Let’s Talk About… Perfectionism

By Jeremy Godwin

Welcome to Let’s Talk About Mental Health; I’m Jeremy Godwin and every week I look at one aspect of better mental health and I share practical and straightforward advice that you can apply immediately to improve your wellbeing. 

Today I’m talking about how to manage perfectionist tendencies for better mental health — so get comfortable, and Let’s Talk About Mental Health…

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Listen to the podcast episode now in the Spotify player below (or using your preferred podcast service; see below for links) or continue reading for the full transcript.

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Watch Episode 36 of Better Mental Health on YouTube — in this latest episode I’m sharing 15 ways to deal with pandemic fatigue.

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This podcast episode was originally released on 26 September, 2021.

Hello and welcome to Episode 98, and thanks so much for joining me!

This week I’m talking about perfectionism and I’ll be discussing what perfectionism is, why understanding it is important, and how to manage perfectionism in a healthy way.

Before I start, two quick updates. First, watch my latest Better Mental Health video on YouTube where I’m sharing fifteen ways to deal with pandemic fatigue — yep, 15! Actually it’s 17 if you include my bonus tips… plus, for eagle-eyed viewers, I’ve included a couple of Easter eggs throughout; because it might be a tough subject, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have at least one or two laughs while talking about it to lighten the mood a bit! Let me just say here that I know there are many people who are sick of the ‘p’ word however that doesn’t change the fact that we’re going to be living with it for quite a while, so rather than trying to ignore it and still feeling mentally drained I’m choosing to focus on how to tackle those feelings in a healthy way so that you can look after your wellbeing. Watch the video now on YouTube; the link is in the description for this episode or just head over to letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au where you’ll find the latest video on the front page (as well as all past videos under the ‘YouTube’ link in the menu)… and take a moment to subscribe to my YouTube channel while you’re at it, so you never miss an episode!

My second update is that transcripts are now also available in Spanish from Episode 97 onwards. I’ve been very honoured to see that my audience from Spanish-speaking backgrounds and countries has increased quite significantly in recent months and so I’ve partnered with a native Spanish speaker to check over the translations for my transcripts each week; if you’d like to see the Spanish version for this episode, simply select the transcript at letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au/episodes and then click on the Spanish Version option at the start of the transcript.

So, with that covered, on with this week’s episode about perfectionism… 

Introduction

I have a problem with perfectionism, in both senses of the word ‘problem’: I have a problem with the fact that trying to be perfect is even a thing, because it’s pretty unfair when you think about it, and at the same time I struggle with perfectionist tendencies and it has taken a lot of work to get to a place where I can be OK with dropping the ball sometimes and not feeling like it’s a sign of weakness or failure (and I’ll talk about how I managed to do that in a little bit).

First let’s talk about the elephant in the room: the pressure to be perfect that we put on ourselves and, at the same time, that society puts on us. In a world where we can photoshop out our flaws at the press of a button and where every single thing we do is scrutinised publicly by other people, the constant feeling that we need to present a perfect and sanitised version of ourselves to the world (for fear of being judged or shunned by others) is, quite frankly, exhausting. 

So why do we do it to ourselves? Why do we heap all of this pressure on ourselves to be perfect when, in fact, we have to know deep-down in our souls that ‘perfect’ just does not exist. How could it when there are nearly eight billion of us on this little ball of rock hurtling through space, and since we’re all unique individuals the very idea that there is some so-called ‘perfect’ way of being a human being is, at best, laughable and, at worst, complete and utter bullshit.

So why don’t we begin with some definitions, and let’s talk about…

What is perfectionism?

And the Oxford Dictionary defines it as the “refusal to accept any standard short of perfection” (which uses part of the word to define the word, and that drives me nuts — but hey, even the Oxford Dictionary isn’t perfect!). So what exactly is this idea of ‘perfect’? It’s about being free from any flaw or defect in condition or quality, being faultless, or being exactly right.

Think about that word ‘exact’ for a minute, because it’s a pretty big word to use. That’s about being accurate or correct in all details, and this notion of perfect being precise and exact effectively means we’re setting ourselves up for failure before we even get started. Think about the way we often describe romantic partners as being “perfect for each other” and it’s no wonder that so many people find their relationships going south like a duck in winter once they realise that their partner is not, in fact, even remotely perfect because they are, like all of us, a human being with flaws and development opportunities (and by the way, you’re not so perfect yourself either — but I’ll wait another few minutes before I gently beat you over the head with that fact!). 

