Do you iron your socks, or even your newspaper?
Are you a perfectionist? Do you strive to ensure that everything you do is done perfectly? Is your house spotless? Do you rehearse your work presentation it for hours, even days or weeks? Do you check your emails again and again for spelling mistakes? Well perhaps your perfectionism is a cruel illusion, and that the only thing that is perfect is the cage you are creating for yourself.
Why? Well because as David Burns (2000) argues in his book 'Feeling Good' - perfect doesn't exist! If you think about it, everything that is so-called 'perfect' will have flaws if you look close enough. That spotless house may have dust on the floor behind the dishwasher, or carpet fibres that are slightly unclean. The excellent work presentation may have a couple of coughs and perhaps a questioner's raised hand wasn't spotted. The folded clothes may have a sock that wasn't ironed carefully enough, or there may be a fluff bobble on a jumper. Nothing is 100% perfect. Therefore if you insist on perfectionism, you set yourself up to fail.
And perhaps consider why you strive to be perfect anyway. What assumptions are you making that cause you to use so much energy in doing everything so flawlessly? Burns says that a common one is that if you don't aim for perfectionism you'll perform worse. Wrong! His experiments showed that by taking the pressure off and aiming for 'average' he actually performed a lot better - far from average. And he was happier too - another flawed assumption about perfectionism; that you'll be happier if you get everything perfect.
What Burns saw was that behind perfectionism lies fear, and there lies another assumption - that we cannot tolerate this fear. Wrong again. As humans we are built to feel many different feelings and fear is just one of them. But fear is vital for human survival, from Bronze age to modern times fear keeps us safe. So feeling fear, or anxiety, is OK. With careful and gradual exposure to our anxiety we can see that actually we can take it.
So, if you are a perfectionist, could it be worth exploring what you are afraid of? Maybe you have another flawed assumption that others are judging you negatively, so that you have to present an impervious barrier of perfection to avoid criticism. Or do you assume you are not strong enough to take criticism? Is criticism (something vital for our development) unbearable for you, and if it is then why is that so? It isn't the usual way of things. The therapist in me is wondering 'who criticised you when you were a child?'
I would end by just looking a little deeper still. If you do create an impervious 'shell' of perfectionism, what might it be that you are afraid lies underneath? Could there be something that you fear people will see in you? Aren't you OK just as you are, the good and the not so good?
You see by working so hard to be perfect you spend so much of your precious energy, and I wonder what you may achieve and what creativity or achievements may be freed if you could use that energy in other ways. So, can you dismantle your cage of perfection to be happier, more successful and free your true self?
By David Abrehart
CBT and counselling can help with perfectionism, and perhaps more importantly the factors that underpin and surround it
(c) Copyright 2016. All rights reserved.
Burns, David (2000) Feeling Good. New York, Avon Books. Chapter 14 pp352-380
Perhaps the most important aspect of both Cognitive Behaviour Therapy and Psychodynamic Counselling, is that they both strive to better understand the patient, and it is this deeper understanding, and the therapist and patient process of uncovering it, that paves the way to healing.