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perfectly (im)perfect: How to deal with perfectionism

Am I a perfectionist?

  • Do you have an eye for detail?

  • Do you set extremely high standards for yourself (and others)? Are you not satisfied with the middle ground?

  • Are you afraid to fail?

  • Do you have difficulty making decisions?

Sounds familiar? Then you're probably a perfectionist. Would you like to know for sure if you're a perfectionist? Then this test will help you on your way. There is nothing wrong with a healthy dose of perfectionism, setting the bar high, striving for a better life, a better job and so on. Yet that "healthy" perfectionism can quickly turn into a pursuit of an unattainable ideal. It is a pitfall, the ideal body, the ideal job or the ideal relationship simply does not exist. From an early age we 'must' perform at school and in our hobbies. Social media are full of the 'perfect' selfies, city trips and family outings. The result? We fall more quickly into depression, anxiety, burn-outs and eating disorders.

What is perfectionism?

A perfectionist is someone with an eye for detail. You like to work thoroughly and dot every 'i'. Your own standard is often so high that it can never be achieved. You make extremely high demands on yourself (and others): everything must be done perfectly. You're afraid to fail; your self-esteem is linked to your skills and achievements. Perfectionists often have difficulty making decisions, experience gnawing anxiety and discomfort, and always keep going even when your body says no. You tend to care for everyone in order to feel loved or appreciated, usually out of a self-perceived lack of care and attention. You seek a strong need for approval, love and attention, which you never knew or knew inadequately in your childhood. Yet perfectionism is often considered a personality trait related to achievement and autonomy, rather than relationships.

The power of perfectionists

  • You always take a thorough approach and have an eye for detail. This allows you to tackle study material that has to be gone through step by step in order to be mastered.

  • You are generally good at planning: you can carefully draw up a good activity plan, create a clear schedule, and you often manage to 'make hours'.

The pitfalls of perfectionists

  • You are idealistic and derive performance standards based on a fantastical view of what constitutes perfection. As a result, you are poor at estimating time and energy to be spent. When planning, this is reflected in the setting of realistic goals; you often find this difficult; in particular, matching one's own capabilities and avoiding setting the bar too high are stumbling blocks. Estimating the time needed is also difficult, especially not wanting to schedule too much time for a task.

  • Your self-esteem depends so much on your performance that failure brings a sense of shame, worthlessness, or guilt. Therefore, out of fear of failure, you put off starting or completing a task. While studying, determining the moment of 'now I stop' is often difficult, even if it's written down in black and white in a schedule on paper.

  • Postponing starting a task gives the excuse mentioned earlier (self-handicapping).

  • You see almost everything in life as a burden, making it much harder to perform individual tasks in a manageable way. As a result, you enjoy doing daily things much less than others.

Where does perfectionism come from?

Perfectionism has its roots in (early) childhood and arises in families where excelling was the most effective way to get love from parents or caregivers. For example, if you grew up in a family where there was a strong emphasis on you being able to do anything you wanted, this can put a tremendous amount of pressure on your shoulders; what if you can't live up to this? The fear of not being able to meet these expectations has a paralyzing effect and manifests itself in perfectionism.

Even if you grew up in a family where the message was 'It's never good enough' you can become a perfectionist. Children who, even if they regularly do excellent work at school, are told when they get a grade below ten that they could have done better, don't get a good picture of what you can realistically expect from someone. You don't get a good example about standards and goal setting.

Strangely enough, the message "Don't bother, you're just mediocre, but we love you anyway" can also lead to you always trying to convince your parents of the opposite. The aim then remains to show that you can do it, and do it perfectly.

You often fought your whole life for appreciation and attention that you never got. Because of this you developed a coping strategy to get and secure the love and attention you so longed for but didn't receive, or which only came sparingly.

Perfectionism and procrastination

We have written before about procrastination, even perfectionists sometimes suffer from this. For example, by starting to prepare for an exam too late you can no longer be judged on your performance, since you ran out of time. So you actually disconnect your self-worth from your performance. This process is called 'self-handicapping': by waiting until you really don't have any time left to complete something properly, you protect yourself against potential failure. If it doesn't go well enough you can always say 'Yes but then I had so little time left that I couldn't possibly do it well. So it's not me, it's the circumstances (=time)'. Also the completion of a task is sometimes postponed, you keep studying the same chapter over and over again, even though yesterday you spent more time on it than you actually had. After all, perfection is unattainable, so it's never good enough.

How can you deal with perfectionism?

