What is Perfectionism?

It’s got to be perfect, it’s got to be worth it, yeah
Too many people take second best
But I won’t take anything less
It’s got to be, yeah, perfect
— “Perfect” as performed by “Fairground Attraction”

First of all, let’s look at semantics and have the obligatory definition of the base word we are examining in this book. To be perfect is to be flawless, to be without fault or defect and to have all the desired qualities that fill a certain set of criteria. Perfection is something that is the embodiment of perfect or someone (or something) that has the highest degree of excellence in a certain area. Perfectionism is an excessively heightened standard or an unachievable ideal existing in someone’s personal philosophy or behavioural attitude which demands perfection in themselves and in others. Anything less than perfect is written off and rejected. Perfectionism is also a strong driver of ambition, the desire to achieve and having high levels of conscientiousness.

Perfection could be seen as a largely noble and worthy goal. As a personal philosophy it is the daily quest of always striving for perfection and to be the best in everything, it drives people towards betterment and ambition in their respective fields of profession and in their personal objectives. However, like a double edged sword, it does have major pitfalls. Seeking perfection at every twist and turn naturally becomes very tiresome. The journey for the perfectionist can be one of highs and lows – a mix of perfect moments, perfect achievements mixed in with failures and disasters (which are often quietly shoved under the carpet to avoid public shame). And because the primary focal point of a perfectionist is for the most part, inwardly focused, many perfectionists become narcissistic in nature and may even be thought to have Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).

Perfectionists chase perfection everywhere in their life – generally their perfectionistic tendencies are particularly focused at one specific area to detrimental effect of the other parts of their life. Since they seek perfection, the goals they set are always beyond their reach. They like to push the boundaries in terms of the things they want to achieve, engaging in an all-or-nothing mindset and their self-talk is generally pushing them to “deliver and produce results or else”.

Areas someone’s perfectionistic tendencies could be fixated/focused on (Fixation will be dealt with in a later chapter):

  • Career/profession
  • Family
  • School grades
  • Physical appearance (e.g. weight) and clothing
  • Cleanliness
  • Athletic and sporting skills
  • Musical talent
  • Academic talent
  • Artistic talent

Their fixated attention would usually focus on something they may outwardly seem to be passionate about. And these areas are typically related to:

  • Something they were trained to be good at;
  • Something they are naturally good at;
  • Something they lacked in the past, particularly in childhood; or
  • Something they were influenced in doing from their parent’s behaviour.

Their self-worth is directly correlated with their accomplishments. Winning is a badge of honour and winning is the main driver of their ambition. If they cannot accomplish what they set out to do, they will procrastinate the activity, or quietly sweep the failure under the rug, ignoring or neglect to acknowledge the failure.

Perfectionists witness a range of problematic automatic thoughts, behaviours and feelings which we deal with in this book. They have a natural fear of failure (but not atychiphobia – which is a persistent fear of failure). They don’t want to fail, but in order to achieve anything you have to stick your neck out a little; they are willing to take a risk and give things a go as long as they have a partly delusional belief that they can do it. But if they’ve already determined they cannot be or even have the potential to be perfect at something – they will not even attempt it. They will however fear that they won’t be able to maintain the same level of success once they’ve reached their goal.

While a healthy person will look to the mirror and see their self worth reflected from within, perfectionists will look to other people handing out approval and praise. In their youth, they would have likely have been behaviourally trained to equate excellence with love from their guardians. This type of behaviour would have fed the belief that “the more I achieve, the more I am loved” which would plant the seed to grow into the belief that “love will come when I am perfect”.

Positive feedback feeds the monster of perfection, reinforcing that they are on the righteous path to the success they seek. Negativity, criticism and possibly constructive criticism would yield one of two actions: either defeat and devastation or ignorance. The remedy for any negativity or minor setback is simply to work harder at achieving perfection, continually upping the ante, setting impossibly high standards. And when they set these high standards of themselves (and others), they’re setting themselves up for failure. There is no such thing as perfection. The cycle repeats, with a series of successes and failures.

Failures and mistakes aren’t publicly acknowledged but these disappointments silently eat away at their self confidence. It’s these failures, either perceived or actual, that the perfectionist ruminates and broods upon for hours. Repeating the past action or event in a perpetual loop, thinking of ways they could have done better. They clearly remember mistakes in fine detail and chew on them, much like how a dog would chew on a bone.