At its more extreme, perfectionism can be associated with obsessive-compulsive disorder (or OCD) and it can sometimes be an attempt to control the world around us or the world within us — or both — when we feel out of control in our lives. For example, when I first had my breakdown in 2011 I found myself suddenly having quite obsessive behaviours, like needing to run the shower squeegee thing over the glass a set number of times, and in 2016 to 2017 I developed similar behaviour (at a time my life felt like it was out of control); that time I became fixated on clothes pegs. I suppose I had better explain that quickly: I take care of the washing at home and we had a set of pegs in four colours (red, yellow, blue and green) and I found myself feeling that I had to use just all of the red ones first, then all the yellow, then the blue and finally the green, and I couldn’t deviate from that pattern without becoming frustrated and overwhelmed (and it took ages for me to wean myself off that habit — now, coincidently, I just have wooden pegs so there’s no colour choice!). So that’s a very specific example of how perfectionism can be taken too far, and I’m certainly not suggesting that type of issue will apply to everyone, but it’s something to be aware of because, for some of us, perfectionism can be an indicator that we are struggling with a lack of control (and I talked about control back in Episode 48 if you’d like to explore more on that topic).  

Back to the conversation about perfectionism… my general rule for life is that most words ending in ‘ism’ are to be either avoided or approached very cautiously; there are some healthy ones, like environmentalism, but for the most part there’s a lot of negative stuff ending in ‘ism’ like perfectionism, nationalism, alcoholism and more, and since a lot of those words tend to lean towards one end of the spectrum or the other, that means we’re talking about a lot of extremism… and extremes of anything are the opposite of balance, so that’s why perfectionism isn’t great; it takes you out of balance and tries to turn you into someone who doesn’t make mistakes or who is magically able to control things that are outside of your control (all of which is, frankly, quite impossible to achieve, no matter how many ‘isms’ you throw at things!).

Perfectionism usually results in setting unrealistic goals and standards for yourself, and thinking that anything less than completely perfect is not acceptable — which is, to be blunt, a recipe for stress and anxiety. No matter how good you are, you are always going to make mistakes because — and say this with me! — nobody is perfect and even if you resist that fundamental truth of life, it doesn’t change the fact that it is true. 

So that leads me to the next part of today’s topic; let’s talk about…

Why understanding perfectionism is important

And it’s important because self-awareness and self-understanding are a big part of growth; if you know who you are and are honest with yourself about your challenges as well as your strengths, then you’re better able to be pragmatic and realistic about what you can achieve and, more importantly, what you cannot. Otherwise, the desire to be perfect can become a fixation in terms of trying to manage things that might not be manageable. 

Let me quote from an article on PsychCentral about perfectionism; the quote is:

“Perfection becomes a way to gain acceptance, love, and praise. Being perfect can also be a defense against a chaotic, unpredictable or unsafe home. Having impeccable grades or a restrictive diet may create a sense of control and predictability.”  

Source: https://psychcentral.com/blog/imperfect/2015/12/what-causes-perfectionism#3

And the link for that is in the transcript. I can definitely say that, for me at least, striving for perfection (especially in my corporate career) became an unattainable standard that I was fixated on, and in hindsight it was very much about seeking recognition and praise as well as trying to control things, and those were behaviours that developed quite early for me due to the fact that I grew up in an erratic and chaotic home environment where I didn’t feel seen or even safe, emotionally or physically. 

Let me quote from another article about perfectionism (there will be a few quotes today); this one is by Healthline and the quote is:

“People [prone to] perfectionism hold themselves to impossibly high standards. They think what they do is never good enough. Some people mistakenly believe that perfectionism is a healthy motivator, but that’s not the case. Perfectionism can make you feel unhappy with your life. It can lead to depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and self-harm. Eventually, it can also lead you to stop trying to succeed. Even mild cases can interfere with your quality of life, affecting your personal relationships, education, or work.”