First of all, it's important to gain insight into your own problems. In what aspects of your life does your perfectionism hinder you? Then there are three starting points: change how you think, talk and behave.

1. Understanding your own problems

  • Try to think of at least two different situations in which you spent an unnecessary amount of time and energy trying to do a task perfectly. For each situation, ask yourself: why did I want to do it perfectly? Other than your own need to do it right, was it really worth putting so much time and energy into it? If so, why? If not, why not? In the time you spent on your task, did you enjoy what you were doing? If so, of what? If not, how did it make you feel?

  • Try to picture at least two different situations in which you avoided doing something (possibly until the last minute) because you were afraid you wouldn't be able to do it perfectly. For each situation, ask yourself the following questions: Why was I so afraid that it wouldn't be good enough? What exactly did I do to avoid the task? What did I feel when I avoided the task? What happened as a result of avoiding the task?

2.Change how you think

  • Your perception becomes reality. Change what you think about yourself. You are good enough, you don't need to work harder to get approval. Use that energy to just be enough for yourself.

  • Admit that perfectionism is your problem.

  • You can't change the world around you: if you want to address your procrastination behavior, you will have to change something yourself.

  • Perfect is not definable and therefore unachievable. Aim for excellent rather than perfect work in your goals.

  • Focus on what's realistic rather than what is ideal

  • Before you start a task, think about a number of ways you can accomplish it. Don't strive to find the best way right away, but look for the most appropriate way, within, for example, the time you have for it. Realize that you don't have to do every task equally well. Decide for yourself if you want to perform a task moderately, well or very well, considering the consequences.

  • Replace self-judgment with self-acceptance.

  • Try to say positive things to yourself when you do something well, and resist negative thoughts about yourself when you have performed something below your standards.

  • Avoid "all-or-nothing" thinking and try not to think in extremes, both when it comes to yourself and others. Replace judgments with descriptions (for example, say "I didn't feel comfortable with him because .....," rather than "He's a terrible person").

  • Learn to let go and accept that this is an ongoing process. You are not your pain, your past or your emotions. Self-criticism keeps us from making mistakes (and learning). Accept yourself as you are and you will realize you are not what other people say of you.

  • Put yourself in the other person's shoes. As you learn how other people think about certain situations, you can also change your own thoughts about them.

  • Accept it now. There's always something that could be better, but the more often you practice being content with the now, the more content you will be with where you are going. Ichigo Ichie, a Japanese philosophy of life, teaches us that every encounter and everything we experience is a unique treasure that will never be repeated in the same way. So if we let it pass without enjoying it, the moment will be lost forever.

3. Change how you talk

  • Use the term "want" instead of "have to. 'Having to' suggests that an external force decides what you do, whereas you usually put pressure on yourself to do something. 'Wanting' reminds you that you are the one who decides what happens in your life.

  • Use the term 'could' instead of 'should'. 'Should' suggests that you think you should do it, or that you think others think you should do it, but that you don't actually want to do it. By speaking of "could," you indicate that you are in control: you can choose. In this way, you close the gap between your real self-image and the image you think you should conform to.

  • Finally, avoid using extremes in your language.

4. Change how you behave

  • Set time limits for yourself within which you will complete a task. Is this not possible? Ask others (temporarily) to help you with this.

  • Make a list of practical, doable things you need to do every day. Divide according to priority: the most important comes first.

  • Learn to cooperate and delegate; let others do tasks their way. Do you want to learn to delegate successfully? Then be sure to read this blog!

  • Practice imperfection: make a conscious, intentional mistake every day. You learn the most from your mistakes.

  • Reward yourself for your achievements.

  • Learn to value 'being' rather than 'doing'.

  • Expose yourself. Let go of the shield and allow yourself to be vulnerable, without shame or guilt. This is the only way to truly be seen and receive the love you so desire.

  • Compromise with yourself, life is not black or white. If you make a mistake, you are not stupid. Ask yourself: what level of imperfection am I willing to tolerate? Then you can create more reasonable expectations for yourself.

  • Look at the bigger picture and worry less about the details. Ask yourself the questions: does this really matter? What is the worst that could happen? If it ever happens, can I survive it? Does this still matter tomorrow, next week or next year?

  • Make your own decisions. You know as much as anyone. In fact, you know best what is right for you. You can ask for advice, but it's not necessary to discuss every problem with others. Make your own decisions and discover that your life is going to suit you much better.

Looking for a sparring partner to deep dive further on this? Then be sure to contact us!



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