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Perfectionism & Authenticity: How To Turn Inadequacy & Procrastination Into Progress & Play

While one person hesitates because he feels inferior, the other is busy making mistakes and becoming superior ~ Henry C. Link

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From nit-picking with our partners, to struggling to engage in our own creativity, to never feeling good enough as a father or husband, or being unable to forgive ourselves for cringey, embarrassing social faux pas, perfectionism can come in many shapes and sizes.

In any case, It’s no wonder how, in a modern society that says that being average is a sin, where high achievers have become the norm and the benchmark of success keeps being raised, any of us expect to figure out what success means to us, let alone find perfection in it.

You see, many people see the problem of perfectionism as one that prevents them from living the life that they feel they are capable of achieving, whereas I believe the true tragedy of perfectionism is in its denial of the life we already have.

So, what does it mean to be a perfectionist?

Well, according to research there are in fact three types of perfectionists. For most people that identify as perfectionists, the type of perfectionistic behaviour they engage in is mixed, there's just more of an emphasis on one, rather than another.

  • First is the Self-Oriented Perfectionist. These are the individuals who set incredibly high, unrealistic standards for themselves.

  • Second is the Other-Oriented Perfectionists. These people are the ones that maintain those same high, unrealistic standards for those around them, particularly their closer relationships. After all, if they expect high standards of themselves, why should they expect anything less from their family, friends and colleagues?

  • Third is Socially-Oriented Perfectionists. These individuals are those that imagine that it is others that have high expectations of them, and it’s in failing to live up to these standards that distresses them.

From my experience working with men as a therapist, most men who feel themselves to be perfectionists seem to initially identify most with self-oriented perfectionism and the setting of high standards for themselves and can often neglect to consider the other two, particularly socially-oriented perfectionism.

As men, and perhaps more broadly as human-beings, we all to some extent want to embody a real sense of a ‘I Don't care, I do what I want’ attitude, and we’re all successful, or unsuccessful depending on how you want to look at it, to varying degrees at actualising this.

In reality, most of us do care a tremendous amount about what others think and allow that to shape how we show up in the world. And this in itself isn't a bad thing. There are certainly many situations where considering the opinions and expectations of others is greatly important and necessary.

The problem arises however when we become overly preoccupied with our self-image and the opinions of others, and begin deferring our sense of fulfilment to external, rather than internal, sources.

When this happens, often these external sources, for instance, the approval of a parent of a peer group, can become internalized as we become slowly more divorced from our own, intuitive sense of what grants us fulfilment, leading to increased dissatisfaction, restlessness and meaninglessness in our lives.

So what are some examples of perfectionism?

  • Feeling like you’re behind in relation to your peers, and a constant need to ‘keep up’, whether that’s through behaviour or appearances

  • Feeling like you constantly have to check yourself in relation to benchmarks - ‘I should have a stable job at 25, I should have a mortgage by 30, I should have kids by 35’

  • Feeling anxious or unsettled when other’s opinions of you don’t match with how you want to be perceived

  • Limiting how you express yourself, be that through the clothes you wear, the music you listen to or the activities you engage in through fear of disapproval by others.

  • Not permitting yourself to do things that you enjoy simply for their own sake, rather than seeing the value in something purely for its end, such as progressing you further in your chosen career.

So what is it that makes us seek perfection?

To go back to our original quote, I think it’s fair to say that we’ve all either felt at different times in our lives what it is to embody both a sense of hesitancy in pursuing the life we want due to feelings of inferiority, as well as a willingness to make mistakes in pursuit of a growing sense of mastery and superiority.

So what is it that separates these two positions? Is it merely an open-shut case of the eternal pessimist versus the eternal optimist, the person who seemingly cannot grant themselves permission to fail versus the person who seems to to take failure in their stride?

Well, according to the Austria-born psychiatrist Alfred Adler, what separates these two individuals is in fact, not as much as you might think. You see, Adler, who was a student of Freud, believed that one of, if not the primary goal of all human beings was to overcome feelings of inferiority, by striving towards a sense of superiority.

