I remember the first time I experienced the madness (and horror) of perfectionism. I was young. Five, maybe six. My curly blonde hair was tied up, braided halfway down my back, and I was sitting in Ms. Gates’ classroom. Sight words were spelled out in big bold letters on one wall. A map adorned the other, and I was waiting in my chair, arms folded, legs crossed. But the thing I was waiting for — the return of my weekly spelling test — turned out to be far more upsetting than I imagined because when my test was passed back, there were red markings on it. I got a B. And this, for a straitlaced, straight-A student, was a nightmare. I gasped for air. Hyperventilating. I cried until I couldn’t breathe.
My teacher, being the concerned caregiver she was, brought this to my parents’ attention. “You should be mindful,” she said. “She has perfectionist tendencies.” But my parents (and I) brushed it off. I because I didn’t know what perfectionism was, and my parents because they thought it was an admirable trait. I wanted to do my best and be my best. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, as it turns out, a lot. Perfectionism is intense and greatly impacts our mental health.
“Perfectionism is a complex beast and there are different dimensions of perfectionism,” an article on HeadStuff explains. “Psychological researchers describe perfectionism as striving for flawlessness, holding excessively high personal standards, and having overly negative reactions to perceived mistakes and setbacks…. [however,] perfectionists have a harsh way of reacting to themselves when they fail to live up to the high standards they set for themselves; they are often highly self-critical, and attack themselves when they feel they have not achieved perfection.”
This is something I know all too well. I often feel inadequate, as a person and a parent. I am hyper-critical of my work. And I never feel good enough or smart enough to tackle the task at hand, and if I make a mistake — if I yell at my children, for example, or miss a deadline — I completely break down. I shake. I cry. Panic takes hold. The reason? According to HeadStuff, perfectionists are their own worst critics. “Good” is never enough. But that’s not all. There is actually a link between perfectionism and mental health disorders — which, by the way, I have my fair share of, i.e. I live with bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, and PTSD.
“Perfectionism is a risk factor for a number of serious mental health issues,” the article continues. “Perfectionists are at risk of feeling inadequate and worthless, and instead of recognising that the standards they set themselves are too high or too inflexible, the perfectionist feels that instead it is something that is deficient in them that is the problem, which can contribute then to low mood, depression and anxiety, and even thinking about ending one’s life.” A 2013 study found that more than 70 percent of young people who died by suicide were in the habit of creating “exceedingly high” expectations of themselves and/or were self-described perfectionists.
The good news is that being a perfectionist, in and of itself, isn’t damning. There are ways to cope with perfectionism and even change your thinking. But in order to overcome perfectionism you need to acknowledge your perfectionist tendencies and truly understand the negative ways in which it impacts your life.
“The first step to overcoming perfectionism is becoming aware of your perfectionist thoughts and tendencies,” an article by Oregon Counseling explains. “Take some time to pause and pay attention to your thought patterns around perfectionism. You might even try writing these thoughts down, to understand them better.” You should also focus on the positives and set more realistic expectations — which is, admittedly, easier said than done. Allowing yourself to make mistakes is also key.
“When we allow ourselves to make mistakes, we can see that it’s not the end of the world when we fail,” the article continues. “Mistakes are opportunities for us to learn, grow and do better.”
That said, these changes are not easy, not for someone with perfectionist tendencies and/or a perfectionist mind. For that reason, you may want to work with a mental health professional to help silence your inner critic and set more realistic expectations.
“Once we are aware of how we allow perfectionism to take hold of our lives, we will be more able to alter our self-talk around this issue,” Oregon Counseling continues. “We will [also] feel much less stressed and more confident in our ability to reach our goals when they are realistic and challenging in a healthy way.”
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