Is trying to be PERFECT ruining your life Dream of a spotless home, top career, high-voltage love life and flawless body New research shows it’s a fatal mistake…
08:01 GMT, 9 July 2012
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While trying on a dress in a busy department store the other day, I ended up slumped in the changing room crying tears of self-pity and frustration.
The outfit, which had looked so gorgeous in a magazine, was truly awful on my out-of-shape, post-birth body.
But it wasn’t just my disappointing reflection that reduced me to a sobbing wreck. There were several other things preying on my mind.
First, my partner and I had fallen out because — wait for it — he’d put a pair of dungarees back to front on our baby. (It was actually his reaction to this that caused the argument — he thought it was cute and amusing while I was behaving as if he’d committed a heinous crime.)
On top of that, my mum rescheduled a babysitting arrangement and a perpetually late friend kept me waiting half an hour for a coffee. But, on this occasion, it was the ill-fitting dress that triggered the breakdown.
After I’d pulled myself together, I acknowledged I had a crying fit every couple of months. And I knew the cause — chronic perfectionism, an affliction many women can secretly relate to.
Mine centres on trying to be everything to everyone. I’m attempting to be a perfect full-time mum because I can’t bear to put my baby in nursery.
I’m also trying to work as a writer because I don’t want to be financially dependent on my partner; keep the house clean and tidy; cook wholesome, healthy meals for my family; be a faultless partner, daughter, sister and friend; and shift that stubborn baby weight.
After a few weeks of aiming for the impossible, I inevitably end up feeling like a failure.
Or someone lets me down, making me feel worthless and unimportant (perfectionists always feel let down because they expect the same saintly flawlessness from everyone else).
This is when I end up: at best, breaking down in tears and vowing to change my life or, at worst, visiting my GP and being prescribed anti-depressants. This soul-destroying cycle has been the backdrop of my adult life.
My rational mind knows it is sad, pathetic and futile. I know that there’s no such thing as perfect. Yet I can’t seem to break free from the grip of this pernicious disease.
Of course, I’m not alone. I once read about Karen Kain, a Canadian prima ballerina and one of the most respected dancers in the world.
She gave more than 10,000 performances and, in her autobiography, said she received satisfaction from about 12 of them. Her primary feeling was disappointment.
So do many women — not only incredibly high-achievers like Karen — feel this way Research has found that 40 per cent of women (compared to 20 per cent of men) feel inadequate in the workplace and at home simply because they don’t meet the high standards they set themselves.
And my talks with friends and acquaintances suggest these figures may be an underestimate. Seemingly every woman I know feels burdened by perfectionism.
Take Fiona, 32, an accountant with an 18-month-old son. She says she’s always demanded ‘super-human excellence’ from herself and those around her.
63 per cent of women and 67 per cent of working mums suffer from stress, but just 51 per cent of men do
‘I was always a grade-A student and excelled at my career, but when I became a mother things increased a hundredfold,’ she says.
‘I ended up trying to do everything myself because I wanted everything to be perfect and I didn’t trust anyone else to meet my high standards. I wouldn’t let anyone, including my husband, feed my son because I thought they wouldn’t do it properly.
‘I’d be up all hours cooking organic meals for him and trying to catch up with work.
‘I’d meet a group of other mums and look at what they were feeding their babies. If it was something out of a jar or packet, I’d feel smugly superior.
‘I knew it was ridiculous. I knew they were probably less stressed than me, but I couldn’t help it. I had to be the best.’
Kate, 51, an HR manager and keen marathon runner, is single and childless. She admits that being a perfectionist has taken much of the joy out of life. ‘I never, ever feel satisfied,’ she says. ‘Even if I get a personal best in a race, I don’t give myself a pat on the back. I start thinking about whether I can go even faster next time.
‘I take no pleasure in food because, for me, it is simply fuel for my running. This also filters into other areas of my life. My house always has to look pristine — I’ve been known to get up at 6am to clean the bathroom — and I’ve never been in a long-term relationship because I haven’t been able to find someone good enough for me.’
Like many perfectionists, Nicola and Kate have been diagnosed with stress and depression.So why are so many women plagued with this life-sucking condition Why are we so scared of being average, of being our own, flawed selves
Quest of perfection: Celebs like Amanda Holden, left, and Beyonce got their figures back quickly after giving birth which can make new mums who don't do the same feel inadequate
Dr Brene Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston, answers these questions in her book, The Gifts Of Imperfection.
She says we get sucked into the cycle of perfection because we believe it will protect us.
‘Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect and act perfect, we can minimise or avoid the pain of blame, judgment and shame,’ she says.
‘It is not the same as striving to be our best. It is not about growth. It is a shield.’ But, she says, it is an ineffective one.
‘The quest for perfection is exhausting and unrelenting. We go through our lives trying to be who we think we’re supposed to be, doing and saying what we think people want to hear, putting on whatever mask we think we need.
‘We end up saying “Yes” a lot when we mean “No2 and we end up saying “No” when we mean: “Yes, I really want to do that.” ’
A mask of perfectionism results in living a false life, according to Brown. We are so busy worrying about what people think and trying to be someone we’re not that we lose sight of who we really are.
We also, more often than not, end up broken in some way. Indeed, many psychologists believe perfectionism is closely linked to anorexia, obsessive compulsive disorder, social inadequacy, alcoholism, chronic anxiety and depression.
The self-destructive process goes something like this: if perfectionists don’t have the perfect body, they develop an eating disorder.
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If they don’t have the perfect marriage, they get divorced. If life isn’t perfect, it’s worthless. Flaws and mistakes are simply intolerable.
Brown, who has researched this area for ten years, has collected and analysed thousands of stories from men and women aged 18 to 87.
She has found surprising patterns — people who embraced imperfection and vulnerability appear to be living happier, more inspiring lives.
They have what she describes as a ‘belief in their own inherent worthiness’, unlike so many of us who have created a long list of worthiness prerequisites (I’ll be worthy when I lose 20lb, when I get pregnant, when I manage to juggle working and motherhood without feeling guilty, when I get that dream job, when my parents approve of me).
So where does all this excessive pressure come from According to Nicola Phoenix, a psychologist and author of Reclaiming Happiness, there are many factors, but society plays a big part.
‘We live in a society that floods us with unattainable expectations around every topic imaginable,’ she says.
‘Just the other day I saw a picture of a model who had very recently given birth. She was on the catwalk and looked amazing. Even though we know this is 0.0001 per cent of the population, it can still make us feel this is how we are supposed to look.
‘In addition, as a society we’re not very good at saying I’m doing the best I can. Instead, we’re very good at saying: “What’s everyone else going to think” ’
So how do we shake off perfectionism and learn to truly accept our flaws The answer is to take time and, in small steps, embrace our imperfections.
‘First, we have to stop being so hard on ourselves,’ says Phoenix.
‘Perfectionists monitor themselves so closely. They give themselves very little scope to make a mistake, even though we all make errors. The key is to start small — and not be a perfectionist about getting rid of perfectionism!’
Or, in the words of the late eminent psychotherapist Shoma Morita: ‘Be the best imperfect person you can be.’