What’s more, Adler believed that this striving towards superiority is innate within all of us from birth, and it is this driving force that moves us, as infants, overwhelmed by the older, larger, more superior adults to crawl, walk, talk, socialize and eventually go out and get jobs. This is all done in the name of striving to overcome a sense of helplessness and powerlessness in relation to the outer world.

You see, as humans, we all intuitively have a sense of our own potential - as we grow we are all naturally moved from within to want to test our boundaries - to see how much weight we can lift, to go and talk to the girl despite the butterflies in our stomach, to grapple with interesting ideas and topics that challenge us.

A desire for continued personal growth then, as well as a sense of control, competency and status as a valued member of a community, is healthy. However, problems may begin to arise when we pursue these things - status, power, control, exclusively for their own sake, rather than as a natural by-product of our willingness to engage in the continued exploration of our own potential.

A Case Study On Perfectionism

At this point, an example may be of use.

John, a man in his 40’s that I had been working with for around a month at the time, sat in front of me one day and said that despite going to work every day, trying to eat healthy and keep up with friends and family, a nagging part of him couldn’t see the point in living any more because it was all going to end anyway.

Rather than engage him in a debate about the meaning of life, I asked him about his relationship with his daughter - specifically, I asked him about his daughter's laugh, and what he called ‘baby jokes’ that they shared between them. I asked him what point he thought his 2-year old daughter's baby jokes had, and what the goal was of her giggling. At this point, John seemed confused by the question, so I followed up by asking what the point of laughing was at all, and whether it should be dispensed with entirely - after all, John was a practical man, why wouldn’t he do away with something so frivolous as laughing. On the contrary, John was understandably very defensive about his daughter's giggle, and although he wasn’t able to fully answer what ‘the point’ of her giggles were, he nonetheless considered them valuable, essential even. In fact, I remember John saying that his daughter’s giggle was one of, if not the only thing, that made life worth living.

I then asked John whether he thought that when he was a baby, he had told baby jokes, and he replied that it was likely he wasn’t allowed to. You see, John had learned from an early age that expression, for its own sake, whether through a giggle, a cry, a shout, wasn’t to be tolerated and that if he wanted affection, he had to sacrifice his desire to express naturally, and instead ‘perform’ in a way that was deemed worthy of love. This lesson, compounded over decades, was at the heart of John’s perfectionism - namely, a lesson that John, just being John, was unworthy of being loved. With this in mind, I asked John if he could allow himself to face and embrace that part of him that he deemed unworthy, and in doing so, love himself unconditionally.

Like John, for many of us, the prospect of loving ourselves unconditionally is extremely daunting, if not entirely objectionable - not least because a lot of us that identify as perfectionists are ambitious, and worry that if we were to love ourselves unconditionally, this would be akin to ‘letting ourselves of the hook’ , resting on our laurels and getting nothing done.

In a sense then, this could be said to be the role that perfectionism plays in a lot of our minds - namely a strict ‘parent-like’ figure, an enforcer, that although painful, often provides enough negative motivation, be that through fear of punishment, rejection or disapproval, to get us across the finish line, often with not a moment to spare.

As a recovering perfectionist myself, this is an objection I too share, so let me clarify what I mean by ‘unconditional love’.

Perfectionism & Unconditional Love

To unconditionally love yourself means to recognise unconditionally that you are human, and by virtue of this, can never be perfect. However, in doing so, you also acknowledge that the very instincts that drive us towards self-expression, self-reliance, and a desire for competency, not only for ourselves but our wider community, are precisely the qualities that make us human.

In other words, unconditional love is not deluding ourselves to the obvious conditions of life, like paying bills, putting food on the table, maintaining your health and contributing to society. It’s letting go of everyone else’s expectations of you and trusting unconditionally that engaging with that deeper part of you, your true Self that seeks expression, is the best way to meet those conditions of life and mitigate unnecessary suffering, not only for yourself but for society as a whole.

