When someone says they’re a perfectionist, they can mean it in a good or a bad way. ‘I’m a perfectionist’ can mean ‘I have high standards, and I don’t accept anything less’, or ‘I suffer from the debilitating tendency to worry if things don’t fit my expectations’.
Maybe they are two sides of the same coin. On the upside, a person may set high goals for their experiences, and therefore achieve a higher standard of experience. But on the downside, that same person may have to endure a lot of personal suffering in the achievement of that aim.
What are high standards? In order to know, I suppose you have to have a way of judging results. A businessman might judge that the highest possible profit should be achieved, or the highest possible customer satisfaction. A fashion designer might judge that their results should match the heights of their original vision.
In domestic life, this can convert into setting high standards for our surroundings. A person might decide that their house needs to be cleaned to the highest sanitary standards, or be tidied to the ultimate in orderliness.
In certain occupations, the desire to be error-free is probably necessary – who would employ an accountant who gives inaccurate information, or a pilot who will ‘probably’ fly a plane to its destination every time? Depending on context, attention to detail can be crucial.
Working in the field of mental health, I have some interest in the effects of perfectionism on the mind and body. I have noticed that those who suffer in relation to ‘high standards’ share certain characteristics:
INABILITY TO SWITCH OFF – Pursuing high standards in one area of your life can be a problem if you take that perfectionism with you to another area where it isn’t appropriate. If you work in a job where error is not permitted, then it is important to be able to switch off. Techniques that help include allowing decompression time between work and home life, and changing clothes and routines so that your body knows when it is ‘on guard’, and when it is ‘at play’.
ANGER ISSUES – It’s important for your body to know the difference between a result, and a person. This sounds obvious. But it’s the key to not being angry. Those who let anger affect them, are often those who attribute fault to either the beings around them, or themselves. ‘I’m surrounded by fools!’ they will say, or else ‘I’m such an idiot’. It may be better to view people as perfect, but behaviours as sometimes unexpected. That way, we do not need to attack people when problems arise – we just need to adjust to the results, and act as necessary.
INAPPROPRATE STANDARD-SETTING – When we want to control our lives, we sometimes do it by raising our standards. People demonstrate their control over their environment in different ways: some dress more smartly; some tidy obsessively; some seek to control the behaviour of those around them. This can become a problem when the resources don’t match the need. Thus, the obsessive smart dresser gets into debt; the obsessive cleaner uses up all of their time cleaning; the people-controller loses the goodwill of their family or colleagues.
SWITCH OFF – Take time to transition between different areas of your life. When coming home from work, take a moment to go for a walk, or do something low-pressure. This way, you are less likely to inflict your wonderfully high standards on your nearest and dearest. Make sure you allow your body to wind down and take time off, so that you do not live your life at an unbearably over-attentive pace.
ACT, DON’T BLAME – If you are tempted to act angrily towards others, then remind yourself that ‘people are perfect, but behaviours are often surprising’. Then take whatever action you think is appropriate, without blaming anyone. By all means hold others accountable, but address the behaviour, not the person.
LET GO WHEN IT DOESN’T MATTER – Make sure you have areas of your life where you can relax. In particular, if your perfectionism is costing you too much in the way of time, money, or relationships… then it’s time to let go.
Perfectionism has a good and a bad side.
High standards are commendable in certain circumstances.
But you can cause yourself anxiety if you are unable to switch off, if you get angry at others, or if you extend your high standards to people and environments where they are not appropriate.
If you can, become an expert at switching off and resting. Stay peaceful by reminding yourself that people are perfect, but behaviours are weird. And when your perfectionism is costing you too much, know when to let go.