Perfectionists are doomed to live this perpetual loop until they ultimately fail (which we’ll deal with in the later relevant chapters). For those who have lived through the loop many times, they would have some sense of the trap they’ve built for themselves. The way they’ve trained themselves to cope with failure or compensate for the pain, was to simply push past it, attempting to jump higher, run faster than ever before, but no matter what they achieve, they will never be satisfied. For those who haven’t fallen, they would have a lack of experience in failure, either in actual failure or accepting failure.

Their self talk would vary from the boring, normal and mundane to the extremes:

  • “Straight A’s all the way. This B is a blight on your perfect record.”
  • “I’m not any good at swimming (so I won’t even try).”
  • “I’m not going to try rock climbing because I know I won’t be great at it.”
  • “I always aim for 100%, anything less isn’t good enough”
  • “They didn’t like how I look today. I’m not pretty/handsome enough.”
  • “You didn’t achieve your goal. Time to put your head down and work HARDER!”
  • “You aren’t good enough to reach this goal.”
  • “You are an idiot”
  • “If you can’t reach this outcome, you’re worthless.”

You may notice that the critical inner voice will start talking in the second person which is something we will examine further in later chapters. They would also like to say these types of phrases:

  • “I should’ve…”
  • “I could’ve…”
  • “I would’ve”

There is a school of thought which theorises that there is a continuum between healthy normal and unhealthy neurotic perfectionism. Other literature may refer to it as optimalistic and perfectionistic. Healthy perfectionism is the sought after desirable trait that drives achievement but it could also be seen as oxymoronic, thus the option to label it as “optimalism”.

Perfectionism is:

  • an unfounded belief that no matter what you achieve you will never be good enough. You will never meet your own and other’s expectations.
  • a strict conviction that you are perfect. Behaviours, proven routines and other rituals will not be changed without a fight.
  • a rigid philosophy that doesn’t allow or accept human imperfection in terms of physical, characteristic and other attributes. In the extreme, everything is black and white, right and wrong, like how a machine would see the world.
  • the action of striving the be the best at your focal subject, to reach perfection, never making a mistake getting there.
  • an all encompassing attitude that everything you attempt must be done perfectly otherwise it equals failure. Mistakes, slip-ups and inconsistencies in your delivery constitutes failure.
  • a highly invasive habit in which you are incredibly aware to every weakness, imperfection and failings you and other people have. Other people would observe you to be a critical person – whilst the perfectionist will often see themselves as a positive, glass half full person.

Reflections

When I read these descriptions of behaviours and traits, it’s staring at me point blank. How could I have slipped through the cracks? It’s not like seeing a fortune teller or reading the horoscope and hearing very generalistic descriptions which can apply to anyone.

The Definition of a Perfectionist

Nobody’s perfect…
— Unknown

***

Don’t bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself.
— William Faulkner, US novelist (1897 – 1962)

 

In job interviews (a long, long time ago!), when I was asked about my weaknesses, one of my standard answers was “I’m a bit of a perfectionist”, as I felt this was almost a good attribute of my personality. But is it really? I didn’t know it at that time yet, but labelling myself a perfectionist turned out to be truer than what I initially thought it meant.

I initially thought perfection was the ultimate state to strive for. Just like the idiom, “If a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing well.” And for me by doing well, meant really doing well. But I was very wrong as we’ll discover in this book.

Introduction to Overcoming Perfectionism

What’s stopping you?
What are you afraid of?
What is the source of all this pain?
–The Author

* * *

Emptiness the starting point. — In order to taste my cup of water you must first empty your cup. My friend, drop all your preconceived and fixed ideas and be neutral. Do you know why this cup is useful? Because it is empty.
— Bruce Lee (Striking Thoughts: Bruce Lee’s Wisdom for Daily Living)

***

gusilu-empty-cup

There are many routes to depression such as genetics, imbalance in brain chemistry, poor nutrition, drugs and stressful life events. This book deals with Perfectionism and how that psychological condition (can or would) lead to depression, general unhappiness in life and quite possibly suicide.

There are three main sections of this book:

  • In the Midst of it All (Aftermath)
    This section will detail ideas and observations around behaviours after I had fallen into depression.
  • The Fall (Downward Spiral)
    This section will delve into the scenarios that would lead someone to crash and fall into depression.
  • Climbing Back to Recovery (Reality)
    This section will discuss the long journey of recovery and give some suggested ways to help you deal with perfectionism.