Source: https://www.healthline.com/health/perfectionism

And that is also linked in the transcript. So you might be wondering, what causes perfectionism? And the answer to that isn’t black or white; like most things when it comes to human beings, there are a million and one different reasons these types of behaviours and mindsets can develop over time. Returning to the article I shared from PsychCentral before, some of the causes may be:

“… Rigid, high parental expectations; highly critical, shaming, or abusive parents; low self-esteem or feeling inadequate; believing your self-worth is determined by your achievements; black-and-white thinking; efforts to feel in control; cultural expectations [and more].”

Source: https://psychcentral.com/blog/imperfect/2015/12/what-causes-perfectionism#1 

And again that’s linked in the transcript. The key message there is that, for many people, perfectionism can be tied in to a history that involved unrealistic expectations, either from themselves or from parents and family (or both).

So, some of the common signs of perfectionism can include:

  • being overly self-critical or feeling like you fail at whatever you do or try to do
  • frequent procrastination
  • lacking enthusiasm for things because you worry you won’t do it perfectly
  • being controlling in your personal or professional relationships (or both)
  • being quite rigid about how things are done, either at home or at work (or both)
  • being overly fixated on getting things ‘perfect’ (like writing and rewriting a message over and over again in an attempt to create the absolute perfect wording)
  • focusing on minor mistakes over major successes
  • comparing yourself to others, especially those who might be more skilled or experienced than you, and feeling that you fall short
  • being jealous of others’ success

So I’m hoping that, from those few examples, you can see that what we’re talking about here is very different to wanting to do a good job; there’s a level of fixation and almost frustration that goes with these types of behaviours, because you might try and try and try to achieve perfection, but since perfect does not actually exist your efforts are an exercise in futility.

One more quote here to illustrate my point and talk about the dangers of perfectionism; this one is from Psychology Today and it is:

“When taken too far, the striving for perfection can lead to negative outcomes, like procrastination, a tendency to avoid challenges, rigid all-or-nothing thinking, toxic comparisons, and a lack of creativity. [Rigid] perfectionism is often driven by fear of failure, feelings of unworthiness, low self-esteem, and adverse childhood experiences. It is frequently accompanied by depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, eating disorders, and even suicidal impulses.”

Source: https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/basics/perfectionism 

And the link is in the transcript for that. So, I know that’s a tough message and it can be difficult to talk about some of these things, but the reality is that more severe and rigid types of perfectionism can lead to a lack of self worth and significantly reduced self respect, and at its more extreme it can lead to major mental health issues and an enormous reduction in overall life satisfaction. So it’s important to be aware of any perfectionist tendencies that you might have so that you can monitor them and, more importantly, manage them. How do you do that? Well, that sounds like an excellent transition into the how-to part of this episode — so let’s talk about…

How to manage perfectionism in a healthy way

Alright so let’s begin with what is quite possibly the most important place to start when it comes to managing perfectionism, which is…

Cultivate your self awareness — and why I think this is so important is that everything begins with self knowledge; when you are completely honest with yourself about who you are and who you are not, you’re better able to know yourself and address those areas that you might want to change. If you’re prone to perfectionism, then reflect on what I’ve talked about so far in this episode (you might find it helpful to review the transcript while you do that — you can find it at letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au/episodes and they’re all listed in order of release); part of that reflection piece is about identifying where you may have some work to do and understanding what the root cause of that might be. There are a couple of my past episodes that might help you here: Episode 62, which was about self awareness, and Episode 7, which was all about baggage and that one in particular is a good guide to help you dig into the ‘why’ behind challenges that you might be dealing with, so that you can get closer to the root cause. And speaking of, my next point is…

