It was my daughter’s birthday on the weekend. She told me (to my absolute delight) that she wanted a Woolies’ (supermarket) chocolate mud cake. Some parents would rail against this. They go for the big, impressive immaculate cake that they either have enough skill to make themselves or have ordered in advance from a fabulous cake maker.
When my kids were little, I would experience the struggle: I knew on the one hand that it didn’t matter; that whichever child whose birthday it was couldn’t care less how perfect the cake was, but more a) did it taste nice, and b) was ‘on theme’.
But from my perspective, what would my friends think?
Now the kids are pretty clear that they’re not fans of royal icing and professional cakes. They love my homemade cakes, like the ice cream cakes my son requests year after year, or a homemade or supermarket cake.
The result really isn’t the point. It’s the ‘striving’ that goes into the process. Are you making the cake (or buying it) for your child? Or for some other measure. Recently I was listening to a great podcast on The Imperfects on this topic with Dr Emily.
Perfectionist tendencies – I’m guessing if you’re reading this, you at least have an inkling of what I mean:
– trying to create the perfect blog post
– working away at the ultimate book
– hosting the perfect menu for a dinner party
– getting the house looking immaculate before friends come round
– putting out the perfect offer or launch
– facilitating the perfect workshop
There was even the example on the podcast of trying to be the perfect massage client – either by striving to relax fully or striving to be seen as worthy of needing the massage.
Perfectionist tendencies and constant striving come at a high cost. They can be linked with anxiety and in fact, there was a reference to Lynne Lyons (a psychotherapist who specialises in anxiety) and the concept of being told to ‘just do your best’. While healthy for some, that can be impossible for others – what is my best?
I see this in clients all the time. It so often originally stems from trying to be the ‘perfect’ child – not making a mistake or getting things wrong due to the fear of consequences. Taking on a role within the family unit to reduce conflict, pressure, stress (eg in the case of illness of a family member) and more.
While this made sense back then because we are always doing whatever it takes to feel like we’re loved and we belong, does it still serve a purpose by the time you’re in your 30s, 40s or 50s? Most likely not.
This is when the cost comes in. What is it costing you to constantly be striving, trying to attain the perfect outcome?
For me, I notice this pop up at various times:
When the anxiety of hosting friends at our place leads me into a frenzy of trying to get the house ‘perfect’. My son especially starts saying – why are you cleaning so much? Why does it matter? His house becomes a display home and he’s not allowed to touch anything and I become strained and on edge.
It’s striving for an outcome that is pretty irrelevant. My friends are there to see us, not the house. We have a cleaner come in fortnightly so it’s never ‘dirty’ and I certainly don’t go into my friends’ houses hoping they look perfect. I far prefer a relaxed home where the focus is on the company, not on not messing anything up. Logically, I know all of this. And sometimes there is still this striving.
The same goes for the food – it can become bigger than Ben Hur. People come to connect and catch up. You don’t want the host to be spending hours in the kitchen for some perfect meal to come out but feel like you never even got to see them. Or you felt guilty for sitting back and relaxing because they were constantly on the go.
Is the cost of both of these worth it? Not really. Losing a whole Saturday to prepare for having friends around Saturday night who couldn’t care less what the state of the house is; where you find your home suddenly strewn with various bags and items that they’ve brought with them, and the inevitability of kids grabbing handfuls of chips and dropping some along the way. In other words, you can ask yourself: is the cost worth the benefit? If it’s not, maybe adjust your expectations.
The same goes for work activities.
You could spend a couple of hours or a week preparing an email campaign, a podcast or the perfect chapter for your book. I could spend a ridiculous amount of time writing this article, with it not ending up any better.
Human Design can shed some light on this topic also. Here are some examples:
- An undefined Ego centre can result in feeling a need to prove yourself.
- The channel of competitiveness may lead to being overly competitive in many areas, rather than channelling this into healthy competition.
- the undefined Root centre can lead to a sense of urgency, pressure and stress for tasks or activities that don’t require this urgency
- The channel of Perfecting can lead to finding fault in oneself, rather than where you might be able to see areas for improvement in the world, your community, your work and more.
Tips to manage perfectionistic tendencies:
1. Work out the cost and if it’s worth it (see above)
2. Set a time limit – for me, my email campaigns go out on Thursdays every week (except for an occasional week off over Christmas or school holidays). I have to hit send by Thursday. So it needs to be good enough. Is it perfect? Never. Every second week I aim to post an article. This needs to be published before my email campaign sending, so I can share it there. Again, it’s a time constraint. It takes away any temptation to attempt to make it ‘perfect’. If I didn’t have that, maybe I’d tweak and tweak over a few weeks. Which would most likely lead to me not even publishing anything. Same with the newsletter. When I spend too long on something, I usually write far too much. Longer isn’t usually better.
3. Have compassion for yourself – it’s not your fault that you took on these tendencies. It’s not anybody else’s fault either. It’s just what developed as a subconscious need to feel ok. Understanding why you took this on can be helpful.
I’ve had clients realise that there was a particular incident that led to them getting into trouble and being punished for an accident. They then went on to develop perfectionist tendencies:
- Checking their work over and over again, even though it was already correct, which was leading to the loss of so much time.
- I’ve had clients who are terrified to start something new like a Facebook group in case it doesn’t work or they make a mistake
- Or the client who had learnt to adopt perfectionism as a way of coping with trauma. The hope is that if they just got everything perfect, nothing bad would happen again. The pressure!
If we judge and berate ourselves for these things, it does nothing to help minimise this. If we have compassion and understand that it makes so much sense, it helps a lot.
4. Does the behaviour align with your values? If you value connection and family time, but the striving leads you to lose hours working, or you know that you’re physically present with your family but up in your head worrying about whether the work was good enough. This lessens the connection, rather than increasing it. If you value freedom or fun but you set a particular revenue goal which means you are constantly working, heading for burnout, and never have quality time with your family or time to see your friends, it’s possible that it’s in opposition to your values.
5. Find activities that spark joy, fun and/or ‘nourishment’. One of Dr Emily’s suggestions was to find things that have no metrics so you can’t inadvertently become competitive with yourself. Eg with exercise, you might always be striving to improve, do a faster time, and get more steps, laps or energy used which is still tapping into those tendencies. Instead, find something you do just for fun, joy and/or ‘nourishment’. For me, that’s walking the dog on the beach. I don’t try to hit a certain pace or other workout metrics. I just walk and stop to take photos or have a chat. I do it for the joy and the ‘nourishment’ it gives me. What do you do that you can’t strive in? Or what would you like to do, if you don’t currently have something?
5. Finally, what are you modelling to others? If you have children, you’re showing them that this is the standard you’re setting. If you have a team, you’re potentially setting unrealistic expectations and a lot of pressure on them.
Identifying as a perfectionist isn’t a bad thing. It’s like I say about any behaviour or thought process – is it working for you? If you’re a neurosurgeon, chances are having perfectionist tendencies is really beneficial for your patients! Same as if you’re a researcher. But if you’re a coach, a consultant, a creative, a leader etc, there’s a high chance that your perfectionism could be not only getting in your way but in the way of being the best for others that you could be.
Kylie xTags: Inner child perfectionism perfectionist