When I was attending sessions with a CBT therapist (H), an area we highlighted as a cause of anxiety and stress in my life was perfectionism. Although we chose to focus on my habit of worrying for the remainder of the course, H suggested I complete a module on perfectionism from the CCI (Centre for Clincal Intervention) website. The module is called Perfectionism in Perspective (PIP) and I have been working through the first two modules over the last week or so.
Perfectionism is a condition that can viewed negatively and positively, depending on peoples’ perspectives. You might hear someone say to a young girl, who is spending the fourth hour re-drafting her English essay “You’re such a perfectionist” approvingly. This is understandable as perfectionism is about the setting of high standards and striving to achieve them. As a result perfectionists can often be very high achievers and be outwardly successful in their work and lives. On the flip side people can become irritated with perfectionist behaviour, growing irritable when their husband or wife when they still don’t think the garden is tidy enough.
I remember as a child laughing with my family at the man who lived opposite, who spent whole days making sure his lawn was immaculate. He used every chemical around to ensure only grass was growing, he mowed it obsessively, used some kind of whip instrument (to this day I don’t know what that was for!) and as a result he earned himself the epithet ‘Lawnmower Man’ on our street. As a result of his Herculean efforts the grass looked starched, colourless and lacked vitality. What he did seemed ridiculous to me: he strove for perfection and as a result his efforts were rewarded with a clinically tidy, lifeless lawn, however, I realise now that I exhibit behaviour that is not so different from Lawnmower Man. I may not obsess over grass, but I obsess over many areas of my life and as a result spend hours trying to meet ridiculously high expectations and stress over not meeting the standards I set myself.
The PIP module has introduced me common perfectionism behaviours and I have already identified that I regularly display the following:
- Overcompensating – I hate being late for appointments and meeting friends and am often ready and arrive early.
- Reassurance seeking – I get very stressed when I cook for other people and need reassurance from them. I also seek reassurance from my students that they have found the lesson engaging, interesting, informative and have understood the content.
- Excessive Organising and List Making – I am a chronic list maker and create lists on a daily basis at work and even at home to gain a sense of order and control and set myself targets to achieve.
- Failure to delegate – I often think to myself, “if I send G to the shops he won’t get the right food”. At school I’ll hesitate before handing work on to someone else, partly because I know how I want it done and worry that’s not how they’ll do it.
- Avoidance – At times I won’t weigh myself because I know that if I have gained weight it will ruin my day.
I realise that perfectionism has pervaded many areas of my life such as work, organisation, close relationships, eating and weight and even housework/cleaning. I have just been reading about how as a perfectionist you create inflexible rules for yourself, which I intend to write a post about soon, but to finish up today I want to return to Lawnmower Man.
This photo represents what LM strived for: unrelenting high standards and perfection in a particular area of his life. My obsession over staying below a certain weight is no different. My desire for perfection at school may be motivated out of a desire to do the very best for my students, but it is still obsessive and unrelenting. I am realising that striving for perfection can have an adverse effect on performance: it leaves you exhausted, stressed and irritable and often counter-productive. If LM’s efforts resulted in a lifeless law are my perfectionist behaviours leading to results that are also overly controlled, lacking in spontaneity, fun and enjoyment?
More on my exploration of perfectionism soon. Do you exhibit any perfectionist behaviours? What impact do you think they have on your life?