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Overcoming Perfectionism: Prologue

Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster… for when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you.
— Friedrich Nietzsche, German Philosopher (1844 – 1900)

If you stare into the abyss long enough...

When I received the diagnosis from the test I was somewhat bemused and a little confused. I was found to have two characteristic traits on a scale determined by the psychological academic community; they were: “high perfection” and “high inner critical voice.” These findings came from left field: my therapist had previously referred me to a website run by an institute focused on mental illness connected to a reputable university. The website had a 2 hour quiz with a very intricate and had a specific set of questions asking about my thoughts around certain situations and attitudes towards certain circumstances. The findings were an eye opener and began a journey of self exploration and understanding.

* * *

Everyone lives their lives in their own bubble of reality. Everyone has their own perspectives and opinions, their own way of doing things, their own way of seeing the world, their own way of feeling pleasure and pain. In each bubble there are common ‘recipes’ for particular perspectives. For example, people who belong to the same religion would have a similar set of foundational beliefs as the common ‘recipe.’ Like any recipe, you can diverge and change it to your own taste and creativity, people’s perspectives will also diverge from the root beliefs.

The perfectionism bubble has many core characteristics, one of which is the eternal pursuit of perfection. There are positive and negative outcomes of cooking up the recipe for perfectionism: it drives strong ambition, the striving to reach goals but it can also lead to unrealistic goals being set, unhappiness, anxiety, depression and possibly even suicide.

In my bubble, I had truly thought that I was happy. I believed I was a happy, successful, efficient and productive person and I regarded the periodic depression as “normal” and systemic of my own doing and a consequence to my success. I had accepted it as a natural flow of life – when it really isn’t. Success and happiness isn’t balanced out with failure and disappointment – it isn’t yin and yang or good and evil. In the end I was so guilt ridden from my small successes I felt that I deserved the pain and suffering.

* * *

When family or friends who knew of my plight tried to console me, help me and advise me when I was in the darkest recesses of my mind. But they will never know the anguish and angst I’ve been through. If only they can walk in my shoes.

They try to empathise and make me feel better.

“I also feel sad at times.”

“You can’t always be happy.”

“Look at my life, I’ve been through a lot of (insert unhappy events here). You’ve achieved so much: (insert stuff I’ve achieved).”

“You have so many more opportunities. You are luckier than (insert story of a person or family living in a third world country).”

They will never truly understand.

* * *

What is the secret to freeing yourself from perfectionism? There are no real secrets; just a series of steps which I discovered really helped me out in my own journey. It is all about consistency in applying the solution, creating new habits. Easily said than done as for perfectionists, everything is working against them especially when they are in their neurotic and depressive stages. With high expectations to succeed in everything – even in trying to solve the problem of perfectionism: I too fallen in the trap of getting agitated and disappointed when seeing no progress.

I had an obsession for self-help books and I still do read the occasional book to expand my wisdom and perspective. If the book was about business, finance, happiness, efficiency, ambition or goal-setting I would have read it and even own a copy. Self-help books have a purpose to serve, it provides food for people who are curious, who want more in life and targeted at those who are seeking to plug a gap in their lives. A lot of self-help book wisdom is common sense but I’ve found that reading the books helps me understand and see concepts from a slightly different viewpoint.

This book is by definition a self-help book. I hope it does help you in finding happiness or in helping others find happiness in their own lives.

* * *

Watch your thoughts for they become words.
Watch your words for they become actions.
Watch your actions for they become habits.
Watch your habits for they become your character.
And watch your character for it becomes your destiny.
What we think, we become.
— Different versions attributed to many: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Lao Tzu, Frank Outlaw, Gautama Buddha, and the father of Margaret Thatcher.

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Perfectionism Book Preface

This is not a perfect book.

It’s written by a recovering perfectionist, but this book is not by all means perfect.

It’s not imperfect and it’s not perfect… It’s just good enough.

–The Author

clouds sun rays

I am a diagnosed perfectionist. That stereotypically places me in a cohort of people entirely focused at seeking to be the best at everything we do. As a consequence we are generally competitive and have really high standards for themselves and of others. All these are commonly seen by society as “positive traits” which creates an affirmative feedback loop for the individual, rewarding what is damaging in the long term.

Perfectionists are generally ambitious people, who are likely to be gifted in a certain area of their lives either through intellect, physicality or skill. They are generally focused on one field, subject or occupation but the goal of perfection frequently leaks to the other parts of their life.

