“Good enough is good enough. Perfect will make you a big fat mess every time.” ― Rebecca Wells
You want to do well. You have been told that you are made for great success. You were the top of your class at school. You did really well at university. You were always one of the best liked in your friendship circles. That and you somehow manage to look great all of the time too. So you continue aiming high in your life…you continue striving for perfection. Working harder at work (so you can earn the money and have the success someone with your abilities deserves), working harder at the gym (so you can maintain that great physique) and working harder to please those around you (so that you can remain well liked by your family, colleagues and friends). Yet these wonderful high standards of yours are slowly getting you to a place where you are feeling stressed all of the time – stretched, with no time on your hands; anxious because you might not live up to your own expectations; and exhausted because you are sacrificing sleep just to get everything done. Being PERFECT is EXHAUSTING. When did these high standards suddenly start taking over your thoughts, making you feel bad about yourself and ruining your life one by one?
We admire people who have high standards. We admire those who strive for perfection. Yet for those who have high standards and are high achievers, their perfectionism can very easily have a negative impact on their mental health. Perfectionism involves the pursuit of high standards despite the negative consequences arising as a result of this (including things like exhaustion, negative feelings and low self-esteem). These high standards could relate to any area of someone's life, including their professional life (wanting to always deliver the perfect report), their appearance (wanting to always look good or maintain a certain weight), social situations (wanting to be liked by everyone) or home life (wanting to always have a spotless house). Whilst having high standards in and of itself is not a bad thing – if someone is feeling really bad about themselves because they are not living up to their high standards, or are becoming incredibly self-critical as a result of these standards – then perfectionism can lead to mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression and anorexia.
You can gauge if your high standards have morphed into a form of unhelpful perfectionism by asking yourself questions such as:
- Am I pursuing high standards in one area of my life at the expense of other parts of my life? Unhelpful perfectionism often involves a focus on one or two areas of life at the expense of the other parts e.g. is my pursuit of the perfect weight meaning that I am spending ages in the gym/worrying about what I eat and engaging less with my personal and professional life or eg. are my professional goals stopping me from pursuing my hobbies and taking care of my health?
- Am I seeing negative consequences (including negative thoughts and feelings) arising from the pursuit of these standards? e.g. Do I feel anxious about everything that I have to do a lot of the time or do I feel exhausted because I am sacrificing sleep in order to achieve my goals?
- Am I enjoying the journey to achieving my goal? If you are just “getting by” or slogging on in the pursuit of your high standards but are not able to enjoy the day-to-day journey of getting there, your perfectionism may be having a negative impact on your mental health.
- Am I talking to myself in a way that is extremely negative? Unhelpful perfectionism often involves becoming very critical of yourself e.g. do you keep telling yourself how unattractive you are or that you aren’t doing well enough at work?
- Do I keep changing the goal? With unhelpful perfectionism there is the tendency not to be satisfied even once you have reached your goal – going on to set another, more difficult challenge. e.g. now I weight 55kg, I will only be happy once I weigh 50kg or now I am a senior associate, I will only be happy once I am a partner of the firm. This effectively means that you never allow yourself to celebrate any achievement and are always looking to what you can achieve next to be even better.
- Do I keep focusing on the negative? With unhelpful perfectionism there is also the tendency to focus on the times you have not lived up to your high standards rather than celebrating those times that you have.
Of course having high standards is a great thing – yet it is when your self-esteem becomes entangled in these standards, that they become a problem. If you start thinking that you are only “worthy” if you weigh 55kgs, are earning a certain amount of money, are a director of your company, have a spotless house, have lots of friends etc… this is when your high standards become dangerous and could negatively affect your mental health. You should be able to think of your high standards as flexible guidelines and not strict rules that you HAVE to live up to. You should be able to appreciate your worth as a person independent of anything material or superficial.
And anyway … goals and high standards are really only worth pursuing if they will bring us joy on the journey to getting there. Arguably the journey is even more important than the goal.
“Embrace being perfectly imperfect. Learn from your mistakes and forgive yourself, you’ll be happier.” ― Roy Bennett