence.
Although not all perfectionists are necessarily high achievers, perfectionism propels many people forward to push themselves in often unhealthy ways in personal, professional and sporting pursuits.
Signs of Perfectionism
Highly critical of oneself and others
Takes criticism personally
Sets hugely ambitious goals and stops at nothing to achieve them
Feels empty or unsatisfied if expectations are not exceeded or first-class results are not achieved
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Always moving the goal posts to go above and beyond targets
Finds it difficult to open up and be completely authentic with others
Sets such high standards that consistent success becomes impossible to achieve, resulting in shame and guilt
Lack of patience
Perfectionism can prevent you from following your true desires and keep you chained to your desk, working far longer hours than would be necessary if you were willing to take the pressure off yourself and accept things being completed when they are ‘good enough’. Of course, there are times when paying incredible attention to detail is essential, but investing that level of concentration to every project you work on leads to overwhelm and is not a sustainable strategy for success.
Perfectionism can prevent us from acknowledging the best in ourselves because our attention becomes focused on overly obsessing with the worst in ourselves. As a result perfectionists often beat themselves up with negative self-talk and self-defeating behaviour.
Fear of Failure
For some perfectionists an overwhelming fear of failure can cause procrastination and result in risk-adversity. This inhibits self-esteem, can lead to intense fear of rejection and of making mistakes, and can result in all kinds of psychological, behavioural, and physiological issues ranging from depression, withdrawal and chronic fatigue to eating disorders.
Fear of failure can result in indecisiveness and prevent people from moving forward, not just in their careers but in other areas of their lives too. When procrastination due to perfectionism perpetuates it can lead to severe hoarding issues, time management problems, relationship ruptures, intimacy issues, excessive worry and financial concerns.
If you struggle to take action for fear of ‘getting it wrong’, producing ‘average’ results or appearing a fool, practice becoming an imperfectionist by allowing yourself to do something ‘good enough’. Getting something done is better than getting nothing done.
Give yourself permission to lower the bar and allow for mistake making.
I make mistakes like the next man. In fact, being – forgive me – rather cleverer than most men, my mistakes tend to be correspondingly huger. -- J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Wherever possible practice patience instead of perfectionism.
Remind yourself daily that great things can be achieved by taking small steps, making mistakes, permitting playfulness, indulging in your passions and allowing for rest and relaxation along the way.
Believing in yourself and getting back on your feet when you have experienced a failure or when life knocks you down are important qualities. I encourage people to affirm to themselves that they ‘can do it’ – except when they ‘can’t do it’ any longer, at least not without first taking a break to rest and refuel.
Admitting defeat can be difficult for many people who pride themselves in achieving the impossible, especially when the going gets tough.
Perseverance can be a great personal trait; but only when you have sufficient gas left in your tank to keep going. Extreme perseverance is not healthy because it requires running on reserves, which rarely pays off. You end up paying the price with your health, relationships and reputation.
Karen Brody, CEO of Bold Tranquility and Bold Birth, recalls the breakthrough moment when she realised perfectionism coupled with an unhealthy determination to push through anything that was causing her to burnout:
Have you ever been all ready to go big and bold and find that real life slams you in the face? I sure have. Major flashback – Two kids. One with croup, one throwing up. Husband traveling in Africa. Work deadline. It’s like one day you’ve got it all together...the sunshine is shining just about everywhere in your life...the kids are healthy...you’re drinking that favorite tea...feeling surprisingly energetic...and the next minute life becomes this ‘Little Engine That Could’ movie that’s gone all wrong.
I think I can, I think I can....I know I...CAN’T.
Can’t? ‘Can’t’ was never in my vocabulary. Until the past few years when I realized that can’t is just as a strong and bold a word as can.
I’ve said a lot of cants in my business this year... Doing reality checks is one way I’m learning to keep it real around here.
The reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind the scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel. -- Steve Furtick
Whenever we measure or evaluate ourselves against other people we become insecure, disconnect from our inner brilliance and stop taking intuitively-guided action. This phenomenon is commonly referred to as ‘compulsive comparison’.
If you notice you have a tendency to constantly compare yourself to others, be gentle with yourself. Whenever this tendency shows up, instead of allowing it to stir up jealousy, competitiveness or paranoia, play with the silly suggestions it makes and use those suggestions to diffuse situations that you find yourself in. Here are some examples:
The next time someone stands out as being somehow ‘better’ than you, compliment him or her on one thing you genuinely admire about them.
When something goes ‘wrong’ and you start beating yourself up about how brilliantly someone else would have succeeded with the same thing, stop – regain your sense of humor and share your failure with someone who will help you see the funny side of it.
If you are meeting someone successful and start to feel anxiety rising up inside you, remind yourself that they are human, just like you. Imagine them hanging out in their pajamas on a Sunday morning, just like you do. There, they don’t seem so scary now – do they?
The next time you find yourself deliberating over a decision before seeking a second opinion that deep down you know you do not really need, check in with your gut feeling and trust that it is enough.
Whenever you feel the urge to criticise someone else or start to imagine everyone else is criticising you, start finding something to admire instead. See Stop Complaining (below) for a useful exercise to help overcome this.
Regularly complaining and criticising negatively impacts our health because dwelling on negative things creates stress. Many people have habits around this that they are completely unaware of. In the book A Complaint Free World, Will Bowen suggests challenging yourself to go 21 days without complaining. The challenge is brilliant for helping you break through old beliefs and boosting your health.
To give the 21-day challenge a try, pop a bracelet or wrist band on one of your wrists and every time you find yourself complaining, criticising or unfairly judging someone else, move the band from one wrist to the other.
The majority of people find that they will need to move their band from wrist to wrist around 20 times per day initially. But, after just a few days, most people find that they can easily go four or five days without having to move the band once!
©2014 by Jayne Morris. All Rights Reserved.
Published by Changemakers Books.
Burnout to Brilliance: Strategies for Sustainable Success
by Jayne Morris.
About the Author
Jayne Morris is resident life coach expert for NHS Online Health Sector, contributor to The Huffington Post and has been featured in leading publications including The Telegraph, The Guardian, The Independent, Red, Cosmopolitan, Women’s Fitness and many more. She is a popular international speaker, workshop leader, radio and TV personality.