‘Do what I say not what I do’ – addressing perfectionism

There is a Simpsons episode where Homer is unsuccessful in a job interview. The successful candidate goes in before Homer and is asked the question ‘What are your weaknesses?’ He responds with ‘Well, I’m a workaholic and a perfectionist…’ Presumably the meaning here being that the candidate’s weaknesses are actually big strengths. I actually am a workaholic and perfectionist and can report that sometimes those qualities are a good thing but often they aren’t.

I have been talking and writing about the dangers of perfectionism for some time. Perfectionism is like a mixture of anxiety about change, anxiety about performance and fear of failure. Perfectionism can stop people form doing any work at all for fear it won’t be good enough. Some people won’t take on  new challenges because they might do it ‘wrong’ and some will not try new skills or activities – even leisure ones – for fear of not being proficient. I struggle playing games with family because there is a perception I am supposed to be very good at word games and trivia. What usually happens is that I am indeed very proficient but I’m also very stressed which can manifest as being pushy and competitive – not much fun for anyone really.

Perfectionism is a common quality for Autistic people. I can’t speak on behalf of others but a lot of my own perfectionism centres around a need to have some control and knowledge of an uncertain and confusing world. I have immense perfectionism around social situations and if I get it ‘wrong’ I am filled with regret. When a social situation goes ‘wrong’ I blame myself and become highly anxious. I feel like I have failed in some fundamental sense. I go through extreme anxiety and sometimes meltdowns, I feel I need to sort it out instantly and apologise to the person or do whatever I think I need to in order to ‘fix it’. Mostly perfectionism doesn’t stop me from doing much as in addition to perfectionism I have a strong dose of determination and motivation which makes me take on challenging things which I am know I won’t be instantly proficient at. However when I was younger my perfectionism limited my capability to work and also resulted in a major episode of mental illness.

I was just getting my life back together after some years of misery. Everything was a challenge and I was desperate to make the ‘right’ choices so I could have a better life. I hadn’t worked for many years but my aspirations involved working in a full-time professional job and I kew I needed to work up to that ad build my employment confidence. One of my housemates in supported accommodation got me a casual job washing dishes at a restaurant two nights a week. It was not a responsible job at all. The worst outcome of an error would probably be that one of the diners might sent back a dirty knife I had missed. That was it. But in my mind I was desperate to be completely perfect at my job. I was terrified I would make an error that would somehow put the restaurant out of business. My anxiety grew to an immense level to the point that I was highly anxious all the time. Anxiety like that triggers psychosis in me and that it what happened. Not only did that jeopardise my future as an employee, it actually put my life in very real danger. I did end up building my employment confidence armed with the knowledge that if I started getting this feelings of high anxiety and perfectionism about an activity I was doing I should tread very carefully.

So I have known since that time that perfectionism is rarely your friend but it is so hard to practice what I preach with this one. The odd thing is that now it probably looks like a positive quality to anyone who isn’t me, but for me I still struggle with it. I said to a manager I was working wth recently that I was a perfectionist which ‘is good for, you but not so much for me’. This is usually true. I rarely make mistakes at work and on the rare occasions that I do I alert anyone who needs to know and go and make amends. The issue for me is that I am always in state of controlling my world which  – as I tell other people – is largely impossible and so quite stressful. I try to ensure every singe thing I do or say is ‘perfect’. It adds a level of anxiety to my life but means I am very accomplished. Most of the advise and thoughts I share with people in my writing and presenting are things I know and do but managing my perfectionism is a definite work in progress.

There are some strategies I use to help address these things:

  • A sense of perspective is often the enemy of perfectionism. Think about what the worst outcome of an error is because usually our fear is much greater than the situation requires
  • If you feel that if you weren’t a perfectionist about your work or interactions wiht people or whatever you worry about, and that you would be terrible at it and make careless errors, reflect that you are not going to get complacent or careless by letting go a little control. We don’t generally do things we do not want to do. The difference between perfect and terrible is a long distance indeed and it is highly unlikely if you are not perfect that you will go to the other extreme.
  • Work to address anxiety in your life. Anxiety feeds perfectionism so the less of it you have the better. There are a large number of strategies to work on anxiety including mindfulness, psychotherapy, berthing exercises and distraction. The other benefit of this is that it will help reduce your anxiety generally, which has to be a good thing.
  • Appeal to your logic and reason. It actually isn’t possible to be perfect in most of life’s endeavours. If you aim to do the best you can rather than perfection, through the lens of logic, that is essentially the same thing but in terms of your thinking and approach, doing the best you can do is  a much healthier aim than absolute perfection.

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Awesome is a fine aspiration and it definitely isn’t perfection!

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