The imperfect thing about perfectionism.
“Write a story” Medium tells me. I quickly stop.
My analytical mind forces me to check the first 9-words again — confirming that it is decent enough to continue.
I flick back to the draft of a Word Doc. titled ‘Perfectionism’, whereby I cited it had taken me at first an hour, then 4 days and now (judging by the last edit that was made on the 22nd Feb 2017) a further 2 and-a-bit months to write 150 words of a blog post I have now deemed as unworthy.
It’s laughable really, that in a world where people are plagued with genocide, terminal diseases, life-threatening discrimination, starvation and other truly horrendous curses I am ‘writing a story’ about the somewhat entitled problem of ‘perfectionism’.
It’s only now though, that I realise my consistent starting and stopping, picking-up and putting-down of blogs, books & venture ideas centred around these causes (as well as other more serious events) results from the negative thought processes that arise from perfectionism.
To clarify, perfectionism is not about being ‘perfect’.
After seeing a therapist for seemingly unrelated panic attacks that I now realise were intrinsically connected, I became aware that it runs way, way deeper than that.
I now realise that my late adolescent and occasionally still present depressive states are partly embedded upon the harsh self-criticism that comes from judging my self-worth based solely on my ability to strive for and achieve extremely high, unrelenting standards.
“Doing well/looking good isn’t enough, I have to do better”,
“I have to work extremely hard in order to deserve a treat”,
“If I don’t plan for all possible outcomes I will be punished/make mistakes”,
“I have to do more and more in order to feel accepted”,
…are all things I revisit again & again everyday.
On the other hand, the paradox of perfectionism is that excelling for excellence inspires positive thoughts like:
“I get pleasure out of achieving what others can’t do”.
“I get satisfaction knowing I’ve tried my hardest”.
“I like being prepared for every event”.
Which aren’t bad things at all.
I wouldn’t be sitting in a chic café-come-bar in Shoreditch savouring a cold-pressed ‘Orchard 1 Strawberry Zest’ juice that I just spent neigh on £6 on whilst contemplating where in Central London I should eat dinner this evening (toff); if it wasn’t for the decent job I got as a result of the hours upon hours I smashed out in the library (‘lad’) and my extreme desire to achieve.
There is a big difference though, between the healthy and helpful pursuit of excellence and the unhealthy and unhelpful striving for perfection.
In my case, the severity of these thought processes has dramatically affected mine and the people around me’s well-being.
I now realise that my last relationship, my current & past friendships and my family life have all been battered by my inability to enjoy my spare-time because I am never satisfied. I rarely go to sleep at night feeling like I have had a fulfilling day (unless I complete seemingly insurmountable tasks), I hardly ever feel worthy of taking time off & I am both consciously (and more dangerously) subconsciously petrified of starting and finishing tasks in case I fail.
Judging my self-worth through the eyes of perfectionism is a double-edged sword.
When I am up I am really up — I feel on-top of the world, with a genuine belief that I can conquer anything. On the flip side, I typically feel hollow & worthless unless I work harder than the average person and achieve bigger things.
Thankfully, I am now aware of my perfectionism and how the behaviours that result from it shift my mood, my relationships and the way I see myself.
In turn, I comfort myself when I feel the numbness of inadequacy creeping in, reminding myself its OK to have days off & enjoy down-time; that my worth is independent of external achievements/conditions and that there are no rules about how many hours I need on a piece of work for it to succeed etc.
I now identify standards to work on — like not relentlessly trying to find a cause that I am overwhelming passionate about; that solves all world issues AND that I know for certain will keep me inspired forever. Instead I have re-framed my goals from seeking perfection to aiming for good enough.
Some of the ways I address perfectionist thinking on a day to day basis are little experiments that go like this:
- Identify an unhelpful thought/belief:
— “if I don’t spend 10000000 hours working on my venture/blog/business/project then it will fail”.
— “If I don’t wash my face 3 times a day I will get spots”.
- Test it:
— pick a project/piece of work and set a smaller time-frame than normal i.e. 10 hours for something that I might spend 20 hours on and run it by a small test group of people.
— Wash my face once or twice a day.
- Reflect & evaluate the belief. Compare what actually happened with what did and think about what I have learnt:
— “I was surprised that I was able to do it”. “I was surprised that the project turned out OK. The people who viewed it picked up a few problems, but not many”.
— “At first I seemed to get more spots and it was really uncomfortable going so long without washing my face”, “I noticed that I got more spots in the first week, but no one commented”, “After the first week I felt more comfortable and honestly think my skin is even better than before”.
- Develop a new, balanced belief based on what you have learnt:
— “Sometimes I fail if I don’t spend a really, really long time on a task, but not every time. Its OK to have a day off”.
— “Sometimes I get spots if I don’t wash my face 3 times a day, but not every time. It seems like it might be unrelated maybe. I don’t need to wash myself all the time”.
I now lean into my anxieties around inadequacy & incompleteness; embracing the heart-wrenching feelings and seeing the growing fear as a chance for excitement and exhilaration rather than threat and danger.
I now embrace failure, because I realise ‘perfection’ is boring and your imperfections are what make you perfect.
And — in reassurance to all those perfectionists reading this who are scared about missing out on excellence — I am now (somewhat counter-intuitively) insanely more productive.
More importantly though, I am now happier in myself, my personal relationships & life as a whole.
NB: a year on from this post (12th June 2018) I am STILL identifying where this post can be improved and editing it.
please comment below or ping me a message at matthewpullen.mp@gmail if you have any thoughts or want to chat about yourself, happy to talk :)