When you find yourself recounting intimate details of your dating disasters to a room of relative strangers. And you can still face yourself in the mirror the next day. You know you are beginning to overcome perfectionism.
Being a perfectionist is a full time job. Really! There’s no vacation or sick days. We don’t even get bank holidays. And there's no work to rule. The only rule is work, work, work!
Going beyond excellence
The rewards of course can be great. We value excellence. We’re always moving forward. We achieve goals no one has achieved before. We exceed expectations. We are constantly learning and trying new things. Always striving to be better and do better.
Submerged by the detail
And the pain can be even greater. Perfectionists can get stuck. Waiting for that right moment. Some might call this procrastination. Obsessively reworking details, that no one else notices. Beating ourselves up for not doing enough or not getting it absolutely right. The toll on our health can be immense. Our standards so high that it’s impossible to achieve them. And just one extra thing can make that vase overflow and efficiency plunge into overwhelm. We’re constantly running on high making it hard to relax and just have fun. It’s exhausting. Like being on a hamster wheel. Doing, doing, doing!
Perfectionism finds its roots in childhood. The result of trying to live up to the standards set by others. The multi-dimensional psychological tests include statements like “People will think less of me if I make a mistake.” “If I don't set the highest standards, I’m going to end up second rate.” “My parents want me to be the best at everything.” “I never felt I could meet my parents standards.” “Organisation is very important to me.” And “I try to be a neat person.” On that last note, as a student I would clean my fridge every time I got stressed. Can you imagine how clean my fridge was during exam time!
Putting ourselves out there strikes a victory
- Public speaking provides an effective creative outlet for this tension. There are few places more vulnerable to be than on stage. Exposed to the opinions and judgments of others. You might think this would be disastrous. But just putting ourselves out there and facing our fears, strikes a victory against perfectionism. And when the audience comments on our performance we see very quickly how subjective opinions are. Some praise our use of the stage whilst others tell us it was too much. Some compliment our warm, natural delivery whilst others find us cold. This takes the pressure off. It's a relief to know that we can never please everybody and that that's OK.
The world doesn't implode if we get it wrong
- Sometimes during our speeches we trip up. In front of everybody! At times my mind feels like its disconnected from the rest of me. Sparking off in all directions. Determinedly seeking out words. The black hole of a ‘mind blank’ hot on its tail. If I'm distracted by this intergalactic war in my head, my body language is forgotten and I start to pace across the stage. Until I notice the audience are moving their heads from side to side and back again. As if they are watching a tennis match at Wimbledon and I'm the tennis ball. So I will myself to stand still. Disrupting my chain of thoughts. In an instant there's nothing! Silence! Yet we survive this discomfort. And we learn that not getting it perfect is not the end of the world.
Letting go of control is a relief
- Table topics are an even more powerful opportunity to go head to head with perfectionism. We don’t have the luxury of knowing what we are going to talk about. We are given a subject and we have to stand up and speak. In the intensity of the moment as we desperately search to fill the gap, because there’s nothing worse than being on stage with nothing to say. We can find ourselves recounting just about anything. Under this extreme stress, I can resemble an orchestra conductor, as thoughts of managing my hand gestures evaporate. Something has to give and we release the need to control absolutely everything.
Being authentic is more important
So back to that fateful evening when I was asked “What is the longest time that you have been single for and why?” What a question for someone who avoids talking about anything personal! As I walked to the stage I broadcasted a silent plea. Willing the floor to open up and consume me whole. That didn’t happen. My mind was blank. What on earth was I going to talk about? And then I started. And honestly I can't recall everything I said. I do remember words tumbling from my mouth and the animated, shocked and deadpan expressions of the audience. And as a little voice at the back of my head said “I’m not sure that was a good idea”. Another piped up with “Maybe not, but it was authentic!” In that moment everything felt lighter.
In her book 'The Gifts of Imperfection' Brene Brown tells us that “Healthy striving is self-focused: "How can I improve?" Perfectionism is other-focused: "What will they think?”. Understanding the difference is critical.
So what's your approach? Do you find yourself asking "What can I do better", or worrying about what they are thinking? " If you're leaning towards the perfectionist end of the spectrum... don't worry. Yes research does indicate that perfectionism can hamper success and lead to depression, anxiety and addiction. But it doesn’t have to be so. Highly successful, self-confessed perfectionists include the director James Cameron (Titanic, Avatar), the actor Daniel Craig (James Bond) and the multi-award winning tennis player Serena Williams. So if you're a perfectionist, you're in good company!
Bringing ourselves back to presence
For a perfectionist our go to mode is doing, doing, doing. and we need to learn being, being, being. This can be difficult for us and so easy to slip back into our default mode. Incorporating daily practices will help us to get grounded and train our mind away from doing and towards being.
- Yoga is union of mind, body and soul. There are many different styles of yoga to suit all personalities and all moments. I personally mix and match depending on how I feel. If you can't get to a local yoga class, Gaia offer a wide range of online yoga practices. I also love Fightmaster Yoga.
- Meditation encourages us to switch off our monkey mind and sit with where we are. There are many styles of meditation including guided, transcendental and silent. One of my personal favourites is Mooji for his deep, resonant voice.
- Practicing bringing ourselves back to presence throughout the day is important. Mindfulness apps can be a real help. They give us a gentle reminder at regular intervals to stop and breathe and notice where we are. I use the Mindfulness Bell available on iTunes.