Day #21: The Plight of Perfectionism

When things get full on or I get stressed out, I notice patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaviour. Some patterns are useful. Being able to easily and quickly retrieve ways of functioning that help me to be efficient and effective can be a huge asset. Then there are unhelpful that can really undermine my confidence, performance, and wellbeing. These patterns can be a serious vulnerability and even become vices.

Some of my patterns emerged a long long time ago. Now in saying that, I know they weren't patterns immediately. I mean - duh! They became patterns over time. That is, I had typical ways of reacting to difficult, challenging or stressful situations and certain ways of thinking, feeling, and acting reoccured. 

There are some patterns I didn't even become aware were patterns for many years. There have been others I have had pointed out to me as I was lacking insight. Others still were likely socialised - kind of like they rubbed off on me as a result of ways my family and friends responded to events in our lives.

As Dr Craig Hassed outlines in his book Know Thyself - 

“A lack of awareness and an unwillingness to examine ourselves is a recipe for repeating old mistakes. Truly may it be said, ignorance is NOT bliss…”

Examining our unhelpful patterns - our vices and vulnerabilities - is valuable for our growth. Our thirst for self-knowledge can be satiated with cocktail full to the brim of awareness. But, it has to feature a strong shot of resilience and a healthy splash of acceptance.

We don't have to drink alone - finding others to support us in times of need. It's also true that addressing and even overcoming vulnerabilities and vices can lead to insight and learning that helps us to become even better for the future. In these situations, perhaps it's more like a protein powered green smoothie than a cocktail...


So, what are some of my patterns, you might be thinking... Perhaps you're wondering if you will relate or if you too have the same or similar patterns...


I have to be get things spot on! If not, i've failed. There is no in-between. I get into the trap where I can believe whatever I do is not good enough. It can push me to strive harder and harder.

Side note: That last sentence is an example of what I call 'the plight of perfectionism'. Striving and pushing to achieve can lead me to do amazing things. It is a way of functioning that can be a strength for me in some contexts, if appropriately deployed. However, this way of functioning can become a vulnerability, when inappropriately deployed. For example, sometimes my striving leads me to skip meal breaks during a stressful day as I push to work harder - think better - deliver more... Sometimes I miss other wellbeing and performance routines that are important to me. The yoga class that would centre me and give me a time to recover energy can be seen as a luxury for which I don't have the time.

Anyhoo - back to the perfectionism pattern...

I have unrealistically high expectations of myself and can be incredibly self-critical. I can become preoccupied with how others who seem to be doing better than I am - coping, succeeding in life in ways I wish I could. As a result, I can judge myself harshly. My perfectionism can create experiences of pain, paranoia, procrastination and even paralysis.

So what can we do?

Well, lots actually. We don’t have to eliminate our patterns in order to learn, grow and move forward. In fact, because some of our patterns are valuable and even strengths in certain contexts, we want them to stick around. As such, we need to:

  1. Acknowledge our vulnerabilities and vices. Identify our tendencies and triggers. Look for the precursors to our patterns. Explore the ways we can trip up and the unhelpful reactions that reoccur.

  2. Respond with mindful agility. We can accept that perfectionism - or any other vulnerability pattern - can emerge. And then, we can channel our attention into ways of thinking, feeling and behaving that are usefully aligned to our values.

Acknowledging, accepting, and responding with agility ensures we mindfully self manage our performance, wellbeing, and where required, our recovery. As a result we have a better chance of growing from our vulnerability and getting back to your being our best self.

So what about perfectionism?

When it comes to perfectionism, I like to give it the flip. I accept and acknowledge the tendency towards perfectionism, and I deploy a pattern that is helpful. I call it progress. I focus on what I can do that will create meaningful progress.

It's not just some strategy I made up either. Researchers including Theresa Amabile from Harvard promote the power of the progress principle.

When done skillfully - mindfully - we can turn Vulnerabilities into motivational sources for Vitality. How cool is that?



Sarah SparnennComment