These individuals chase perfection throughout their life and uphold it as their personal maxim – although most of them will not be aware of their actions. They won’t discover their actions, behaviour or even know why they make certain career and lifestyle decisions until they fall and witness unhappiness, stagnant or unhealthy relationships or depression.

This book is generally written for two groups of people: industry professionals and perfectionists. It is for those diagnosed (or even self-diagnosed) perfectionists who are seeking to improve their lifestyle and increase their happiness. The other group of people who would be interested in this book are the industry professionals like psychology clinicians and practitioners, researchers and students. They may find the book of interest in terms of reading about the real world practical application of advice given by a licensed clinical psychologist from the viewpoint of the patient.

The main underlying idea of this book is to release perfectionists from “thinking too much” – from thinking about the past, from thinking about the future and simply living in the present. It all sounds like a very simple concept to grasp but for perfectionists, many behaviours are embedded deeply within their behavioural construct that many of these damaging thoughts and actions simply come automatically.

When I read my own story back to myself, a small part of me found it to be a highly incredible yarn. How can all this be true? Don’t I have any common sense? Didn’t I have any friends or family that would point out my unscrupulous-seeming ways? On the surface it seems like a simple problem with a simple solution. However, when you’re trapped in a loop you simply are blind to the root problem

A perfectionist will simply act like how I have. A normal person wouldn’t. And other people may be facing other psychological disorders. But we aren’t here to talk about the other people. We’re here to talk about perfectionism.

We are surrounded by things that appear perfect. We are bombarded by images of perfection. But when you come to understand reality and what it truly means to be realistic, only then you can unravel the illusions and biases that comes with perfection.

I came across an interesting story about the SR-71 Blackbird – the long range reconnaissance US-based aircraft. The aircraft was a secret operation but the planes’ existence was known. On 22 December 1964 the aircraft flew its first official test flight with Lockheed Test Pilot Bob Gilliland at the controls. When Gilliland successfully flew that flight around the airbase for an hour at 1000 mph, the aircraft itself had 383 “open items” of which he was aware of at the time. Open items are unresolved engineering and technical issues.

A plane doesn’t need to be a perfect plane to be the best or even operational. Just like you don’t need to be perfect to be successful, loved, to be highly effective or to be happy.

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The Problem with Being a Perfectionist

alone-black-white

I am a diagnosed perfectionist. That stereotypically places me in a cohort of people entirely focused at seeking to be the best at everything we do. As a consequence we are generally competitive and have really high standards for themselves and of others. All these are commonly seen by society as “positive traits” which creates an affirmative feedback loop for the individual, rewarding what is damaging in the long term.

My psychologist referred me to a website run by an institute focused on mental illness connected to a reputable university. The website had a 2 hour quiz with a very intricate and had a specific set of questions asking about my thoughts around certain situations and attitudes towards certain circumstances. When I received the diagnosis from the test I was somewhat bemused. I was found to have two characteristic traits on a scale determined by the psychological academic community; they were: “high perfection” and “high inner critical voice.” The findings were an eye opener and began a journey of self exploration and understanding.

What is a Perfectionist?

To be perfect is to be flawless, to be without fault or defect and to have all the desired qualities that fill a certain set of criteria. Perfection is something that is the embodiment of perfect or someone (or something) that has the highest degree of excellence in a certain area. Perfectionism is an excessively heightened standard or an unachievable ideal existing in someone’s personal philosophy or behavioral attitude which demands perfection in themselves and in others. Anything less than perfect is written off and rejected. Perfectionism is also a strong driver of ambition, the desire to achieve and having high levels of conscientiousness.

Perfectionists chase perfection everywhere in their life — generally their perfectionistic tendencies are particularly focused at one specific area to detrimental effect of the other parts of their life. Since they seek perfection, the goals they set are always beyond their reach. They like to push the boundaries in terms of the things they want to achieve, engaging in an all-or-nothing mindset and their self-talk is generally pushing them to “deliver and produce results or else”.

Symptoms and Behaviors of Perfectionism

There is no one symptom that defines perfectionism. Like all ailments, it takes a group of behaviors to help define the underlying disorder. Perfectionists can live a productive life without being diagnosed.

