Here's a piece I wrote about perfectionism and anxiety for Optimus Education. You can read the original post here.
Perfectionism is not ‘wanting things done right’. It’s a fear-based response to anxiety which wastes time and talent.
The term ‘perfectionist’ can be used to describe someone who likes things done properly, or would ‘go the extra mile’ to get a job done.
However, in my clinical practice I have observed that, for a growing number of professionals, ‘being a bit of a perfectionist’ is not a blessing, but a curse. I’ve seen teachers who lined up display boards with spirit levels. Teachers who take half a day to write an hour-long lesson plan. This may be due to greater pressures within the education sector, or that a culture of increased testing and ‘hoop-jumping’ has attracted new teachers with a proclivity for perfectionism.
What is a perfectionist?
A perfectionist is someone who:
Myths of perfectionism
Perfectionists are driven to success by their exacting standards.
A person with positive mental health will enjoy working towards goals. They enjoy the process itself, working towards an achievable goal and feeling good about exceeding that goal if it happens.
Perfectionists work towards their idea of the ‘perfect outcome’ and anything less is considered a failure. They can reach too far when setting goals and run late when they try to do too many things in the time available.
Even when perfectionists do reach their ‘perfect’ outcome, they don’t enjoy it, because there’s always something that could be done better.
Perfectionism just means 'doing things properly'.
Perfectionists indulge in catastrophic thinking. If the outcome is not deemed 'perfect', they can become highly critical of themselves (and others) for 'failing'. Perfectionists find it hard to work in (or even lead) teams because they want everyone else to do things their way. There is little room for the ideas (and imperfections) of others.
I’m not a perfectionist, I’m just stressed because I’m so busy. If we didn’t have so much marking and testing to do, I’d be fine!
Perfectionists will procrastinate. They’ll tell you that they are so busy. But in reality, they are scared and their inability to do less than their idea of perfect prevents them from getting things done. Fear of failure is crushing to the perfectionist.
Fear of failure and the 'primitive brain'
Those who experience fear of failure describe feeling ‘stuck’, almost like a rabbit in the headlights. They just don’t know where to start. What they are experiencing is very high levels of anxiety. When the brain experiences high levels of anxiety, it shuts down all the ‘unnecessary’ functions, allowing the functions necessary to survive to take over.
Perfectionism is a stress response to anxiety and as anxiety lowers, perfectionist behaviours will lessen
Perfectionists have learnt to cope with this anxiety by controlling their work, environment and often, the people around them. They can be deeply lonely, frustrated individuals, because their coping strategy is an inflexible, isolating one and other human beings fall short of their exacting standards. The key is understanding that perfectionism is a stress response to anxiety and as anxiety lowers, perfectionist behaviours will lessen.
How to help a perfectionist
Julia Watson is the founding Clinical Hypnotherapist at Oxford Family Hypnotherapy. She thinks everyone has a small, still voice inside telling them what they are really capable of and likes helping them listen to it.