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Episode 226: Perfectionism


And hello to you, and welcome to the Richard Nicholls podcast, the personal development podcast series that's here to help inspire, educate, and motivate you to be the best you can be. I'm Psychotherapist Richard Nicholls, and this episode is titled Perfectionism. And if you're ready, We'll start the show.

This week, I'm following up a little bit on the Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder episode from last week because it prompted a little bit of interest in the subject of perfectionism. That was a patron only episode, by the way. So if you want to go and have a listen to that one, you know where that is by now.

I waffle on about Patreon enough. So there's been quite a lot of research over the years actually to draw from. And I thought it would be a popular topic for you because, on the surface, perfectionism sounds like a good thing. Wanting to do a good job, not settling for less than the best. It sounds like that would make quite a good employee doesn't it? The thing is, a perfectionist might do a good job, but with most careers it means they're actually quite unproductive cuz it's, it's a bit like seasoning your food, a little bit of perfectionism, a chili flake, sprinkle of it, stirred throughout your job. That can be a good thing. But a whole tablespoon stirred into everything you do is gonna absolutely paralyze you.

Instead, what we want is a healthy kind of perfectionist attitude called positive striving. Which is to have high standards, but setting realistic standards so that you can feel as if you've actually achieved something and you can be satisfied with what you've done with a that's. Good enough attitude.

But as we move up on the scale of perfectionism, we've got people whose entire self worth is based upon achieving unrealistically high standards. No good comes from that. Now, it's often said that there are three types of perfectionism, self-oriented perfectionism. Other oriented perfectionism and socially prescribed perfectionism. Let's take a peak shall we?

So self-oriented perfectionism comes with a lot of guilt and self-criticism because people with it set the bar themselves and they set it too high to be attainable. And when they don't reach it, they've only got themselves to blame. But they don't blame themselves for setting it too high. They blame themselves for not being good enough to reach it.

Other oriented perfectionism is when they expect everyone else to be perfect. They set the bar too high for others to be able to reach and can be really difficult to work with and even worse to live with because when the work isn't done to their high standards, we've got a recipe for arguments and blame, which very soon turns into a lack of faith and lack of trust in other people. And so there becomes this need to control everything themselves and maybe even do everything themselves. Socially prescribed perfectionism is probably the most difficult to have though because it's when the high standards are being set by the outside world. But rather than being genuinely set by others, it's about imagined expectations of other people as if there is this collective criticism from the entire world that's scrutinizing what you do to make sure that it's perfect.

This is the one that would influence mental health problems the most, because it leads to hopelessness. Which is a major contributor to depression. It leads to hopelessness because if the outside world is setting your goals for you, and no matter what you do you can't reach them. Then you might as well not bother trying.

This is what makes people hide under the duvet because the brain begins to let go of any purpose in life, which feeds the hopelessness. This one's really quite toxic, but like I often say there is a scale, a continuum to most problems. But they do have common traits like black and white thinking or dichotomous thinking, polarized thinking, if you want to be academic about it. This, when it comes to perfectionism, is when there is no middle ground between success and failure. Like needing a personal best at every park run you do in order to be pleased with yourself. And thinking that you've failed if you are just a minute slower than last week, even though you've just run a 5K at nine o'clock on a freezing Saturday morning.

And if you couple this attitude with this marrying up of your own self worth and your achievements then you've got this belief that says I'm bad at something, therefore I am a bad person. We tend to see a lot of procrastination with perfectionists too when we set a bar too high to reach. It seems pointless to try so jobs get put off.

I can be quite bad for that. Not gonna lie, especially with academic stuff, anything that pushes my you are not clever enough button does mean I have to work quite hard at challenging my behavior when I find myself thinking But before I do that, I'll put the kettle on. When I wrote my book, I got through twice as many teabags as page numbers, and if I have to write an essay, you may as well be asking me to go on question, time and debate the benefits and disadvantages of trickle down economics with a university professor scrutinizing everything I say, but I'm aware of it. And I work with it. And that's the secret because many folk with some sort of perfectionist tendency will doubt their abilities. Not all, but probably most will be trying so hard, purely because they don't think that their best is good enough.

And that attitude leaks over into other things, even replying to text messages and writing emails and scripting podcast episodes in my case. In some cases, if they're not careful, the one thing they don't want to be becomes the only thing they're known for being unreliable. Because with socially prescribed perfectionism, for example, they might turn into the sort of person that says yes to everything because they think it's expected of them.

But try so hard that they become overwhelmed and end up giving up an abandoning ship. And I've seen that so often, not just in the consulting room.

I see it in my amateur dramatic stuff. I was at a regional conference once and somebody there was talking about how they took on a role after somebody had had to drop out because of, I think there was a death in their family or something, and they had plenty of time to learn this part. But because of their own comparison with themselves and the original actor, they worked 10 times harder than was necessary, and every rehearsal they struggled because they knew the first two or three scenes back to front almost, but not quite every word. So when they practiced at home, they almost never got to scene four, let alone Scene 12 in Act two.

