In my previous career, I spent many years focussing on error; of technique, resonance, intonation or phrasing. It was possible to rehearse endlessly, and difficult to decide when to stop. When was I finished? Sometimes all that attention to error made it difficult to enjoy music-making at all. And the only way to manage in those times was to try harder, do better. Yet trying harder could feel impossible, and quickly lead to exhaustion and avoidance cycles. Asking myself to be OK with anything less than my very best (on my very best day) would have been too uncomfortable, too vulnerable. It was a demanding and exhausting way to live, yet rewarded each time I attributed success to my perfectionism. There was distress and shame associated with living that way. Colluding with my inner demanding critic robbed me of my joy.
The hallmark feature of perfectionism involves the unrelenting pursuit of high standards. Usually this plays out through a powerful internal voice we could call a ‘demanding critic’, learned through parents, or culture or peers. This voice keeps focussing on performance, creating a sensitivity to the absence of meaningful affirmation when one is not performing well. Unrelenting standards can become a primary way for feeling connected, valuable, and important.
Usually there is a very concrete, black and white mindset, and a range of rules for oneself exist. These rules can mask underlying vulnerabilities, concealing painful fears about what it may mean if the rules were broken; whether I am a failure, defective, or may be rejected if people know the real me, the me that exists when I don’t overcompensate.
Due to the high cost of the demanding critic, perfectionists can also swing on an over-working and under-working pendulum. When over-controlling, or feeling very hyper-vigilant and anxious becomes too much, you may find yourself detaching to self-soothe or to hide away to recover. You might feel a little embarrassed to be a capable person who regularly procrastinates to survive. You might feel ashamed that you are self-mediating with alcohol or distracting yourself will gaming or scrolling the web.
If this sounds at all like you, don’t fret. Recovering from perfectionism is absolutely possible, and absolutely worth working at. Read on for clinical interventions when unrelenting standards has you locked in cycles of collusion and exhaustion. The good news is that insight gets you around 50% of the way to change.
- Write a list of perfectionism rules and then check to see if they are realistic with the following questions: Are my standards higher than those of other people? Am I able to meet my own standards? Do I get overly upset when I don’t? Are others able to meet my standards? Do I get overly upset if others don’t meet my standards? If you have identified unrelenting standards for yourself here, or the presence of double standards, it’s time to challenge these unhelpful rules and adopt some healthy principles instead: I will do the best that I can, with the time I have available. I will make sure I retain balance in my life and make time for others and for having fun. Achievement is important to me, but it is not everything.
- Practice NOT being perfect and instead try being relaxed and spontaneous. Choose six simple activities you would don’t usually allow yourself to do, and make a list. Once a week, roll a dice, and (without rolling again!) and complete the activity. What was it like for you to have a break from achievement? What was it like to be spontaneous?
- Reflect on why you may have developed a need for affirmation through achievement. How was achievement rewarded when you were young? Did it keep you connected to someone important? Did you feel there was a part of you that may have been rejected if you let it show? Is there a part of you that feels very vulnerable without affirmation? Try to empathise with this part who may still wonder if he is good enough, or OK? Write out some reassuring statements to soothe this vulnerability for next time you notice the urge to seek affirmation through overcompensating. Try to compassionately soothe this vulnerable part of you with compassion and understanding.
It will take some practice, but learning to be OK with not being perfect can be life-changing. If you have some entrenched perfectionism you’d like some help with, a therapist can also help.