I never thought that I was a perfectionist growing up. The state of my room at any given point in time seemed to be an indication of my lack of perfectionism. As I grew older, however, I started wondering about it. At the same time, I also didn’t really know what it was. So, I continued on and forgot about it.
Fast forward to the present day, and again I’m wondering about it. Anyone close to me knows that I’m pretty particular about things, and often have a specific idea of how things need to be. If you visit our office, you’re likely to see some of that in action. As I worked on my car this morning, I noticed it creeping in. My fun car, a 1997 BMW M3, is now 22 years old. It has squeaks and rattles. It’s well maintained, but even so, if I’m working on the engine and I notice a sound that doesn’t seem quite right, it’s incredibly easy for me to obsess about it, rather than accepting that it’s a 22-year-old car that is going to have some strange sounds at times.
It even creeps into work. Shocking, I know. When we first started, we set out to fill gaps in services, particularly in counselling in Delta. The reasonable person would know that we were flying by the seat of our pants many times, trying things that didn’t work, and revamping again. Truth be told, as we’ve expanded and branched out far beyond counselling, we’re still figuring it out as we go along. I think this is actually a good thing because we’re trying to figure out how to help people in new, creative, and needed ways. It just doesn’t sit well with my perfectionism most of the time, and as I’m writing this, I also think this has a lot to do with the anxiety I often feel around work.
My counsellor and I were talking about this last week, and he gave me a really helpful handout on perfectionism that he’d come across, which you can read here. Addressing the full topic of perfectionism would take far longer than this blog post, so I want to give you some bullet points that I’ve noticed in my own life with perfectionism, and also what has helped me – and I hope that it helps you!
Three Signs That You Might Be A Perfectionist
- You care deeply about everything, even things that really don’t matter much.
Don’t get me wrong, caring is a good thing. Particularly as a counsellor, caring is important! Here’s the thing though – we need to care about things at an appropriate level. The difficult part is knowing what that appropriate level is, especially if you’re a perfectionist.
- You have unrealistically high standards, in almost everything you do.
High standards are a good thing. It’s something that I actually appreciate about myself, and usually, something people appreciate about me. The problem comes when our high standards become impossible One of my battles is that it is impossible for me to know about, account for, and control all of the details in a rapidly growing clinic. It was much easier when it was just me, Meg, and a couple others at the beginning. If it goes on for too long, it’s easy to get frustrated and just stop caring about anything, which doesn’t help either!
- You have a difficult time with criticism.
I don’t know anyone that likes criticism and coupled with the fact that most people suck at giving constructive criticism, it’s a difficult thing for many people to handle. It’s very difficult for perfectionists because it flies in the face of their standards, their view of themselves, and their views of their accomplishments. How do you feel when someone offers constructive criticism? Does your body respond in revolt? Do you immediately go to justification and finding ways to fight back?
These are only three of the many signs of perfectionism you may notice in yourself if you’re indeed a perfectionist. If you’re interested in getting a quick sense of whether this might be a thing for you, you can try this screening tool as a way of finding out if perfectionism should be on your radar.
So, what if you are indeed a perfectionist? What do you do? Here are three things that help me keep my perfectionism in check, and I hope they’re helpful for you!
Three Ways To Combat Your Perfectionism
- Question your level of care about things.
If you are caring about everything very deeply, then there’s something goofy in your meter. This one can be difficult, especially for something high on the emotional spectrum. Caring deeply about fellow human beings is a wonderful attribute, although it too needs to be kept in check. Caring deeply about whether the Kleenex boxes match the wall colour, or the specific noise your car is making is exactly as it should be when everything is running fine, or other such things may be an indication that your level of care is off.
One question I ask myself frequently is, “What is my level of care on this one, and is that reasonable?” I find this question to be especially helpful if my stress, or anxiety levels are high – because if they are, then that lovely limbic system is going to shut off our frontal lobes, which is the area of the brain that helps us determine reasonability.
- Question your standards and expectations.
Working hard is a good thing. Being disciplined is also a good thing. Having no boundaries on either of these is not. It was pointed out to me when I did my Birkman assessment during my certification training that I will never expect anyone else to do something that I wouldn’t do myself. I’ve found this to be very true. The problem is, I expect extremely high standards from myself, and thus, it’s easy for me to pass all of those onto others. My own standards are often impossible to meet.
A question I use to keep myself in check on this one is, “If someone else were doing this, and it had nothing to do with me, would I think this standard was reasonable?” This integrates a little bit of the mindful self-compassion that Kristin Neff has developed and I find very helpful. We often expect things of ourselves that we would never expect from others. It also helps us give our brain a break, reduce anxiety, and increase the chance of having a reasonable perspective.
- Have key people in your life whom you trust.
This is perhaps the most important of these three. I cannot overstate the value of key people who know you well, care about you, and are able to speak truth into your life, even when it’s hard. The trust part is key, because you’re going to have to trust that they’re doing it for your benefit, and it’s not because you’ve failed.
I’m fortunate to have a number of key people like this in my life who keep me in check. First and foremost is my wife, Meg. She knows me better than anyone else in the world, loves me despite my inadequacies, and also isn’t afraid to speak the truth to me when I need to hear it. I know that when she calls me out, she’s doing it for my own good, and I need that.
I also have my Registered Clinical Counsellor that I have a standing appointment with each month. I’ve been seeing the same counsellor since 2014, and I still remember our first appointment. I sat down and said to him, “Here’s how this works. I have impossible standards, I care deeply, and I don’t always have perspective. I need someone who isn’t afraid to call me out when I need it. If that isn’t you, that’s ok and I’ll thank you for your time. If it is, awesome, and we’ll get on famously.” He said he had no problem with that, and true to his word, he’s still supporting me, pushing me, and calling me out when I need it 5 years later.
Perfectionism can be a difficult thing to manage. It’s part personality, part anxiety, and wholly exhausting at times. I’ve been dealing with it for many years, but through some of the strategies above, and thanks in great part to some key people in my life, I have learned to manage it well, most of the time.
I know that my counsellor has played a key role in my ability to manage this part of myself. If you’re struggling with perfectionism and would like some help, we’re here. We’ve all got our stuff, and sometimes that outside perspective can be really helpful.