And because of that, they're in accident and emergency the opening day because they passed out at work. They still did the show, they said, and it was, it was an evening thing and it went fine. But when this sort of thing happens what we want is to be able to rewind time and step back into our bodies, sort of quantum leap style, and do it all again, but knowing that everything turns out okay, but obviously we can't.

But what we can do is learn ready for next time to try not so hard. To not compare ourselves to others and to recognize that whether you're learning lines or learning a new computer system at a new job, you are not going to be perfect. Not at first, and probably not ever. And I've always felt that that's where confidence comes from. From knowing that you're not perfect because perfectionism doesn't exist.

I don't love my wife because she's perfect and she certainly doesn't love me because I'm perfect, cuz I'm chaos. Good long-lasting relationships come from loving someone despite their imperfection. I'm probably a nightmare to be married to. It was our 20th wedding anniversary last week and I'm fairly sure though I'm no more of a nightmare than anybody else. Just different, and I know there's worse. Believe me and there's probably better as well.

And as a parent, I wanna be a good dad. I wanted my son to have a perfect childhood, but a perfect childhood isn't one that's without pain or disappointment or arguments and mistakes.

I really like what a Vietnamese publisher did with my book. In English it's called 15 Minutes to Happiness, which although I've never really liked the title, it was my publisher's idea. Because inherently people are a little lazy and the idea of doing something in 15 minutes appeals, which is maybe why not long after my book came out, somebody came up with a journaling book and called it 10 Minutes to Happiness, cuz 15 minutes is just way too long to do something apparently.

But in Vietnam, maybe they're a little bit more patient and they don't need the title to catch their eye on the bookshelf quite so much. So they called it, and I apologize for my pronunciation because it will not be perfect and that's okay, Cân Bằng Cảm Xúc Cả Lúc Bão Giông. Which translates as Emotional Balance Even During Thunderstorms, when you say it properly.

But with my bad Vietnamese pronunciation, apparently it sounds something like something to do with a white van or green fish, but that's another story. I'm not perfect and that's okay. But I really like the idea that happiness comes from having to have those thunderstorms. They summed up the book in a great title because that's what all the research seems to suggest.

We have to have the bad times to enjoy the good. We have to have the thunderstorms to appreciate the sunshine because those perfect times don't exist forever, and striving for it is just gonna make us ill. One of the most dangerous connections we have with perfectionism actually is with anorexia.

Couple of years ago, there were some experiments with asking different groups of people to copy out geometric patterns and some text to see how accurate they would get it and how long it would take them, and all these different things. It showed that when someone had anorexia, they spent significantly longer on this task and produced more accurate work.

But interestingly in the non anorexic group of people there wasn't any correlation with the accuracy of the copying and the length of time taken. The quality of the work just varied from person to person as skills and talents does. But with the people with anorexia, there was a correlation showing that the only reason for the good quality of the copying was an underlying need for perfection. They did another experiment as well, which was simply separating different colored beads into, I think eight different bottles, and they had 60 seconds to do it. Afterwards each person was given the choice of double checking their work to see how they'd done or not, and if the person had anorexia, they were far, far more likely to choose to check their work.

And spent more time checking it than the people who didn't have anorexia. So perfectionism really does seem to influence a lot of things. It seems on the surface, it sounds as if it's another exaggerated form of conscientiousness, like I was on about in the O C P D episode from last week, and maybe perfectionism is a stepping stone towards obsessive compulsive personality disorder. But, you can see differences in conscientiousness and perfectionism.

None perfectionist conscientious folk, they have better coping mechanisms for dealing with things that aren't going smoothly. they've got better emotional shock absorbers to deal with the bumps in the road that daily life brings us. But perfectionists don't. They have the same bumps in the road as everybody else does, but they don't seem to have those suspension springs to stay level.

I mean, I can probably take the analogy further and say they're actually digging out their own potholes in the first place as well, I guess. Perfectionism is obviously a self-defeating way to move through life because it's built on this irony that making and admitting mistakes is an absolutely necessary part of growing up and learning and being human.

It makes you better at things makes you better at your career, better at your relationships, better at just life. And by avoiding mistakes at any cost a perfectionism is gonna find it harder to reach their own lofty goals. Preventing them from being the best they can be. From being their most successful and productive self.

And perfectionism is absolutely on the rise, especially socially prescribed perfectionism, the one that's correlated with mental illness. And when research researchers ask us, you know, where is this social pressure coming from? They eventually end up with a different question rather than an answer.

They have the question of where is it not coming from? Because it's everywhere. When you bear in mind the idea that perfectionism comes from marrying up your identity with your achievements, and the first question anyone asks someone new when they meet them for the first time is, what do you do for a living?

And every stage of our education was about achievement rather than learning. And people take a dozen photos of themselves to put on social media so they can then select the best one with the best angle and lighting. Then yeah, where is it not coming from?

So that's my soapbox for this episode. It's time to go for now.

So I shall sign off for another day, enjoy yours and try and make as many mistakes as you can, and I'll speak to you again soon. Bye for now, folks.