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5 Ways to Escape the Toxic Misery of Perfectionism

Reading time | 6 mins
In a world where perfection is easy to fake, if not accomplish, many people find themselves in a toxic, unsustainable cycle. Have the perfect career, partner, house, and body. Have  everyone marvel at  your dazzling range of skills. And never, ever fail because failure makes you feel terrible. Repeat. 
After a decade of checking every box, the strain caused Claire Eastham to crash. She started her recovery by listing ways to “get better quicker” and be perfect again.
Thankfully, Claire soon realised that not only was perfection unattainable, but it had made her miserable for years.
She now has 5 top tips for escaping perfectionism’s false promises – read about them here. 

***

I was in my early twenties when I first suspected that my "perfectionist" tendencies might be unhealthy.

What gave it away? Well, I was determined to the point of being obsessive. I neglected my basic needs, such as food and rest. Most of all, I was terrified of failure.

Check, check, check... and Bingo.

Until this turning point, all these perfectionist behaviours had helped me succeed. My education, career, and love life looked fantastic on paper. Physically, I was in the best shape of my life.

In truth, my fight for bodily perfection wasn't about health or fitness. My excruciating diet, exercise, and self-maintenance routine centred on attracting a partner. But who cared if it wasn't for the right reasons? I was a machine!

Even the hint of a qualm would cause me to berate myself. What was I trying to say, exactly? That a high-flying career, thriving love life, and my peak physical health were bad?! I mean, yes, I'd developed a tremor in my hands. Achieving a night of uninterrupted sleep was, ironically, just a dream, and I felt sick most of the time.

Still, no one got anywhere in life by coasting. These things only happened because I'd worked hard for them. The tremors and the lack of sleep were blips, and having blips meant not being perfect. So, I would feel better if I became even MORE flawless, yes?

My very public breakdown in 2019 would suggest otherwise.

Sometimes, your perfectionist instincts may do more harm than good

Recognising the need to change is the first step. But it's not all plain-sailing from there. Undoing decades of learned and (formerly) trusted behaviours doesn't happen overnight. I'd slip in and out of old habits as I wrestled with the idea that my lifelong philosophy was unhealthy.

After all, aren't we all encouraged to "trust our guts" and be ourselves? Oprah Winfrey famously said, "Trust your instincts. Intuition doesn't lie." And my instincts said that Oprah Winfrey wasn't wrong.

My "instincts" had also been praised and rewarded my whole life. My family, teachers, and employers said how impressed they were by my behaviour and work ethic. A university tutor once said to me, "You have an incredible line of sight." (A military reference, I think).

Perfectionism got me the results I longed for and made me feel safe. It became a cycle. Being "successful" was my identity, and I couldn't face the idea of being anything else.

I needed some time at “perfectionist rehab”

As I lay sedated on my couch in the days following my breakdown, I had to face that my instincts were wrong. Unhealthily wrong.

For example? I'd just had a public breakdown. I was receiving psychiatric treatment. Even then, I bullet-pointing in my journal ways to "get better quicker."

I still have that notebook. By the state of my handwriting, I couldn't even grip the pen properly, never mind convince myself and the world that I was "fine."

Listen.

A thought raised its voice in my head, loud enough for me to stop and pay attention.

This isn't working for you. What if something affected your body instead of your mind? Would you try to brainstorm your way out of a broken leg? Or rest up and let yourself actually recover? You can't control everything!

The thought finally began to morph into a real wake-up call. I slowly realised that perfectionism was unsustainable and the root of so much of my rumination and anxiety. Not to mention I was sick of dealing with the emotional storms that followed whenever I fell short in any way.

“Perfectionists think they have to be perfect; when they are not, they get angry. They also expect other people to be perfect and get angry or impatient when others prove imperfect.”

 The Dangers of Perfectionism, Andrea Brandt, Psychology Today, 2019.

No matter how insignificant my mistakes were, I'd become furious with myself. There was no self-kindness involved; I didn't deserve it.

Besides, I didn't know how else to be. As I researched for this article, I came across this quote:

"Many perfectionists worry that if they let go of their (meticulousness and conscientiousness), it will hurt their performance and standing."

Matt Plummer and Rebecca Knight, How to Manage Your Perfectionism, Harvard Business Review, 2019.
 

This was definitely true of me. Looking back, I used to cling to a system that helped me achieve and avoid the worst label of all: "failure." That it caused devastating consequences for my health didn't matter... until the day it did.

It took a long time, but as I began to heal, I accepted that I needed to make some changes. Perfectionism had become the monster I lived with.

Top tips for keeping perfectionism in check

1. Realise that you're all too human... and that's how it should be

Perfection is impossible. Taking responsibility for your mistakes is the right thing to do, yes. But tipping into endless self-criticism is the opposite and will emotionally drain you.

"Hating yourself or berating yourself for not being perfect doesn't help you. Self-forgiveness is a tool not just for anger but for all uncomfortable feelings."

The Dangers of Perfectionism, Angela Brandt, Psychology Today, 2019.

2. Scared of failure? Try it

Sure, the initial feelings are deflating and uncomfortable, but they pass. I realised that mistakes are opportunities to obtain more wisdom.

Nowadays, I try not to jump to berating myself when I fail. Instead, I jot down what I've learned about myself and any "life lessons" I've taken from the situation. Scenarios always repeat themselves, just with different people or objects in a new setting. Reminding myself of these things might be helpful in the future.

3. Know when to stop

I set myself time limits/fake deadlines for certain activities. E.g. At 5pm, no matter what, I have to finish and accept the work I've done that day. The brain responds to boundaries.

4. Don't expect others to live up to your "standards"

You'll forever be disappointed. First off, your standards may very well be impossible. Secondly, accept that, like you, other people are human and have free will.

In life, there isn't one way of doing anything. My husband reminds me of this during housework!

5. Remember that obsession is a bad habit, not a goal

Are you working hard for good results, or are you becoming obsessive?

It's easy to confuse the two, but "working hard" means you won't neglect basic needs such as exercise, food, and rest.

If you find yourself becoming obsessed with something… FIND A DISTRACTION! Find something to create space between you and your perfectionist urges.

When I'm on the brink of becoming obsessive, I find something that'll snap me out of the danger zone. My go-to distractions are short but sweet. A word search, for example, or a funny video about unlikely animal friendships.

The takeaway

My instincts toward perfectionism will always be a part of my personality. However, these days I recognise the warning signs and how much I'm feeding into my own anxiety.

In the words of Salvador Dali: "Have no fear of perfection - you'll never reach it."

If we accept that, we may all become a little bit happier.

NPS-IE-NP-00574 September 2022