Here are a few symptoms and behaviors of a perfectionist:

  • Anxiety
  • A lone ‘doer’ — Enjoys doing things or training on their own
  • A relentless pursuit of high standards
  • May exhibit bipolar tendencies (ups and downs) but is not truly bipolar
  • Depression
  • Self-critical and critical of others
  • Indecisiveness; prone to analysis paralysis
  • Workaholic
  • Procrastinates
  • Addict/Addictive personality
  • Compulsive behaviour/addict; alcoholism; sexual compulsions and dysfunctions; drug abuse
  • Pessimist (but pretends to be an optimist)
  • Never ending feeling of overwhelm (as a result of all the unattainable goals)

According to some researchers, perfectionism exists on a continuum from what could be seen as “normal perfectionism” to “neurotic perfectionism”. Different people would exhibit their own perfectionism to varying degrees.

Healthy Perfectionism

Perfectionism is a part of the positive characteristic that helps drive people in their pursuits and goals. It is the driver for their ambition, how they are able to strive for excellence and achieve what they set out to achieve.

In this way, healthy perfectionism is positively associated with socially admirable characteristics such as:

  • High self-esteem (which for perfectionists comes and goes)
  • Highly organised, strong organisational skills
  • Intelligent, clever of highly skilled in their area of focus
  • Conscientious, high attention to detail.

A normal or “adaptive perfectionist” would operate at peak capacity. Their organisational and logistical skills are finely optimised to deliver efficiency in their scheduling and managing their time. They have a high self-esteem and the confidence in their abilities which can motivate and fuel their ambition and energise people working with them.

Unhealthy Perfectionism

“Unhealthy perfectionism” could be seen as an oxymoronic statement as it is the destructive pursuit of unreachable goals. The search for perfection with each goal and activity creates and reinforces emotional and psychological turmoil for the perfectionist. While there are “benefits” to perfectionism, there are the negative consequences to it that we listed in the previous chapter. And because of the overwhelming list of the negative effects, it should be considered as a negative trait.

The other side of perfectionism leads the individual into opposition towards the positive traits:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Procrastination and avoidance
  • Self-defeatist
  • Lack of ambition; underachievement

A different phrase to describe unhealthy perfectionism is “neurotic perfectionism” or “dysfunctional perfectionism”. Neurotic perfectionists are usually very rigid, tense, confused, indecisive, anxious and emotionally drained. People in this state of neuroticism are overly concerned about mistakes, doubtful and have a warped perception that others have excessive expectations of their work.

They essentially set themselves up in a “no-win scenario” since their ambitions are unattainable. A perfectionist is like an accident waiting to happen. It is only a matter of time that their behavioural tendencies would lead them to neuroticism. Their self esteem is stapled to their achievements and to the end result thus need constant approval.

Neurotic perfectionists are also guilt-ridden. They don’t believe in their own skills and capabilities and often have the fear of being ridiculed as a fraud, or exposed as a trickster, imposter or a fake. They also become fixated with past mistakes.

From Perfection to Depression

Perfectionism and its hunger for achieving ambitions naturally drive an upward spiral of success. Set a goal, meet it, set a higher goal meet it, set an even higher goal and meet that too, until finally it all falls apart and you can’t maintain the pace. Success begets success and perfectionism tricks you by always wanting to raise the bar higher and higher through ever increasing optimism as each goal is achieved. Sometimes I felt that if I were to have plotted my emotional moods on a graph somewhat like a stock market chart. From feeling great where my stocks are soaring and priceless to feeling like crap and my stock value crashing to worthlessness. The only difference with my stock is that it can dip below negative.

The chart would be characterized by major peaks and troughs when seen from a distance. It isn’t a predictable pattern like the ocean waves and tides or a constant sine wave of ups and downs. Upon closer inspection of the chart you would see that each major peak and trough is also composed of more peaks and troughs. So when you look at the chart in the distance, it is like looking at the monthly time period, seeing how in some months the stock would be soaring and happy and in other months it would be close to worthless or even dipped below the zero and turned depressive. But within those months of happiness and sadness, there would be days of ups and downs — those are the minor peaks and troughs. When you’re in the months of happiness, you can still be faced with sadness and setbacks but it is easier to recover since you’re in an overall ‘happy’ mood.

Consequences of Perfectionism

Perfectionism is a double edged sword. It could be perceived as a wholly positive trait by the unaware. It is after all what we’re sold on everyday by the media, by our peers and family on “looking perfect” and being “successful”. Symptoms of perfectionism which I detailed previously can lead to consequences good and bad but are inevitably terrible outcomes for mental health in the long term.

