Perfectionism and Self-Esteem
Why do we sometimes feel that whatever we do, it isn’t quite good enough? Why do we feel that if something isn’t 100% perfect then it must be a failure? Whether it’s being a parent, a partner, a friend or an employee, giving a sporting or artistic performance or even cooking a meal, we sometimes have high and unrealistic goals. This can rob us of a sense of personal satisfaction and a loss of our self-esteem – in many different areas of our lives, we don’t feel as though we are good enough.
You might argue that seeking perfectionism is not in itself a negative as it leads to the development of skills, the raising of standards and a desire to improve. This is confusing perfectionism with a healthy quest for success. A healthy quest for success means that we see mistakes as part of the learning process – an opportunity to grow. Perfectionists are never satisfied with what they achieve. If something isn’t perfect, they dismiss it. They may experience fear of failure, doubt, unhappiness, and other painful emotions.
What are the consequences of perfectionism?
Well, perfectionism can hold you back, both personally and professionally. It can have a negative impact on your self-esteem. Perfectionists see their own self-worth tied in to what they achieve, and they believe that others judge them on this as well. They can never live up to the standards they set for themselves and this can lead to a downward spiral of self-criticism and blame.
A perfectionist might not start a new project until he’s found the perfect way to approach it. Because of this procrastination, he might fall behind on his work or he might put in excessive hours to achieve a result that others may achieve in less time and with less effort.
It’s sad that one of the consequences of perfectionism is that it has an inhibiting nature: it stops us from taking risks and it constrains our playfulness. This, in turn, reduces our ability to innovate and to be creative.
Am I a perfectionist?
Read through these questions and see if any of them apply to you:
• You have very high or unrealistic goals about all kinds of things in your life
• You see any mistake as a failure and you tend to be always on the look-out to see if anyone else is performing better than you. This could apply to how you feel you performed in a meeting at work, how you look as you walk into a party or how clean your home is when a neighbour drops by unexpectedly! (You might also conceal your mistakes from others!)
• You have trouble meeting deadlines because you keep redoing tasks or putting off getting them started.
• You stick with safer tasks, because you know that you can achieve them.
• You don’t enjoy the process of learning and working, unable to shrug something off with “I’ll do better next time”.
• You often exhibit “black and white” thinking: either something is perfect, or it’s a failure.
• You worry too much about what other people think – or even what you think they think!
• You don’t handle criticism and feedback well, dwelling on it for hours or even weeks afterwards.
• You apply your own unrealistic standards to those around you, becoming critical when work colleagues or friends and family don’t meet those expectations. As a result, your relationships may suffer.
• You have a difficult time delegating tasks to other people because they could not possibly do the task to the same standard as you yourself – and hence end up taking on far too much and getting exhausted and stressed.
OK is there anything I can do about it?
The key to overcoming perfectionism starts with acknowledging you might have a problem so you are already well on the way to doing something about it! Next, you might want to start to challenge some of those perfectionist behaviours, thoughts and beliefs:
1. Make a list
Write down everything you do that must be “perfect” – at work, in your home life, in your hobbies, and in your personal relationships. Sometimes seeing things written down is enough in itself to kick-off a new way of seeing things.
2. Challenge each behaviour or thought pattern
Ask yourself what is the worst that could happen if I did this or did not do that? Once you’ve done this, come up with one or two specific steps you might take to overcome a particular behaviour or thought pattern and put time and effort into taking those steps. Don’t make the steps too big or too challenging (and watch out for your own self-sabotaging thoughts judging how you are doing).
3. Evaluate the results
What happened? Chances are, there weren’t any negative consequences. What did you learn? Then, practise this regularly with different behaviours or thoughts.
Did you get a bit anxious? These new behaviours are quite likely to make you feel a bit anxious at first – after all you are challenging the way you have always done things! This is totally normal. You might try taking a few deep slow breaths if you do notice a feeling of anxiety. In time though, you’ll probably find that your anxiety decreases dramatically once you see the results or once you see there were no negative consequences of “being good enough” rather than being perfect.
5. Set realistic goals
Use SMART goals to avoid setting goals so high that there’s little hope of achieving them. This means making your goals Specific, Measurable, Agreed, Realistic and Timebound. For example, rather than setting your goal as achieving the perfect body, break it down into small steps – such as “tomorrow as soon as I get in from work, I will change into sweat pants and runners, and walk around the park for half an hour.”
6. Make sure you’re living the life YOU want to (not what someone else wants for you)
Perfectionists often put their wants and needs aside to live up to the real or imagined expectations of others. Focus on your own dreams, goals and expectations. Learn how to be assertive to protect your rights and achieve your goals.
7. Listen to Your emotions
Are you feeling anxious, unhappy, or scared about a task? Stop for a moment and ask yourself whether you’ve set your goal too high. (you might practise some slow deep breaths too!) Your emotions may be telling you that you’re trying to achieve an unrealistic goal. If so, can you make a new goal, one which makes you feel good? Remember, you always have a choice in what you think and do. It is your choice and no-one else’s
8. Don’t Fear mistakes
They are part of life – they are what makes us who we are, what makes us grow. Try to reframe them as opportunities by asking yourself “what positive things can I take from this experience?”
9. Readjust your personal rules
Do you live by a rigid set of rules? For example “my kitchen floor (or my car) must always be clean” or “my boss should always praise every report I write”. Your rules need be flexible and helpful, not unrelenting and unrealistic.
10. Look at the bigger picture
Perfectionists often exhibit “tunnel vision”: they focus on one small part of something and ignore the rest. Challenge this by making an effort to look at what you’ve done right. Don’t focus exclusively on the negative – take the ‘cup is half full’ approach.
11. Stop saying “should” and “shouldn’t”
Perfectionists often use these words when they’re setting up personal rules – as for example in “I should have done that job myself instead of delegating it.” Be careful using these words in your thinking; they can often lead you to create unrealistic expectations.
12. Relax and have more fun!
Perfectionists often find it difficult to relax and be spontaneous. Relaxation and spontaneity are not only necessary for a healthy life, but they can also improve your productivity and well-being. Take regular breaks whether you’re at work or at home to stretch, walk around, or do deep breathing exercises . Add spontaneity to your life by stopping to watch the sunset or a bird on the fence or by getting involved in a new hobby – especially one that involves other people where you will find yourself getting so absorbed and having such a laugh that any perfectionist thoughts are banished for good!
Book a counselling session today!