How does perfectionism affect our emotional well-being?

Are our perfectionist tendencies a strength or a weakness? Or a mixture of the two?

There is a natural tendency in most of us to want to be as good as we can be, or to do our best. We set high standards for ourselves and can be disappointed if we fall short.

But when we feel that only the perfect is good enough, we might be setting ourselves up for increased stress. And many aspects of our modern life tend to push us in that direction.

In schools, the A* is now seen as only prima facie evidence of high achievement. Getting only an A – or heaven forbid, even a B – can lead us to think that life-as-we-know-it is collapsing beneath us.

And grade-craving gives us a ready-made parameter for comparing ourselves against others. But it is that sort of comparison which can be another source of stress and which can tip us into a spiral of negative thoughts. It can be an easy assumption that everybody else is cleverer, has more friends, has a better sex life, has a nicer car – and generally is having more fun!

There is an obvious statistical flaw in that form of thinking. But it is the sort of thinking which social media is increasingly driving. Nobody posts pics of horrible holidays or ugly baby nephews. They just send us the nice ones. And this can lead us into depressive or anxious feelings if as a result we start to think that our lives are sad by comparison.

From our experience as counsellors in Hastings, Eastbourne, Bexhill and other parts of the county, perfectionism often seems to drive procrastination for our cleints. Because many of us want the perfect outcome, but know really that that is unattainable, we find ways of delaying getting down to that revision, or writing that article before the deadline looms. Unconsciously, we are delaying too that inevitable moment when we realise that the perfect will always elude our grasp. It was a light bulb moment for a teacher client when he concluded that being 80% good enough, 80% of the time in his profession was a reasonable target and one which reduced the risk of stress and anxiety.

Perfectionism can help us to aim high and to achieve the best we can. But perfectionism is a mirage, a will of the wisp. In chasing it, we might as well be after wild geese. Perfectionists are bound to fail if they are setting themselves standards which are beyond the reach of mere mortals. It is good to have goals in life. But, with so much of our lives outside our controls, we are not going to achieve all of them.

For many of us, our future emotional well-being depends on us checking our perfectionist tendencies and bringing them back to the real world. This is where counselling with a therapist might be a real help.



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