Negative Coping Strategies

Being a perfectionist initiates a few different negative feedback loops, but I believe that at the core of these loops are negative coping strategies. While perfectionism drives you to be perfect, the engine (you) have to cope with these stresses surrounding achieving these goals in reality. Everyone needs to cope with stress in some way, there are positive as well as negative coping strategies.

In the negative feedback loop system, my own maladaptive coping style is generally avoidance and more specifically in the avoidance category, I employ procrastination strategy quite frequently.

We will look at coping strategies as well as procrastination with a little more depth in later chapters.

Missed Goals; Not Meeting Unrealistic Expectations

I once had many goals, many of them ambitious and I was deluded enough to think that I can accomplish them all and all of them completed to my exacting standards. The cycle usually begins with the bright idea, the spark that gets me excited about something where I then proceed to write down this goal and make it my obligation to complete to the best of my ability.

After the honeymoon stage and when things start to become a little more involved and I start to push the boundaries of my skills and hit some roadblocks in terms of other dependencies (e.g. real world limitations which my planning didn’t consider or purposely overlooked) then stress is introduced. And with stress you need to employ a coping strategy. After the coping strategy is applied the next phase is either success by finishing the goal or reaching a milestone closer to the goal. Or I miss the goal. Or just fail to meet my unrealistic expectation. (Or I completed the goal but it just wasn’t done to my high standard).

This was one of the areas which I found that I needed to work on was setting realistic goals and expectations which we will come back to in the recovery section of this book. It was an obvious and easy solution but in reality it was very difficult to let go and took many months — from 9 to 12 months to completely let go. I was attached to each one of them and I was hooked by some obsession, passion or connection to complete each one. It felt like a grieving process, putting each one to rest in the most respectful manner I could.

An important part of this process was recognising what was truly important to me and reprioritising my life. A famous author summed up what the primary human needs as “to live, to love, to learn and leave a legacy.” Using this as a foundational guide to help me weed out my goals I was able to prioritise my life accordingly.

Unfocused & Overwhelmed

Having too many goals, too many things in the pipeline brewed an overwhelmed feeling where there was a physically heavy burden on my shoulders. Sometimes this stress would psychosomatically implant itself into my shoulders and neck and I would feel the pain and stiffness in turning my head.

It all comes down to being realistic with setting goals and actions. At the beginning of each day when I plan out my activities (or at the beginning of the week or the month) I need to first prioritise what absolutely needs to be done and set a realistic timeline.

The most deceptive tasks were the ones I knew I can easily complete easily but the catch was that the task was immense in size. Theoretically I could complete the task on a shortened timeline but realistically I would get tired or bored so I should allow for that. The attitude to bring to the table in these circumstances is “business as usual.” With setbacks, the show must go on and you need to just accept things as they are and keep at it, don’t give up and keep chipping away at it.

Guilt

Another dread of mine is getting recognition. This could mean receiving awards or on the rare occasion getting a pat on the back or complimented on my looks — my internal critical inner voice would come whispering “I don’t deserve this.” “I don’t deserve to feel happy, I didn’t attain it and thus I don’t deserve to be happy.” I feel guilty when I think I didn’t deserve the award and I feel like a fraud.

The feeling of guilt is exacerbated when I receive an award where I didn’t put much effort or worked hard for it or if I received commendation on something I had worked on but didn’t believe I reached the standard I set or would have liked to reach.

Procrastinating Perfectionists

Perfectionists are the perennial procrastinator. I believe that the root behaviour of procrastination is driven by the superior expectations of self which leads to over commitment with promises being broken to self or others and finally surrender. Procrastination is part of the vicious cycle that perfectionists put themselves through:

  1. Set goal or high expectation
  2. Attempt at reaching the goal.
  3. Hit a road block. May attempt a few times but the same or a series of road blocks appears.
  4. Procrastinate.
  5. Keep promising to keep going later. And later…. And later.
  6. Shame at the failure to meet the goal or expectation whilst not admitting failure.
  7. Repeat.

Step 4 usually happens if I don’t want to do something, if the task doesn’t seem enjoyable, challenging or engaging or if I perceive a task to be impossible, insurmountable or impossible to achieve. However this cycle isn’t as definitive as you would think it is. If the road block is achievable and continue to overcome the series of obstacles, the perfectionist will easily meet their goal because they won’t even think about procrastinating; rather they will be obsessive and passionate about their particular focus.

