perfection is the enemy of perfectly adequate
I have always been a perfectionist. I hate making mistakes. Simply the thought of others seeing my mistakes makes my face burn. It is impossible to enjoy activities that I’m not naturally very good at, and there are plenty of those (mainly sport related). I once ended up in tears on holiday over whether or not I should enter the mixed doubles tennis tournament with my husband, torn between knowing it should be a bit of fun and we would never see these people again and facing the humiliation of being utterly rubbish at tennis.
I’ve been hearing a lot lately about ‘Imposter Syndrome’, the experience of feeling like you don’t deserve the success you’ve had in life, or the fear of being ‘found out’. Perfectionism is a type of imposter syndrome, as perfectionists are never satisfied and tend to fixate on flaws and mistakes and not the positive side of their achievements. The negative impact of this can be a huge amount of self-pressure which can develop into stress and anxiety.
It has taken me many years and a very long journey to even acknowledge that this could be an issue. Perfectionism comes with its rewards, often in the form of academic and professional achievement. In many professions, and particularly in the early career years, we reward the detail oriented, diligent people who can be relied on to never make a mistake. But underneath a fear starts to develop. What if I make a mistake? What will everyone think? We engage in activities that reduce the likelihood that this will happen – over-planning, over-preparing, list making, constant scheduling. These are all types of exerting control over our environment. Unfortunately, more often than not, something happens that is outside of our control. It might be an unexpected deadline, an organisational change, something in our personal life which throws that schedule off and takes away the comfort and security of the routine we’ve created as an ecosystem to ensure our success. For perfectionists, this can cause panic, distress and over time be extremely damaging to self esteem and emotional wellbeing. These instances are seen as failures that you should have been able to prevent.
If you look for perfection, you’ll never be content.”Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
A couple of books I read last year really started to help me think about framing some of these thoughts in a different way. Derren Brown’s “Happy” and Catherine Grey’s “The Unexpected Joy of the Ordinary” both explore the idea that a real and sustainable source of happiness is being content with who you are and where you are in life. This is easier said than done and requires letting go of an awful lot of underlying beliefs which have been reinforced over our lifetimes. The idea that we could let go of the constant need to push for the next thing, and get off what is known as the ‘hedonic treadmill’, is quite uncomfortable.
At the end of the day, the truth is that no one else really cares about our status and achievements or lack of them anywhere near as much as we might imagine. What really matters is our own view of ourselves and how the life we live aligns with what’s really important to us. That doesn’t have to mean giving up and not bothering, but it does mean thinking hard about what really motivates us. Titles and money can be extremely rewarding in the short term but the novelty does tend to wear off after a while and the next carrot is quickly dangled in front of us. It may be that what really drives you is learning, or helping others, being creative or solving complex problems. Getting back to identifying what those things are and finding ways to weave them into the every day can be fulfilling in an authentic and compassionate way. Believing that it is possible to be happy and content without all the external validation that goes with being perfect is an alarming but reassuring thought.