Treat the root cause (or causes) — because perfectionism is often just a symptom of deeper issues, and so when you understand where it comes from you can then treat the cause rather than trying to deal with just the symptom (because, as I’ve said in past episodes, if you only address the symptom then often you’ll find it comes back or manifests in a different way until you eventually address what caused it in the first place). You might find some of my older episodes helpful depending on what the causes are for you; for example, if it stems from fear then I covered that topic in Episode 10, or if it’s insecurity then that’s something I talked about back in Episode 35. Can I just say here, however, that as much as I am a massive advocate for taking ownership of your own mental health and wellbeing by putting in the work every day to manage it yourself (which makes sense, since it’s your mental health) please note that I say that with a great big disclaimer which is: you do not have to go through things or deal with serious issues on your own, nor should you. If you’re prone to perfectionism and it stems from serious trauma or childhood issues or whatever, please work with an appropriate professional as part of your self management rather than trying to go it alone. I say that because serious trauma needs serious and specialised work (and as I have said openly here many times, I myself work with a therapist every week to work through my own trauma as part of my ongoing healing process), so please bear all of that in mind before you try to DIY this stuff! OK, so my next point is…

Know your priorities and be honest about them with yourself — and this is one I talk about a lot on this show (I know, I know… I have quite a few things I repeat a lot — so this is just one of many!) and the reason I mention this one so often is that it’s about really knowing what genuinely matters the most to you so that you can put things into perspective. For example, when I did my degree a few years ago, I was absolutely medicated up to the eyeballs on antidepressants and anti-anxiety meds and that meant that some of my units were incredibly tough to complete and like trying to learn another language with no guide or resources or context. So even though I’m the type of person who likes to achieve high results, I had to accept that I wasn’t going to get a high distinction in every subject and as my study dragged on, it became more about focusing on completing the unit rather than trying to get to a point where I could feel like I had ‘blitzed’ it. Fortunately it wasn’t like I just scraped through anything and I actually did pretty well, but I had to adjust my expectations of being the top of the class because, to be blunt, that was much less of a priority than just getting through the study! When you know what your priorities are you can then determine what is worthy of your attention, rather than trying to be perfect at everything. I discussed priorities all the way back in Episode 3, if you’d like to hear more (and revisit the early days of this program when I had no idea what I was doing and the results were very amateur!). And so that leads me to my next point…

Focus on striving for excellence rather than perfection — there’s a massive difference between having high standards and wanting to produce the best work possible versus beating yourself up mentally every time you make a mistake or don’t create the perfect outcome (especially since perfectionism can have so many negative impacts on your mental health and wellbeing). When you set standards for yourself that are either impossible or extremely difficult to achieve, you’re making your life unnecessarily miserable for yourself. You cannot ever be good at absolutely everything and sometimes you will make mistakes, and the difference between ‘perfectionism’ and ‘striving for excellence’ is in how you look at those mistakes; the perfectionist treats them as a failure, whereas the person who strives for excellence sees them as a learning opportunity. I talked about failure in Episode 84 of the podcast and I suggest checking that out for more on the subject. So that leads to my next point…

Only compare yourself with yourself — you know those people who behave like they’re in competition with everyone else? Why?! Because it is physically impossible to compete with others since we are all unique, and so their life experiences and personal attributes have played a role in bringing them to the place they’re at in life, just as your experiences and personal attributes have created the you that is listening to this right now. When you compare yourself to others, you are setting yourself up for failure because you can never be identical to someone else; instead, choose to only ever compare yourself with your past self. My goal in life is to be the best version of myself possible, and I do that by aiming to grow a little each day — so that means that my only point of reference is whether or not I am better than I was yesterday. Let that mindset guide you and stop trying to compete with others, because you cannot. Speaking of mindset, my next point is…

Cultivate a positive mindset — because the way you think about things shapes the world around you and the world within you. Rather than focusing on the negative or allowing thoughts of not being good enough to consume you, instead turn your focus to the positives in life like the things you are good at along with your ability to learn and grow as a human being (I mean, hello, you’re listening to a podcast about how to improve and maintain your mental health and wellbeing which means that you are very likely someone who wants to learn and grow, and if that isn’t something to think positively about then I don’t know what is!). Mindset is a topic I’ve covered before, back in Episode 31, and I suggest checking that out because how you think about things has an enormous impact on how you experience life. Another thing that has a big impact is my next point…

Foster a healthy sense of self worth — your worth as a human being is not determined by your ability to meet unrelenting high standards, whether your own or someone else’s, and it’s certainly not measured by how much you earn or what your job title is or how many medals or awards you have. When you know your own self worth then you’re able to make your needs a priority (even when it’s tough to do so). I explored self worth in Episode 78 and self respect in Episode 96, so you may find those helpful to explore or revisit if you’ve already heard them. Oh, and I talked about self talk in Episode 9 so that might be helpful as well. So my next point is…

