I attended a course last weekend which started me thinking about how much we all damage ourselves and our quality of life by indulging in Perfectionism. We often think of Perfectionists as having some form of OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) where all can labels in the cupboards have to face forward and the cans and bottles have to be ranked in size order and by colour and content.
Most of us have some element of the Perfectionist within us – liking a tidy home or desk or having a regular place to put the kitchen scissors. This type of behaviour helps us have more efficient and pleasant lives and avoids wasting hours of effort trying to find a roll of Cellotape.
However, our Perfectionism can become a problem when we start to apply it to ourselves and how we feel the world should treat us. For instance, when the mechanism of the subconscious (which builds our map of the world and the everyday rules for living), starts to create rules which build an unrealistic expectation about the world around us and the way it should (must) treat us.
If we aren’t careful, we can begin to construct unrealistic rules for ourselves and then try to live by them, expecting the world to treat us well in return. Examples of these beliefs could be “I should never turn down the chance of doing something” or “It must be 100% right. Not even a tiny error is acceptable” or “My employer must always treat me well because I am a such a good worker and he really values my contribution”.
The result of creating these types of rule is that you put a massive amount of pressure on yourself and those around you to deliver something which is, in reality, unachievable.
“I should never turn down the chance of doing something” means that instead of having a varied and interesting life you are manically running/driving from one event to another. Getting up early to get somewhere; leaving that event early to get somewhere else; frantically changing clothes for the next activity; driving furiously to get somewhere else; always looking at the clock, cursing buses, trains and planes for being late; fretting and agitated in traffic jams; dragging friends and family around behind you in a frantic hurry to get somewhere and do something else rather than the thing you are actually doing!
Many people also apply this same “never turn anything down” rule to their work lives by never turning down a job or a project. Clients tell me “it’s because they know I’m the only one who can do it,” “It’s my area of expertise”, “no one else can meet that kind of deadline”. What they are really telling me is that their employer is exploiting their mistaken belief. The Manager handing out the work probably thinks that my client is a mug for taking on more and more work; that they don’t really care what happens to one of their team when they eventually break down. That as long as the job gets done and the Manager looks good, they’ll keep on piling on the work. If it all goes wrong, they can blame the overworked and Perfectionist who has moved heaven and earth to make sure that they deliver a 100% perfect job.
The self-delusion that one is valued at work and that a company cares still runs deep in the veins of many employees, despite the evidence in front of them every day. They will tolerate bullying, abuse and overwork because they fear the effort of finding a new job and lack the confidence to rise to the challenge of being given tasks without the right training, timescale or resources. The chances are that if your boss never has to say “do it or I’ll find someone else who will” when loading another massive burden on your already overburdened back, then it’s YOU who’s the one taking on the work others have already said is impossible to do in the time/for the money/without more resource etc!
Another corrosive belief is that “it must be 100% right, otherwise the rest of what I’ve done is useless and worthless and I am a useless and worthless person who doesn’t deserve thanks or praise”. No amount of praise can be meaningful to his kind of Perfectionist. It rolls off them as their subconscious mind rejects what it sees as hollow words from people who “just don’t know how much better the result could have been if only I could have done a better job”. This creates in the Perfectionist a deep well of frustration and dissatisfaction with everything in their lives. They feel bad all the time. They might turn to drink, drugs, sex or food for comfort in order to achieve that elusive feeling of control over their lives. They might begin to blame others for their lack of perceived achievement, or break up relationships or just work harder and harder until they eventually break down.
The payback which comes from all this manic behaviour is often the firm belief that “My employer must always treat me well because I am a such a good worker and he values my contribution so much”. Perfectionists believe this of their families too “because I work until 2am every night cleaning the kitchen the family must love me more and show me their appreciation”.
But because everyone views the Perfectionist as neurotic and unreasonable, they don’t value that person more. In fact, they probably value them less than they would if they just worked 9-5 in the office and spent their time enjoying relaxation with the family playing games and doing trivial things.
As I’m always telling my clients, it’s OK to want to do things to the best of your abilities, but only within the context of the time, energy and other commitments that you have.
If you find yourself under constant pressure, ask yourself why. What are the beliefs which are driving you to be under that pressure? What makes the rules you’ve created for yourself true? What less pressing rules could you create? Are the rules you are currently living your life to actually out of date – were they right for when you were younger but are they appropriate to life as it is now?
Try writing down the rules which trouble you most and think about them. How much do they ruin your life? What would happen if you didn’t obey them? What would you lose AND, more importantly, what would you gain?
Why not take a look at the Perfectionist in your own life, and see how your own work and home life could be improved?