Perfectionists Need to Set Realistic Expectations

A lot of perfectionism has to do with unrealistically high expectations of yourself and others. It can be regarded as the keystone of perfectionism and if you’ve reached this far into the book you’re making good progress. You may be wondering why tackling this integral part of perfectionism so late in the book. The reason is that to effectively get through it and treat it, you need to build a good foundation from which to confront perfectionism. To attack perfectionism directly and succeed is less effective than going through the journey and learning about yourself, seeking help, learning about creating small experiments and becoming self aware are integral parts of this program.

I recognized two fears which kept making an appearance in my reflections and which I believed held me back from progress:

  1. The fear of getting it all wrong.
  2. The fear of social ridicule over realised failure.

There were two different streams of thought for my fear of getting it all wrong: I remember thinking that “I won’t be able to fix” my problem perfectly. And because it couldn’t be fixed, my thinking became defeatist and my logic was flawed: “If I couldn’t do it right, it wasn’t worth doing.” The other angle I feared was that if I wasn’t to worry about details, start letting go, start delegating, and start accepting things less than perfect that I would make a mistake and it would all be wrong. I was worrying that I would start to miss important things which would make my work inferior and not the best that they could be. And because of it being inferior equated to my feelings and belief that I was a failure.

The paradox that perfectionists face with this particular fear is that in order to achieve anything they need to complete things perfectly, and to complete things perfectly, takes infinite time (which of course isn’t realistic and usually time considerations don’t really factor into a perfectionists thinking).

The other fear I had which was holding me back from progress relates to expectations and goals was “the fear of social ridicule over realised failure”. There are traders in the stock market who generate an income by buying and selling stocks. Generally if you buy a company’s stock at a low price and you sell it at a higher price you make a profit. The stock price is constantly fluctuating, moving up and down so when a trader has bought stocks, whilst in their trade they could either have a profit or loss on paper. This concept of a paper loss or a paper profit is the analogy from which this particular fear draws its parallels.

A perfectionist never fails. Or so they think. They will at all cost try to achieve what they set out to do and what they told others that they will do. If they fail, they shy away from the world as I have detailed earlier in this book. Just like a losing trade where the paper loss is never realised until you actually make the final trade to close off the transaction, the perfectionist will never fail because they never come to accept the failure and claim the failure as their own. They will be always in denial.

I was afraid of the social ridicule over accepting failure. Because once I accept failure, I would have to claim responsibility and make my failure public knowledge. I would be that case study people would refer to or that cautionary tale that parents tell their kids. Claiming responsibility meant shame and embarrassment to my family and to my personal brand.

Self-Talk or the Critical Inner Voice and Perfectionism

It was quite difficult to listen to my self-talk to discern what was the Critical Inner Voice (CIV) and what was my actual thought. The following statements could be considered to be the CIV, but if I was consciously thinking about it when the thought was formed then the statement would be classified as a negative thought/self-talk or a negative belief rather than being the CIV.

  • I’m a failure.
  • It’s all my fault.
  • Nothing good ever happens to me.
  • I’m worthless.
  • Life’s not worth living.
  • People will be better off without me.

The CIV I found is that enigmatic character which lurks in the shadows that is ready to pounce given the opportunity. It is basically a version of you, a critical, unsympathetic, judgmental nit-picker who throws in a fault-finding unsympathetic statement every time there is a particular moment. That particular moment is an opportune moment when you are either planning something or making a decision or when you are ruminating about something. In my experience, I didn’t have the voice popping out of moments when I was busy doing something; either working, watching TV or meditating. However it would manifest in moments when I need to make a decision or when something I was experiencing cued it to appear.

Recovery from Perfectionism

My search for perfection was personally damaging. It can’t be attained. The search for the perfect shape, the perfect body, the perfect career, the perfect partner, the perfect ambition, the perfect… everything.

My addictive behaviours have bastardised how I think and perceive the world in such a damaging fashion that at times during my recovery period I feel like I was climbing a mountain that could never be climbed. Or it was like trying to fix an old car with a multitude of problems.

If you spoke to me a year or two ago I would have thought that I needed to eradicate what was wrong with me. We need to get a scalpel to my brain and extract out the bad. Just to get rid of my perfectionism 100%.

