Most of us have a friend or colleague who claims to be obsessed with achieving perfection – someone who just can’t help doing it the ‘right’ way, be it at their workplace, in the kitchen, or at a hobby they pursue. Perhaps as you read this, you will realize that this describes you quite accurately as well. While most people intend to do well at the tasks and goals they want to accomplish, some individuals set exceedingly high standards for everything they set out to achieve, firmly believing that to strive for perfection in this manner is ideal.
At the outset, perfectionism – or the innate desire to be ‘flawless’ at everything one does – seems like a positive personality trait. After all, it’s natural to want to be our best version every day, and we often equate perfectionism to being a high achiever. However, constantly maneuvering over each detail and wanting to nitpick every aspect while hoping for a ‘nothing-less-than-perfect’ outcome can be exhausting and stressful, thus impacting one’s mental health in the longer run.
As a food photographer and writer, I feel a compulsion to track down the tiniest mistake and correct the same in all my pictures and posts. It can be said that perfectionism is a useful and even desirable trait in the field of photography and writing. However, I came to understand the traps of perfectionism as a personal trait all too well when a friend pointed out how it spoils one’s overall experience or ability to enjoy the present moment – something we talk a lot about here at happiness.com!
We were exploring a stretch of the most picturesque trails along Cinque Terre, which comprises of five fishing villages strung along the Ligurian coast in Italy. The stunning green-blue sea, colorful quaint houses built into the cliffs, the delicious Ligurian fare can be a delight for the visitors. But here I was, fumbling with my camera all along, stressing to avoid the ‘aesthetically imperfect’ details like chipped paint, potholes on the streets, etc, anxious to get as many perfect pictures as I could.
Hours later as the sun began to set, my friend walked over to where I stood with my tripod to ask in a gentle tone that belied his irritation, “Would you mind just soaking in the sight and live this gorgeous sunset, instead of worrying about capturing it perfectly on your camera?” The question proved to be a reality check: what else was I missing out on in my mad quest for perfection? Years later and after a lot of introspection, I now consciously try to never let perfectionism and the anxiety that accompanies it to take control over me.
American Psychological Association defines perfectionism as the "the tendency to demand of others or of oneself an extremely high or even flawless level of performance, in excess of what is required by the situation." Depending upon how one lets the ideals of perfection affect them, perfectionism can be a positive or ‘adaptive’ or negative or ‘maladaptive’ personality trait.
Here are a few ways to recognize some aspects of perfectionism that pertain to you:
According to a literary review by researchers Silvia Bigatti et al, perfectionism can foster unrealistic standards and expectations from ourselves and others. These idealistic – and frankly impractical – expectations can further intensify negative emotions and feelings like stress, anxiety, increasing dissatisfaction with the self and imposter disorder. The constant rumination about what things ‘could be’ or ‘should be’ can increase stress levels and affect productivity, thus impacting one’s psychological well-being as well.
Anxiety is a state of negative expectation, signs of which can be characterized as apprehension and increasing state of distress or worry, or unfavorable physical sensations such as elevated heart rate and jitteriness. While anxiety can occasionally result in a positive outcome, persistent or prolonged anxiety can hamper one’s day-to-day function, often resulting in high stress levels and depression.
Research reveals a substantial correlation between perfectionism and anxiety. The National Institute of Mental Health reveals that about 1 in 5 American adults experience the overlap of perfectionism and anxiety in a given year, wherein the fear of making mistakes, underachievement and failure compels individuals to devise unattainable high standards to value their success in terms of attainment of the goals set for themselves.
“Grounding yourself in your body is an effective way to overcome the obsessive thoughts related to perfectionism and anxiety.”
Indeed, perfectionists find it difficult to hand over control of an outcome or scenario until everything is flawless or perceivably perfect in their eyes. As psychologist Thomas S Greenspon describes, “perfectionistic people typically believe that they can never be good enough, that mistakes are signs of personal flaws, and that the only route to acceptability as a person is to be perfect”.
Ironically, this obsession with excellence can get overwhelming and all-consuming, wherein the resulting anxiety and fear of judgement can convince you to do nothing at all if you can’t do it with utter perfection. This condition is known as ‘analysis paralysis’, in which the fear of a less-than-perfect decision or action leads to prolonged avoidance of action, or procrastination.
