By the time you read this, there will be upwards of nine versions of this piece on my laptop. Tracked changes would reveal the addition then subtraction of countless commas and clauses that neither improved nor detracted from the quality of the version you’re reading now. And, were it not for the concept of ‘deadlines’, I’d have been tinkering with it until mid-March. Until it’s…right. Of course, what I really mean but don't want to say is that I want it to be perfect.
Complaining about being a perfectionist is pretty mortifying. As humble brags go, it's on a par with Baby Boomers wondering how they're going to heat their massive houses. But perfectionism isn’t just bad for your social status. It’s bad for your health.
Research has linked the trait with mental health conditions like anxiety and depression, along with eating disorders. Such is the strain that perfectionists put themselves under in order to meet their own exacting standards that it’s even been linked with cardiovascular problems later in life – something researchers blame on the incessant spiking of your cortisol.
More worrying still for perfectionists like me is that the longer it goes unchecked, the more damage it can do. Researchers from the University of York St John University have shown that perfectionism becomes more problematic with age thanks to an increase in neuroticism and a decrease in conscientious; a nauseating combination that equates to being less productive in life, while becoming increasingly anxious. So it’s with my mental health and career in mind that I attempt to break this habit before the habit breaks me.
What is perfectionism?
I put in a call to Dr Tom Curran, Assistant Professor in the Psychological and Behavioural Sciences department at LSE. A social psychologist, he’s been studying the trait for a decade in an attempt to perfect our understanding of the trait (he’s a fellow Hermione type…)
Rather than being a diagnosable condition, he explains that perfectionism is a ‘surface trait’ which sits underneath the personality traits known as the ‘big five’: contentiousness, extroversion, openness, neuroticism and agreeableness.
‘It's consciousness with baggage,’ he explains, and herein lies the problem. ‘It’s a culturally valued trait that we hold up in society as something to strive for or emulate. I speak to so many people who tell me they’re “a bit of a perfectionist” like it’s a badge of honour. But what they’re really revealing is they’re totally neurotic, or totally anxious. These things are associated with the same outcomes.’
It’s a pretty effective ego-deflator, but the man has a point. For every feature, work presentation or personal project that’s been an outward-facing success, there’s been a bucket of jaw-aching anxiety that only my partner and closest friends have been privy too.
Along with the catastrophising (‘but what if…’) there’s the insomnia, the stomach-lurching fear and cliff-edge nervousness. Viewed in isolation from the outcomes, it’s a kind of self-torture. And while I’ve become adept at managing other aspects of my mental health, this is one aspect I haven’t been able to shake. To tell the truth, I haven’t really tried.
Why is perfectionism holding me back?
Acknowledging that perfectionism is no longer working for you forms a vital part of breaking up with it, says Clinical Psychologist and author of The Imposter Cure, Dr Jessamy Hibberd. ‘Perfectionism is enjoyable – and addictive,’ she tells me.
‘For a time, it can serve you well. You’ll often end up reaching your goals, you might earn more money and enjoying success. It means it’s totally entwined with your sense of self, so the idea that you should start lowering your standards feels like a threat to your identity – and to your potential.’
In order to pull the rug out from under me, Dr Hibberd gets me to do a cost-benefits analysis. First, I write down everything I’m currently doing and the time it takes. Next, she asks me to identify the areas perfectionism has sunk its claws into before taking a long-hard look at what perfectionism has cost – and is costing – me.
Beyond the obvious, like the hours lost to fine tuning work that was fundamentally fine, are things that feel quite...sad. The second marathon I never did, convinced I couldn't improve upon my time; the finished book proposal gathering dust on my desktop, which was never good enough to send to anyone; the time when a mis-match between the bar I’d set for my own life and the one I was actually living seemed so stark that I found myself sobbing in front of a GP. It’s a brutal realisation that perfectionism isn’t giving me things at all, it’s stealing from me.
How can I break up with perfectionism?
Dr Hibberd’s perfectionism prescription is three-fold. First, she tells me to drop the work I’m putting in down to 80% (sorry, boss). This is my ‘good enough’ mindset – and it will become the foundation of the rest of the emotional work I’m about to do.
‘You’re not suddenly going to slack off by dropping the effort down to 80%,’ Dr Hibberd explains. ‘All you’re doing in that final 20% is chasing something that doesn’t exist - perfectionism is a mirage, hovering just out of reach. That 20% is the difference between healthy behaviour (conscientiousness) and unhealthy behaviour (perfectionism).’
Next, I have to stop fixating on the end result and start focusing on the process. This, she explains, takes the pressure off the final outcome.
Finally, I need to take a zoomed-out approach to my schedule, and make sure I’m getting enough down time - which, FYI, comes in two flavours: both the empty kind (tracksuits bottoms, boxout) and ‘natural highs’ (belly laughs with friends).
‘Perfectionists tend to think of time from a productivity perspective: how can I fill this period in a useful way? But genuine downtime is vital to rest and recoup. It also helps you work more efficiently,’ adds Dr Hibberd.
Have I re-written my entire personality since I started writing this piece? No. Breaking the habit of a lifetime takes work, and practise. But armed with the tools and permission to be a kinder to myself, I’m handling my perfectionism the way I handle my mental health: with care.
Three habits to help you break a perfectionist mindset
Adopt the 80% rule: ‘Drop the effort you’re putting into a task down from 100% to 80%,’ says Dr Hibberd. ‘Instead of agonising over that final 20%, just submit the work. You’ll be able to take a few breaks or go do something fun, and you’ll feel better when you return to work.'
Schedule some down time: Life isn’t one long to do list and not all time needs to be productive time. Start having some ‘empty time’ – time when you’re not doing anything else – including scrolling through your phone. ‘This kind of time is useful for stepping back and listening to your body and mind,’ adds Dr Hibberd. ‘It will give you a chance to catch up, process what you’re doing and move forward.’
Phone a friend: Not literally – although that helps too. But imagine you’re advising a friend on how to cope with the same setback you’re facing. ‘You’d rationalise with hem; you’d tell them that it’s okay, and that they have a lot of skills, abilities and values,’ says Dr Curran.
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