Growth is a process — because it is; all things take time and it’s impossible to excel at things immediately because that’s just the way life goes… you need to learn what you need to learn and put that into practice, and then refine and grow over time. I mentioned earlier about the more amateur production in my early podcasts and they had a bit of a different structure to what I have now, and that’s because I’ve evolved over time. I mean, let’s be honest here, this is still an independent show that is written and produced by me in my home office and without too much in the way of fancy equipment — I recently upgraded my microphone and camera — but it’s still a DIY job, and that’s OK. It takes time to find your style and your voice, and regardless of whether you’re recording a podcast or learning how to play the piano or mastering the extensive back catalogue of dance routines by the British band Steps, all things take time and that means choosing to lean into the growth journey by taking things one day at a time. I talked about growth in Episode 37, and if you’re having trouble with the “one day at a time” thing then you might find Episode 83 helpful, which was about being present. And so that brings me to my final point, before I wrap up today, and it is…

Work with a professional — and no surprises that I would finish with this one, since I say some variation of it in almost every episode! If you’re finding things challenging or you have some serious stuff to deal with, please find a therapist or counsellor to work with who you feel comfortable with… I know some people can feel a bit uncomfortable with sharing their deepest, darkest secrets with a total stranger, but when you find someone you connect with it feels fantastic to offload that stuff in a safe, supportive and judgement-free environment. And if the issue is cost, then let me finish by saying this: if your leg was falling off, would you just leave it hanging rather than pay a doctor to fix it? Because sometimes you need an expert to get you back into working shape, and it’s an investment in your future life satisfaction and sense of fulfilment… so please bear that in mind!

Summary and Close-Out

Because when it comes to perfectionism and mental health, what it all boils down to is this: There is no such thing as perfect, because we human beings are perfectly-imperfect creatures and we are each a living, breathing mass of fears, contradictions and anxieties… and it is that imperfection that defines us, because to be human is to grow. Instead of being hard on yourself for not achieving perfection in all things, focus instead on striving for excellence in the stuff that really matters most to you and choose to be OK with making mistakes sometimes… because the only true mistake in life is the one that we do not learn from.

The choice is yours, as it is with all things related to your wellbeing… so, what choice will YOU make today? 

Each week I like to finish up by sharing a quote about the week’s topic, and I encourage you to take a few moments to really reflect on it and consider what it means to you. This week’s quote is by writer April Bryan, and it is:

“Perfectionism is a delusion that can rob one of a very successful, enriching life if not careful.”

April Bryan

Alright… that’s nearly it for this week. Next week I’ll be talking about avoidance. Sometimes it can seem to be easier to avoid challenges or difficult situations rather than confronting them, however the challenge with that is that avoiding issues quite often winds up making them worse or it results in you spending ages thinking that the situation is worse than it actually is, until you eventually deal with it and realise it wasn’t so bad after all! Either way, it creates a lot of unnecessary pain and suffering for yourself… and those are two things that I go out of my way to try and avoid! So next week I’ll be talking about what avoidance is, why it has a negative impact on your mental health, and how to manage avoidance in a healthy way.

I hope you’ll join me for that episode, which will be released on Sunday the 3rd of October, 2021. And on Wednesday, catch the latest episode of Better Mental Health on YouTube or IGTV, or head to letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au where you can also join my free mailing list for podcast transcripts and my weekly newsletter. You’ll also find the link in the episode description on whatever podcast service you’re listening to me on.

Follow me on Instagram, Facebook or Pinterest at @ltamentalhealth, where I post extra content daily.

Thank you very much for joining me today — look after yourself and make a conscious effort to share positivity and kindness in the world, because you get back what you put out. Take care and talk to you next time.

Jeremy 🙂

Did you like what you just read? Then please share this with someone who might appreciate it, like a friend, family member, or coworkerbecause word of mouth helps other people to find Let’s Talk About Mental Health! Thank you 🙂

Find more content at www.letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au

Let’s Talk About Mental Health.
Simple ideas for better mental health.

Let’s Talk About Mental Health. © 2021 Jeremy Godwin.

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