But as I went through this journey and rediscovering who I truly am, I’m began to discover that while I didn’t believe it knowingly — subconsciously I saw everything in their black and white absolutes.

Will I be totally and absolutely cleared of my perfectionism? Probably not. As a perfectionist I find that challenging to accept that while I’m perfectly aware of my behaviours from time to time — that I will perhaps never be an UN-perfectionist. I can strive to be an optimalist and also to be more accepting of my own circumstances but I will never be perfectly unperfect.

And having gone through this journey of recovery — I’m okay with an imperfect resolution.

Finally, a few last thoughts on how to climb out of perfectionism:

  • Realise that while the path might not be straight and perfect, it’s more important to be headed in a positive and well-intentioned direction.
  • Understand that you don’t need to do everything immediately or right now. Patience, consistency and persistence are more important than all or nothing immediate actions.
  • Be fair to yourself: stop setting yourself for failure and start setting realistic and reasonable goals. Allow yourself to be flexible when required.
  • Become aware that you are a human being complete with imperfections, fallibility and failings.
  • Appreciate that failure is okay. Cultivate a culture of recovery to build up resilience and learn to pick yourself up.
  • Have an attitude of gratitude.
  • Celebrate achievement and success instead of just moving on to the next goal or action. Reward your efforts of hitting milestones and goals.
  • Learn to let go of idealistic, perfectionistic and high standards.
  • Appreciate that success does not equate to perfect. You don’t need to be the best, be the first or the favourite.
  • Take time out to journal about your thoughts and invest time to meditate and be mindful.

Overcoming PerfectionismExcerpt from Overcoming Perfectionism: Defeat Depression & Embrace Mindfulness by Gerald Pappas. Copyright Gerald Pappas © 2015. All rights reserved. You may reproduce or reprint this excerpt without permission, but it would be nice for you to drop me a line!

Available for purchase at Amazon on Kindle or paperback.

Originally posted on Medium.com

Photo credit: Michael Parker, via Creative Commons

Overcoming Perfectionism: Defeat Depression & Embrace Mindfulness

Overcoming PerfectionismTo be perfect, to be flawless and not make mistakes is the greatest and highest achievement in life.

I got it so wrong.

Years of schooling, familial and social conditioning and expectations inadvertently taught me that high achievement led to ‘success’ and anything else other than the perfect result equated to ‘failure’. Perfectionism is deceptively a self defeating and limiting mindset. This book is a culmination of four years of personal reflection and research that documents my observations as well as techniques that I tried and tested to climb out of my dark places.

I’m thankful for meeting a clinical psychologist who diagnosed me as a perfectionist. I had been lost for a few decades. I was the individual that fell through the cracks; misdiagnosed as bipolar I was never warned or told by anyone that my behaviour was a candidate for the perfectionism label.

Being a perfectionist and having been that label helped me work at becoming a functional member of society once again. The irony for perfectionists is when they realise that the ‘perfect’ lives of people who aren’t perfect are in fact the reason for their happy, healthy and productive lives.

Phases of Perfectionism

The book has four main sections:

  • ‘The Definition of a Perfectionist’ which talks about the clinical definitions, healthy and unhealthy perfectionism, symptoms, causes and consequences.
  • In the Midst of it All (The Aftermath)’ discusses depression, the critical inner voice, addiction and thoughts of escapism such as suicide.
  • The Fall (Downward Spiral)’ describes the journey from perfectionism to depression, explores the symptoms in depth and procrastination.
  • Climbing Back to Recovery (Reality)’ explains the various strategies I tried and tested to help me recover from depression and extreme perfectionism.

Perfectionism Concepts

Here is a preview of some concepts discussed in the book:

  • What is the Hedonic Treadmill and how does it relate to perfectionism?
  • How your procrastination could be a sign of perfectionism.
  • An exploration of coping strategies from problem focused and emotional focused coping.
  • How to use mindfulness and meditation to manage your perfectionism.
  • How to deal with yourself talk or your critical inner voice.
  • How to set realistic expectations and goals.
  • How daily routines and daily rituals can help you.
  • What is the real meaning of being a perfectionist?
  • Examples of perfectionism in day to day life
  • Perfectionist traits and symptoms
  • How to overcome perfectionism, perfectionism treatment
  • Is there are perfectionism cure?
  • And more!

Overcoming Perfectionism” is available for purchase on Amazon Kindle or as a Paperback.