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Perfectionism and why you’ll never reach the finish line

Updated: Nov 20, 2023

Hi! I'm Philip, Laura's blog editor and marketing assistant, writing a guest blog post this week.

I always thought there is a set of optimal conditions to be achieved to be able to start and work on a project, and I strived to find them. I thought that I could look into the future to see my perfect future self, and could point out exactly what I needed to become that person. And I was sorely disappointed.

What it looked like for me

On a personal level, I kept telling myself that when I tone the right muscles, I'll be able to wear the clothes I actually want to wear. Once I buy the right clothes and dress a certain way, I’ll fulfil some imagined fantasy, and I would finally feel confident. By feeling confident and achieving a self-esteem Eden, I’ll be surrounded by the right people, the most engaged friends and have the 'ideal' job.

And it didn’t stop there - the impossible added pressures I forced on myself (and those around me), supposedly dubbed as ‘self-awareness’ or ‘goal-setting’, also reflected on my work and professional life. I kept telling myself "once I buy this reclining desk I saw on a Netflix show once, then I’ll be super productive and as efficient as possible, and then it will all be alright". I would think "I’ll complete this massive project i’ve been really passionate about but been putting off for ages, and I’ll land the perfect job” (if only the only prerequisite for finding a job you love was applying for it in a standing position!). This not only set unrealistic expectations on my future self, but also did no favours for my future self’s wallet.

I convinced myself that I had to keep spending on gadgets, technological bits and bobs, an assortment of calendar apps promising to streamline EVERY MINUTE of my day, software, wireless chargers and desk paraphernalia. An assortment of self-help books and literary accoutrements. The list doesn’t end there; my self-imposed holistic approach to everything reared its face here: mist diffusers with concentration essential oils and light bulbs with the right kind of yellow light. Organic coffee with the right acidity and water with optimal pH. Discussing my eating habits is redundant, you can see the pattern forming here. All this in the name of achieving this nirvana of problem-solving.

The impossible goal post

The more I kept moving, or rather constricting the goal posts, the better I got at procrastinating. I was procrastinating my current, day-to-day tasks by thinking tools, aesthetics, or physical circumstances can change them. And I was procrastinating on an overarching level - by placing all these seemingly reachable and important obstacles in my own way, I subconsciously knew I could never really get to the finish line, or complete the task at hand.

You can call it self-sabotage, or maybe a defensive/protective mechanism; procrastination after all is your brain’s way of diverging or deflecting from uncomfortable feelings that it believes will arise by actually doing the thing. When, actually, doing the thing is what will finally allow you to gain confidence in your task-solving skills and your ability to do work you’re proud of.

How I’m learning to let go

I won’t be definitive about any suggestions and advice, simply because this is still very much a plan I'm trying to set into motion. Every day I’ll catch myself falling back into old, unhelpful thinking patterns and resultantly unhelpful behaviours. But here’s what helped me get closer to letting go of perfection:

1. Describe, don’t analyse

If you often find yourself using everything and everyone around you as a point of comparison, that might be a sign that you’re subconsciously set on trying to bring yourself down. So it might be a good idea to become more aware of it and take steps to actively stop beating yourself up.

Oftentimes you might feel jealous of something someone else has that you feel like you don’t, and chastise yourself for what you think you’re lacking. Envy is a sign of something you’re missing, not something you’re lacking. A need gone unfulfilled. So maybe ask yourself; what feeling am I experiencing? What need of mine am I ignoring and leaving unmet? How can I help myself? Remember that not everything is a competition.

Some great, practical advice I got from my own time in therapy was to switch up my internal monologue: don't analyse, describe instead.

Example of analysing: You see a couple walking together, holding hands. You are currently single, and seeing them lovingly embrace immediately sends you into a spiral of self-shaming. You begin blaming yourself, your looks or your circumstances for being single, and tell yourself unhelpful stories about how this is how you are always going to feel.

The above example sees feelings as facts. And these feelings appear to over-ride critical thinking. Engaging in this kind of subconscious behaviour can also be further enabled by a cognitive bias, or an emotional bias. What can help here, is to change up your perception.

Example of describing: You see a happy couple, content together. You can see they enjoy each other's company and you even think that they are both wearing nice outfits. If feelings of longing or loneliness arise, accept them and feel them. Try not to criticise yourself for feeling the way you are, and allow those feelings to exist in you without attaching them to any specific thoughts about you, or beliefs about yourself. Let those feelings and thoughts subside on their own, accepting without judging them.

2. Self-awareness

Try to understand yourself. Really try to listen to the voice in your head that pops up when you start feeling the weight of expectation. Who or what does that sound like? Is it maybe someone else’s expectations of you camouflaging as your own? Is that voice trying to get you to do something that doesn’t necessarily sound like what you really, actually would want to do or achieve? If you feel hyper focused on accomplishing something in a very specific way, try to 'zoom out' of your thoughts for a second and explore different ways of achieving your goal. Maybe rethink what expectations you have of the end product or outcome of what you’re working on, or the task you’re completing.

3. Therapy and counselling

Subconscious comparison, impossible expectations of ourselves and a predisposition for anxious thinking are some traits that can be more hard-wired in some people’s brains than others. If your internal dialogue is being unhelpful and keeps reinforcing negative thoughts and unhelpful thinking patterns, it might be a good idea to explore therapy. If it is accessible to you, speaking to a licensed professional can help you understand why your thoughts are being formed the way they are, and help you find new ways of thinking and acting. CBT (Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy) is usually offered, but this can differ based on many different things. Talking about feelings that bring up this internal pressure can help them subside on their own, or can help you explore them with more ease and acceptance.

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