Perfectly Imperfect

Having high standards can be a good thing. But sometimes the scales could tip too far and that high-achieving mindset awakens a harsh inner critic.

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Know when and where to draw the line to regain control

Do you really need to be THAT perfect?

Having high standards can be a good thing. But sometimes the scales could tip too far and that high-achieving mindset awakens a harsh inner critic. Is that perfectionist streak in you sabotaging your chances of success by making you feel inadequate and not up to the job? It’s time to let go…

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It may be that you’re a perfectionist. And while it sounds positive on the surface, this modern-day affliction can do more harm than good. Whether it’s agonising for a week over a simple task at work, or not being able to rest before you’ve cleaned the house from top to bottom, perfectionism can hold us back, make us sick, and ironically, it may make us fail.

Sydney based researcher, Eloise King, a former perfectionist, says it’s a mindset that can turn you into your worst enemy. “You’re awash with stress all the time as you’re either beating yourself up for something you haven’t done perfectly, or you’re wishing for something in the future that’s more perfect,” she explains.

When Perfect Becomes Tiring

“Everything has a bright and dark side,” says psychologist Anoushka Beh. “Being driven towards perfectionism can sometimes motivate us to go beyond our comfort zones and attain more success. But, when too dominant, it can become obsessive, restrictive and cause us to place too much pressure on ourselves.”

It can reach a point when the obsession towards a certain goal can come to have a direct association with one’s own sense of self-worth and value. Feelings of unworthiness, depression, debilitating anger or frustration set in.

It can reach a point when it becomes detrimental to the person’s well-being. “You start to push yourself so far that your body begins to suffer; you are tired all the time and get sick more often, as a result,” says Anoushka.

For Eloise, it was suffering such a burnout that made her realise things needed to change. She’d reached a point where everything in her life seemed to be programmed from a place of stress and fear. A harsh inner critic was taking over.

Today, she operates the Self-Love Project, an online programme she developed to help perfectionists quash negative thinking.

It’s Cultural

“One of the reasons it’s quite hard to deal with is that culturally it’s seen as a positive trait,” says Eloise. “This is seen in the education system, and an intense focus on academic excellence can be one of the precursors to perfectionism.”

Looking at the bigger picture, academics say perfectionist traits tie in with our modern capitalist culture, the demise of community living, and the widespread move towards a more individualist outlook on life, where people are more pitted against each other rather than working for the common good.

While it’s thought to be more prevalent in the developed world, there are no official stats on how many people identify with a perfectionist mindset. And despite what popular culture may lead you to believe, experts say it affects men and women in similar numbers.

“Actually, the inner critics between men and women can be remarkably similar,” says Anoushka. “What can be different is that women often find support and release from their inner critic from friends or family whereas men may feel less inclined to share their critical inner dialogue.” That said, “perfectionist” women could have it tougher because they wear a few hats.

And not only is this modern malaise affecting our well-being, it’s a mindset we’re passing on to the next generation. “Experts are now saying two in five children are showing perfectionist tendencies,” says Eloise. In Singaporean and Asian subcultures, for instance, there’s a lot of emphasis on external achievements – to excel both academically and professionally in life, which can wrongly get associated with self worth, and there’s the risk of this drive towards perfection getting steered by a fear of rejection in case of failure.

"The first step to fighting perfectionism is to learn to control the self-criticism"

Gaining Control Over Yourself

Although cultural norms and modern day life might be working against us, it’s not all doom and gloom. With the right tricks, perfectionist tendencies can be overcome, says Anoushka, and having an honest look at how it fits into your life is a good place to start.

“Check in with yourself when you find yourself striving so hard for an external goal that it’s getting you down, and reassess your short and long term priorities before continuing on,” she explains.

Experts say it’s also important to remember behavioural patterns are part of a continuum, so under the same banner of perfectionism, the extreme end could look very different from a milder case.

For Eloise who battled through an eating disorder and anxiety issues before realising her perfectionism, at the heart of the solution was learning to control the self-criticism.

“I think a big part of it is noticing and meeting your inner voice,” she says. “It’s amazing how harsh and how strong that inner critic can be. It’s about becoming increasingly aware of the quality of the conversation going on within you.” It takes some training and reflection to move from a state of self-loathing to self-loving. But Eloise says that it gets easier and easier over time, and then, “automatically, instead of that inner critic jumping out, it’s the cheerleader that is there instead”.