Today I’m going to talk about something that I continually struggle with, and that is being a perfectionist. I feel like when people talk about perfectionism it’s that weakness that is actually a strength, but in reality if you really are a perfectionist then you know it is not a trait you actually want. Perfectionism does more harm than good when it cannot be controlled. I wanted to talk about my own personal experiences with perfectionism today, as well as shedding more light on the area and the effects it can have.
Perfectionism is defined as “the need to be or appear to be perfect, or even to believe that it’s possible to achieve perfection.” It is an unhealthy obsession to constantly be better than the best version of yourself. It is impossibly unattainable. A perfectionist is extremely critical of oneself, they strive only for a perfect and flawless outcome. When this outcome isn’t met it leads to feelings of failure and self-doubt which often spiral into mental health issues such as low self-esteem, anxiety, OCD, phobias, eating disorders, substance abuse and depression.
Perfectionism pushes you to be more than you can actually be, and this isn’t some pinterest quote about being your best self and just putting in that extra work, this is a real condition about never being good enough for yourself. No matter how smart, generous or stunning you may already be. No matter what you do or achieve it is simply never enough.
Being a human means that we often make mistakes in our life, therefore being flawlessly perfect is an unachievable and unhealthy expectation. A healthy approach to self-development is understanding there will be mistakes along the way because this is how we learn. However, when you are a perfectionist you won’t even attempt an activity in some cases unless you can be sure it will go flawlessly. This apprehension is grounded in a fear of failure which can lead to procrastination, anxiety, and poor time-management.
I myself, particularly in my studies, have been a perfectionist and it took me a long time to realise not everything you are going to produce is going to be perfect. This didn’t sit right with me for a while. I am guilty of spending many hours working on something for too long all in the effort to make it ‘perfect’. This behaviour meant I wasn’t balancing my time well and was sabotaging myself in other areas of my life that I should have been paying more attention too. My own perfection being more academically focused meant that whatever grade I would get, it would always need to be higher next time. The expectation just keeps…getting…HIGHER. This is obviously not a healthy way to approach a situation because when you achieve something you should congratulate yourself, not carry on increasing your goal because one day you won’t reach the expectation you set for yourself, and it will break you (trust me I know). This is when people tend to spiral into mental health issues because they realise that their expectations are unattainable and this begins to hold them back and create fear. I ended up developing an unhealthy thinking pattern that determined my own worth on my academic success and ability which was ultimately very wrong. Your happiness and worth should never be determined by the extent of your achievement and success.
Burnout happens when you avoid being human for too long.
Personally, I believed that in order for me to achieve I had to be on my grind 24/7 because from my observations that is how people that succeeded behaved. Nobody is actually like that because that leads to burnout and it is not a productive way to work. No one can sustain that amount of hard work for long periods, it’s about balance. Productivity and success is not about working flat out 100% of the time, it’s about taking breaks, recharging and coming back stronger. However, at the time I felt that if I wasn’t working, if I was taking a break, then I didn’t deserve that high grade. That is obviously untrue but that is how perfectionism works. If you are anything less than your absolute best then you are not good enough or worth enough. I had to learn what hard work and productivity really looked like. You will not always be 100% everyday, you have to learn when you need to call it quits and take a break. I would love to know how many hours I have wasted just staring at a uni essay on my laptop, doing absolutely nothing, but telling myself that I can’t stop because I don’t ‘deserve’ a break, even though I’d probably already been sat there for 9 hours.
I believe that a lot of people are becoming perfectionists because of societal influences, social media in particular. When you look online it doesn’t take long for you to find someone who appears like they have their whole life together, no issues, no struggles, just good vibes. Social media has created this toxic need to be perfect, successful and rich before you’re even 21. Social media is a facade, it’s people wanting to show the best highlights of their life, in some cases it is even fake. I’ve spoken to countless people who are insecure about their relationships, academic ability, style, appearance or financial stability, all because there are hundreds of people online presenting themselves as if they are perfect and that everything is going their way. After a while this can make a person deeply insecure because when they look at their own life they see normality, instead of perfection. We compare our whole life consisting of highs and lows to someones highlights. First of all that is unrealistic and second of all comparison is a killer and it’s only going to make you more insecure. Nobody has it all together all the time but society can make us think that we need to be that way, and when we aren’t we feel like we have failed. This is simply not true.
Taking a step back from social media and generally using it less will only lead to positive benefits in your life and how you view yourself. Gaining a better perspective and knowing that not everyone’s life is that perfect is hugely important for anyone’s mental health. It is important to focus on what you are doing and achieving than comparing yourself to everyone’s perfect presentations of themselves online. You shouldn’t base your own worth on what somebody else is doing. Unplug and take a detox from social media.
Making mistakes and being flawed is how humans work. I was at war with myself for a long time for not being good enough, when actually I was achieving really good grades but my constant desire to be better held me back. At the end of the day you can achieve great things and still be left feeling like you need more and more, but more will not be enough if you can’t be content within yourself and appreciate the journey you are on, flaws and all. We cannot be perfect and that is okay. What we can be is happy with who we are and what we have, whilst being committed to growth and progress in a healthy way, knowing that there will be mistakes along the way and that makes us a human being, not a failure.
Regarding overcoming my own personal perfectionism, I am definitely still on that journey. However, I have learnt that keeping up the habit of trying to knock away those negative thoughts and doubts in your head is the most crucial step to take. It is way easier said than done and is a constant journey, but noticing that thought pattern you have and consciously deciding to turn away from it instead of feeding into it is hugely important. In order to do that you have to accept yourself, congratulate yourself for the small achievements, (they are still amazing achievements!) and most importantly look after yourself. Take breaks, do things that make you feel good, see your friends, these are all important factors in achieving success.
It is very easy to feel an unbearable pressure and expectation being a perfectionist. You can easily over work yourself and take on too much and ultimately this will lead to burnout. This makes it even harder to fight the negative thoughts in your head because you are mentally exhausted. Taking time for yourself is hugely important, this is something I would love to go into more detail on in another article focused on self care and bad mental health days. For now though, be kind to yourself and accept your journey for what it is. You’re doing way better than you think and you are good enough.
I hope you enjoyed today’s post! Please do continue to email your responses to me on the contact me page if you don’t feel comfortable commenting below, that is completely fine! I have some links below to useful resources surrounding today’s topic, but I also wanted to mention a book I have briefly started, ‘Love for Imperfect Things: How to Accept Yourself in a World Striving for Perfection’ by the Buddhist monk Haemin Sunim. I touched on various kinds of Buddhism and mindfulness during my time at university and found it incredibly fascinating. There is a lot we can learn when we step outside of our western mindsets. I haven’t read the whole book yet but it’s a unique approach to overcoming perfectionism and I thought it was worth a quick mention! I’ll be sure to review the book later when I have finished so look out for that!
Mental health support
If you feel your perfectionism is negatively impacting your mental health and sense of self then do reach out to an organisation that can help support you. Your feelings are completely normal and valid, you do not have to feel alone.
TED Talks on perfectionism
Here are some of my favourite TED Talks on perfectionism, all very varied, but insightful talks about peoples own personal struggles with perfectionism and how they started to fight and overcome their unattainable expectations.