Perfectionism is the need to be, or at least appear to be perfect. To be a perfectionist you need to believe that perfection is a real tangible thing. The kicker is that ‘perfection’ is one of those elusive concepts that are so subjective, you could argue that it doesn't actually exist at all.
Perfectionism presents itself as your inner critic. That voice inside your head telling you that you could’ve tried harder or that you're ruining your kids' lives. It gets louder when you compare yourself to others and if you leave it alone in good growing conditions (like not practicing self care or compassion) it's likely to bloom into something far more treacherous like anxiety and depression.
Alarmingly, perfectionism is often perceived as a positive attribute. A common humble brag “my biggest problem is that I’m a perfectionist” implying that you work to the point of perfection. The only problem is that perfection is a moving target. Nothing is ever ‘perfect’. I bet you ask any creative person about their work and I guarantee there is always something they would change about it the second time round. And shouldn’t there be? How can we improve if we don’t make the next project better than the last?
Perfectionism is a vicious cycle among creative types in particular. When you create something that is received by the outside world, whether it be a logo, a song or a piece of art it's hard to not see yourself in the work, see it as an expression or extension of yourself. To share is to be vulnerable and in the creative industry that is also how we get paid.
While creative people are more prone to perfectionism I’d also like to point out that having kids is probably the biggest creative endeavor there is. This is why there is so much anxiety around parenting. Am I doing it right? Am I fucking my kids up? Why are those kids so well behaved?
The very nature of a cycle is that it is continuous and becomes addictive. Like any addiction, the first step is to acknowledge you're caught in a loop. Perfectionism can be a hard one to detect because it's often parading around as the cause of success. We need to take a closer look at what’s motivating us to see if we’re caught in a loop or not.
80% of our thoughts are negative and 95% of our thoughts are the same ones we had yesterday!
I heard Zoe Hu give a great talk about perfectionism this week and she had made some excellent observations about the difference between being a high achiever (so a healthy mindset for success) and a perfectionist.
For starters high achievers are pulled by curiosity, determination, purpose, commitment and self-improvement. Perfectionists on the other hand are pushed by fear of failure, self-doubt, shame, worthlessness and external judgement.
High achievers will set themselves high standards that are within reach, enjoy the process as well as the outcome, bounce back quickly from failure, see mistakes as opportunities for growth and learning and react positively to helpful criticism. Perfectionists set standards beyond reach or reason, chase perfection and are never satisfied. They become depressed when faced with failure, see mistakes as evidence of unworthiness and become overly defensive when criticised.
See the difference? On the surface a successful person may look the same but it's what motivates them that determines their mental health and well being. Like any addiction it can be a slippery slope. I like to think I’m being motivated by the pull of a high achiever but all it takes is a few disparaging comments from my internal critic and I’m being bullied again by perfectionism. I liken it to coffee, which I stopped drinking about a year ago… I would have the odd one when I was out but tried to avoid it. I noticed last week that I’d had coffee everyday for like two weeks! It was slow and subtle but all of a sudden I was drinking coffee again! Addictions of all sorts are a slippery slope.
If you notice yourself in the negative loop of perfectionism then there are a few things to help break the cycle.
I’ve just been reading ‘Your Head is a Houseboat’ by Campbell Walker AKA Struthless and he has a great journaling exercise about self compassion which I’m going to end today's blog on. It's a really great way of recognising how ridiculous our inner critic is and how much we let it get away with.
First you have to take a picture of yourself when you were a kid, a real photo, preferably of you looking cute. First part is to be mean. Write down all of the thoughts that are floating around in your head. The taunts from the perfectionist within.
Now, this should make you feel shit. God, what's even worse is that I look so much like my daughter, Alice that it's even more overwhelming. I would NEVER talk to her (or little me) like that EVER! So why is it ok to talk to grown up Jess like that now? The second part is to think about what you would say to little you?
Next time you get caught up in negative self-talk, replace the negative thoughts with what you’d tell your ‘kid’ self. Be kind!