However, it’s important to know that you can cope with, or even break free from the perfectionism trap, regardless of whichever aspects of perfectionism you associate most with.
Coping with perfectionism and anxiety doesn’t always mean that you must lose sight of your goals or give up on your dreams. It just means that you need to change your perspective and realign your approach, so that you can still chase your goals and strive to succeed, albeit not at the cost of your mental health or well-being.
Here are some tips to help you cope with your perfectionism and the anxiety that often accompanies it.
The first step towards tackling perfectionism and anxiety is to recognize the signs that your high standards are impacting your normal daily functioning, thus perhaps affecting your well-being adversely. Take periodic reality checks to consider if your tendency to be perfect is affecting your interpersonal relationships, work life or social calendar.
Recognizing how your standards impact these aspects of your life will help you regulate the burden you impose on yourself, eventually enabling you to be productive while leading a happier, more content life.
“Tackling perfectionism requires disrupting all-or-nothing thinking,” says Dr Karen McDowell, a psychology specialist. Breaking your goals into smaller, achievable objectives will help you approach the tasks at hand in a realistic manner, thus preventing overwhelming and unrealistic standards getting in the way of your dreams.
“Self-compassion can prove to be an effective remedy for perfectionism and anxiety. Being kind to ourselves entails acknowledging our limitations and shortcomings.”
Use SMART goals to keep yourself motivated and focused on the process, while keeping perfectionism and anxiety at bay. Take time to periodically look at the big picture to prevent getting bogged down by the smaller, relatively inconsequential details as perfectionists often tend to do, and reflect on how far you’ve come.
While most of us consider mistakes and imperfections as weaknesses, Brené Brown, the author of Gifts of Imperfection reveals that “imperfection really is a gift”, as it’s what renders us authenticity and makes us unique and interesting. Accepting this for a fact can help us relax our pace from relentless obsession over our efforts and results, thus keeping anxious perfectionism at bay. Brown further suggests that embracing your imperfections by incorporating the 3C’s – courage, compassion and connection can be the key to a happier self and wholehearted living.
Self-compassion can prove to be an effective remedy for perfectionism and anxiety that stems from it. Being kind to ourselves entails acknowledging our limitations and shortcomings and accepting that it’s perfectly acceptable to fail at a task at hand. Practicing self-compassion helps keep self-criticism and the fear of failure under check, allowing us to be present and act consciously, instead of being preoccupied with perfection.
Mindfulness exercises can prove to be a great way to manage perfectionism and anxiety. Being aware of self-sabotaging thoughts and patterns that occur to you repeatedly will help you devise coping skills which are more effective for you. Indeed, bringing awareness and focus to your thoughts in this manner can be a gradual process. However, with consistent practice you will develop the skill of self-validation and self-acceptance, which will enable you to gradually overcome your obsession with perfection.
Grounding yourself in your body is an effective way to overcome the obsessive thoughts related to perfectionism and anxiety, suggests Emilea Richardson, a licensed marriage and family therapist. Engaging in conscious breathing can help divert your attention away from overwhelming thoughts regarding your efforts and results. Similarly, establishing a regular meditation practice, daily journaling to jot down thoughts, patterns, and resolutions can direct your awareness towards progress you’ve made so far.
Sometimes it may be difficult to cope with, or even come to terms with one’s impossibly high standards of perfection. Understand that it’s perfectly acceptable – and recommended, even – to seek professional help when perfectionism and anxiety begin to interfere with your daily tasks and performance. A professional can help you identify your self-limiting thoughts and behaviors, in addition to devising the right coping methods that can help you overcome your fear of judgement and failure.
Perfectionism can undoubtedly raise your performance levels and take you closer to achieving your goals. However, when fueled by a crippling fear of failure and conditional self-worth, a perfectionist is likely to experience detrimental mental health conditions like anxiety, imposter syndrome and depression.
Harnessing the positives of perfectionism, while preventing or overcoming anxious perfectionism isn’t an impossible feat, but requires prompt identification and acceptance, followed by constant and persistent efforts towards the same. •
Main image: shutterstock/Andrey_Popov
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Fitness and healthy food blogger, food photographer and stylist, travel-addict and future self journaler. Sonia loves to write and has resolved to dedicate her life to revealing how easy and important it is to be happier, stronger and fitter each day. Follow her daily pursuits at FitFoodieDiary or on Instagram.
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