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The curse of perfection
5:23pm Friday 28th March 2008 in Health
W e all fail. That is because we're fallible human beings just doing the best we can.
Isn't it ironic though - perfectionists fail' more often than the rest of us! That is because of the way perfectionists think - in their minds they will never be good enough'. Actually, it seems to me that there's a bit of the perfectionist in many of us.
Of course, we all want to be competent, to be good at what we do, but trying to be perfect' can be pathological, because it involves putting ourselves under an unhealthy degree of pressure. Perfectionists feel the need to constantly push themselves, often driving themselves into the ground. They can find it difficult to relax, impossible to make decisions and often fuss over small unimportant things.
Their underlying hope is that they will somehow feel good enough - it is about the need for approval. But the price they pay is high - overwhelming levels of stress, anxiety, guilt, procrastination, self-recrimination, fear - and that's just for starters!
Perfectionists are constantly afraid of making mistakes, and this fear of failure prevents them from trying new things. They feel paralysed at the prospect of being outside of their comfort zone. It would be so awful to make a mistake! But that means they deny themselves the opportunity to learn and to grow.
Perfectionists tend not to learn from mistakes - heck, there's no time for that, they are far too busy beating themselves up!
We don't expect perfection from other people, so why are we are so hard on ourselves? Would we be so unkind to a friend?
Progress almost always includes setbacks, in fact you could say that failure is the foundation of success. Actually though, successful' people don't see failure as failure in the way most of us do.
If they attempt something and it doesn't give them what they want, they are more likely to put it down to experience rather think in terms of failure. Understand that and you will be prepared to take more risks, accept more challenges and feel more alive!
I love this quote from Ann Lamott's book Bird by Bird, some instructions on writing and life.
"Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life and is the main obstacle between you and a rubbish first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won't have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren't even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you and have a lot more fun while they are doing it."
Perfectionism is often linked to what we call good girl syndrome', where the person spends a lot of time trying to please others, but neglects to pay attention to their own needs. They have a tendency to make assumptions about what others think of them too - jumping to conclusions, mind-reading and so on.
They make lots of demands about themselves, about other people and the world in general. Beware of the musts' shoulds' and have to's'! It is important to learn how to stand back and observe the thinking' self, to tune into our thoughts and challenge those unhelpful thinking habits.
If you don't fail sometimes then you aren't really living your life. Let's face it, it would make you a pretty unpleasant person to be around if you could achieve perfection!
Being authentic, keeping it real, warts and all, is what connects us with other people.
n Jenny Gould is a cognitive behavioural coach, trainer, writer and speaker. She is resident agony aunt on BBC Radio Oxford's afternoon show and a trainer with Relate.
Passionate about people and their potential, she has provided personal life coaching and corporate coaching to people from all walks of life, including senior executives, celebrities and those in the media.
Her company, The STP Consultancy, offers a complete stress management service to companies and organisations, large and small, in both the commercial and public sector.
If you would like information on subjects such as stress (including exam stress), overcoming anxiety, managing anger etc, visit the website: www.thestpconsultancy.co.uk and click on Resources'.
Jenny has a practice at The Raleigh Park Clinic (previously known as The Bell Trees Clinic) in Oxford. She can be contacted on 01235 550534 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org Jenny has recently published her new audio book New Horizons: Create the Life You Want!, available through Amazon or from www.thestpconsutancy.co.uk