In a sense then, unconditional love may equally be said to be a willingness to engage in the process, rather than be preoccupied with the end product and its relative perfection or imperfection.

It’s only when you can get to this place that perfection can finally turn to its equivalent in health…play.

From Perfectionistic To Playful To Progress

When I used to think about the concept of play, I used to see it as an activity exclusively reserved for children - that as we got older and assumed more responsibility, the time spent engaging in care-free play would slowly diminish over time, and guess what? I was right... but it doesn’t have to be this way.

You see, what I’ve come to realise is that play is misunderstood - it’s not just a frivolous activity to be indulged in. Rather, to be playful means to give yourself the breathing room to make mistakes, to be present in the moment, to not take yourself too seriously and to be animated by the endless possibilities that stem from finite resources. In other words, it’s a state of creativity.

Think about it like this: if you give children pots and pans to play with it’s just as likely they’ll use them as musical instruments as pretend to be chefs.

The thing about play however, is that we can typically only engage with this state when we feel safe to do so. From a neurobiological perspective, it’s been shown that whenever we feel fearful, panicked or even hungry, play is largely inhibited. In fact, in a study conducted on rats where play was identified through wrestling, a commentator concluded that…

“ …The basic needs of social warmth, support, and affiliation must be fulfilled first; only when confidence has been restored does carefree playfulness retum.”

We’ll return to that word confidence soon but for now, it’s safe to say that for the most part, the same is likely true for humans. We need to feel a degree of safety and security to feel playful. Perfectionism on the other hand, strips us of this. How likely are you to feel safe when a part of you demands that no mistakes are made? How playful are you going to feel when you deny your humanity and insist you live life as a robot?

You see, perfectionism narrows in - it reduces our perspective and strips the color from the world so that things can only be seen in black and white terms. My invitation to you would be to do the opposite - to zoom out, to see whatever it is you’re feeling perfectionistic over within the bigger picture.

That starts with asking yourself questions like:

  1. What is the perfectionism serving?

  2. Is seeking perfection here the best use of my energy?

  3. What is the bigger picture I’m avoiding by hyperfocusing on this one area?

  4. What would be the consequence if I made a mistake?

  5. What would be good enough?

  6. According to whose standards?

  7. Why is what I’m currently doing not good enough?

  8. Are those standards achievable?

  9. Is the world so black and white as imperfect and perfect?

In all likelihood, the areas of your life where you feel the need to be perfect do, in fact, have some wiggle room built-in to make mistakes. You don’t have to be the perfect father, you just have to be good enough. Your idea for a business doesn't have to make six figures to be worthwhile, it just has to have a spark of inspiration. You don’t have to say exactly the right thing to get the girl, you just have to say hello.

And that isn’t to say that sometimes there will be real risk, where the margins for error are smaller. Something we all intuitively know, as was confirmed earlier - it’s hard to feel playful when you’re struggling to put food on the table and have a gas and electric bill the length of your arm to contend with.

It’s in those moments, it comes down to that same unconditional belief that following your gut feeling, engaging with that deeper part of you, is likely the best choice you have when the chips are down.

Developing that level of self-confidence, as mentioned early as a prerequisite for play, can only come through experience - knowing that whatever happens, you’ll be strong enough to pick yourself up and roll with the punches.

And for those of you that are still wondering how you can reconcile your ambition with your perfectionism, consider this. Who is it for? To what end are you ambitious? We all want a better life - that isn’t something that outright should be pathologized, but is it solely so that you can consume more? So that you can feel a greater sense of security? To feel validated as a success by your friends, your partner or your parents? Or is it so that you can express yourself more, give more of yourself and in so doing, be recognised and confirmed in your value both internally, within yourself, and externally, by your community?

Ultimately, nothing is ever going to feel perfect, and that is the real beauty of life - if you’re waiting for the perfect moment you’ll be waiting forever. You come into this world with no chips and you leave with none, so why not use the cards you’ve been given, play the best game you can and enjoy yourself in the process.



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