What lies beneath the mask of Perfectionism?

Perfect – definition: having all the required or desirable elements, qualities, or characteristics; as good as it is possible to be.

So, being perfect according to the definition above sounds like a pretty wonderful attribute - but how realistic is it actually? 

Perfectionism can manifest in different ways for different people.  Maybe you are someone who likes everything to be in order, organised and spotless at home – the spice jars lined up alphabetically, your wardrobe arranged by colour, everything flawless and shiny and just so.  Or perhaps you are someone who always likes to succeed in life – get the top grade, the promotion, the award, always constantly improving yourself so you are head and shoulders above everyone else. 

It may all look great on the surface but eventually the cracks of living this way can start to appear underneath.  Constantly striving to be perfect can be so anxiety-riddled you end up feeling totally overwhelmed.  If for you everything has a place and if it is not in its place, this can cause upset in the form of overreaction, anger or anxiety.  This doesn’t only affect YOUR emotional and mental health but your relationships with OTHERS, because if you stop and really think about it honestly - how much fun do you think you are to live with or be around when you are like this?

So, if you or someone you know is like this, where does this particular pattern of behaviour originate from? A psychologist once explained to me that people with perfectionistic tendencies or obsessive-compulsive traits use them as a coping mechanism, because for them it is the one area of their life they feel they can actually control when the rest of it feels like it is spinning out of control.

Most times it goes back to childhood, because as children we had very few choices and little power to speak up. It could stem from a time when you felt maybe you had absolutely no control living in your family dynamic: perhaps it was military-like behaviour from a father figure, witnessing domestic violence or even a mother figure controlling and directing every aspect of your life. Or maybe you were expected to always be at the top of your class, never achieve anything less than an A on your report card because if you did, the caregivers would express their displeasure and their love and approval would be withdrawn from you. Perhaps you felt not seen or heard by a parent, so you thought that if you could impress them by your achievements, they would notice you. We live what we learn, in fact we actually absorb it as though it is our own truth when it really isn’t. - it’s someone else’s beliefs.

Many people with perfectionistic traits hold themselves to impossibly high standards because they think what they do will never be good enough. but how can you ever measure up to someone else’s expectations? This is a no-win situation.

So how can you turn down the volume on your perfectionistic life sound track?

  • Evaluate by looking at what TOLL living this way is having on you – on your personal relationships, your well-being (stress, anxiety, health), your work/life balance (time spent on doing everything perfectly and just so).

  • Are the COSTS of being a perfectionist worth the impact it is having on your life and those around you?

  • Test yourself – go on, just do it! Don’t do the thing that you would normally do the way you would normally do it. Even if the result wasn’t perfect, was it as bad as you thought? Did the world stop turning? How much did you gain in terms of time, effort, and not driving yourself — or others — crazy?

With changing any beliefs or patterns that aren’t serving you, the first step is always to stop, recognise and challenge your thoughts when you find yourself falling into these well-worn habits.

Secondly, change your language – this such a powerful and impactful step. For example, if that voice in your head starts going, “They’re not doing it right. They should do it correctly”, you could instead say to yourself, “Is this situation really as important as it feels? Is MY way the ONLY way to view this situation? Do I NEED to control this situation?”. Simply changing the words that you say to yourself on a regular basis can have a massive effect on the way you feel and how you show up in your life. Like any new thing we attempt, be it learning to ride a bike or drive a car, at first it might seem daunting and maybe even impossible, but somehow we make the impossible possible and you can do the same thing with changing your thoughts and self-talk.

Wouldn’t it feel like a weight was lifted off you if you could just LET GO and enjoy life?

Some of us think holding on makes us strong, but sometimes it is letting go
Herman Hesse

Crossing boundaries - are you a trespasser?

 BY DEFINITION, a “boundary” is anything that marks a limit. 

Personal boundaries are the intangible guidelines, rules or limits that each of us has established during our lives.  It is like our own unwritten rulebook of what we deem as fair, safe and acceptable behaviour in how we interact in the world, but also how we expect others to treat us and how we respond if someone crosses those limits.

I want to share an analogy I heard recently regarding personal boundaries that was just so powerful, it may forever change the way you function in relationships.

Imagine that you have a fence around you and inside that fence is a beautiful garden.  In that garden you are allowed to plant whatever it is you desire.  You may grow flowers, vegetables or maybe both; you can water, weed and tend that garden however you like.  This fenced garden represents your LIFE.  Everyone has one, everyone is allowed to cultivate, plant and nurture their own garden exactly how THEY want to.  This means that everyone in your life, your partner, children, family, friends and work colleagues have a garden too. 

However, as the perfectly imperfect beings that we are, some of us, more than others, tend to poke our noses over the fence and peek into other people’s gardens.   We check out what are they growing and perhaps judge the state of their gardens or compare our garden to theirs!  This can bring up not so pleasant feelings of resentfulness, jealousy and inadequacy. Even more dangerous, maybe you do more than just poke your nose over the fence, you may jump right over it, land on the other side and start digging around, telling that person how you think they should be tending their garden and what they should plant.  In other words, judging the choices they are making and telling them how they should be living their lives.    

What you need to remember, however, is that you were never invited into that person’s garden, you just trespassed!   More importantly, when you are so focused on what everyone else is doing aren’t you neglecting your own garden? 

Boundaries are, in simple terms, the recognition of personal space.
— Asa Don Brown

Think of a time when someone has made a comment to you that as soon as it hit your ears it stung like crazy?  It may have been delivered innocently enough but hurt you nonetheless.  Maybe you just got back from the hairdressers feeling a bit glamorous and your mother said “I prefer your hair the colour it was before” or you spent hours trying to figure out how to solve a problem and your partner says “You should have done it this way”.  Ouch – someone has scaled your garden fence!

When I had time to reflect on this, I first of all felt guilt.  I could see very clearly whose gardens I had trespassed and dug around in.  Firstly, my partner.  I dug around so much in his garden it is amazing there is anything growing there at all!  I told myself I was doing it out of love and to make him happy, but to be totally honest maybe I was just trying to make myself happy and change him into who I wanted him to be, which is just a no-win situation for both of us.

My daughter; yes, I can see the times I have tried to reorganise her garden to conform to my gardening style and vice versa.  So once I realised this, we sat down and discussed the topic openly and came up with a signal if we feel one of us is trespassing – we simply call out “garden!” and the other person knows to back off.  Sometimes, when you are so close to someone and would do anything to help them, you may not always be aware that you are overstepping boundaries.  So, this has been a great way for us to let each other know when one of us is getting a little too close to that garden fence!

I could have beaten myself up when I looked back over my relationships and where I had done this, but that is just a futile and pointless exercise, so instead I am grateful that I have been given the gift of awareness instead of never receiving it.  It has also allowed me to put up boundaries when I feel that someone is telling me how to tend my garden! 

Just sit with this awhile and see if you get an “aha” moment like I did, but most importantly be kind to yourself, after all we are all just masterpieces in progress!