Perfecting “perfectionism”: A positive force for change?
Last month we wrote at length about the pitfalls of perfectionism and the straightjacket of “What will people think?”, and how it may hold you back in life. Today I’m going to turn things on their head a little by explaining that there is a healthy type of perfectionism, and it can actually be a driving motivational force in our lives. The key difference between perfectionism which helps or hinders is the focus of that perfectionism.
Let me explain: The “healthy” type of perfectionism is internally focused – I want to be the best I can be. It is all about how you perceive yourself, and having firm standards that you aspire to meet for personal satisfaction and achievement.
The other, unhealthy type is externally focused – what will people think? It is a “straitjacket” because it is a debilitating mental loop. This type of perfectionism is driven by self-consciousness, and an obsession about others’ perceptions of you.
One is a drive to excel, the other is a drive to perfect. The former results in active coping strategies – finding
ways to get things done rather than avoiding them – and achieving more; the latter is productivity-stifling, leading to high levels of hassle and
stress, with avoidance as a key way to avoid dealing with problems.
Some people claim they “strive for perfection” as a means of self-improvement. But don’t confuse the two. At its core, being the unhealthy type of perfectionist is all about trying to earn approval. And when your focus is on something outside of your self-control – outside of your sphere of influence – it only leads to the problems identified in our earlier post.
Where do we learn to be “perfect”? And how can we learn the “healthy” type?
As mentioned in our earlier post, the seeds for perfection are planted early and come from various sources. And when I mean early, I mean really early. I still remember one case where I helped a girl aged only five years old – five years old! – to uncover unhelpful thoughts contributing to her feelings of inadequacy. She kept bringing up sentiments like “I’m stupid”, “I can’t do anything right”, “Everybody is better than me”. Where does a five-year-old learn such mental loops? I discovered they had arisen following a number of unsuccessful school interviews for admission into Year 1 in certain schools in Hong Kong. That little girl was already setting herself up for a life of restriction and stagnation.
Recently, I have seen a spike in unhealthy perfectionism in teenagers. Teenage-hood has always been a tough time, when the body and mind is going through so much change, growth and formation, all while you are trying to fit in, get along, and figure things out. Add the ubiquitous nature of social media these days, and there is no more “shutting the school gate” and heading home for the day – the pressure to “fit in” and be “perfect” is constant and invading.
When helping your children through high-pressure situations like these remember to keep the focus on internal growth. Help build a positive buffer to outside pressures within your child by:
- Encouraging effort not outcome, and a growth mindset.
- Giving them space to fail and to develop greater mental resilience.
- Encouraging and developing curiosity in your child and instilling a love of learning.
- Encouraging them to be themselves and embrace their true, authentic selves.
- Helping to set up/establish a supportive network around them in their local community, and identify positive role models. For example, within the school itself, in a local sports club, as part of membership to a local club, or through other friends and their families. Such networks and role models are particularly important for children at boarding school where they are totally “exposed” 24/7.
Finally, address unhealthy insecurities as they arise by keeping a line of communication open with your child – keep sweeping issues under the carpet and they will only grow.
For those of us who cannot change the way we were raised, remember the key to transforming unhealthy perfectionism to something more beneficial at any age lies in shifting the focus from external perceptions onto your own growth and progression – I want to be the best I can be. And when doing so, remember this mantra: comparison is the thief of joy. We never compare ourselves to others fairly. Whenever we make comparisons, it’s always to those who are bigger, faster, smarter or stronger. And that’s where unhealthy perfectionism festers. Compare yourself to no one else but yourself. Ask yourself: Where was I and where I am now? How have I improved? Then move on to the next step.
Overcoming perfectionism through acceptance
Finally overcoming a hampering perfectionist mindset lies in acceptance. Acceptance of yourself and all that you are, including you own perceived “imperfections”. It means embracing your “cracks”, rather than puttying up the holes. Being your authentic self, warts and all, actually makes you more attractive to people and positive experiences. As Leonard Cohen describes in his song Anthem: “There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
In my own life, I believe the most poignant example of embracing the cracks comes from my good friend, Lisa Ray. A model and Bollywood actress, Lisa was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer seven years ago. Her treatment (which is ongoing) involved taking steroids, which caused weight gain, and losing her hair. Not only was this tough for a woman whose career was built on her beauty, being able to be candid about her illness was virtually unheard of in the Indian culture. Rather than hide away from her “imperfections”, Lisa was the first Indian celebrity to embrace her vulnerabilities – on the red carpet, no less, as she so eloquently explains in an article, ‘More beautiful for having been broken’.
“When I announced my diagnosis from the red carpet at the Toronto International Film Festival, I had put on forty pounds from steroids and developed the classic ‘moonface’. But I felt more at ease than ever before in my body and my soul. I was freeing myself of ‘the pathology of perfection’ by highjacking a very glamourous moment to talk about something more personally meaningful to myself and all humanity: life… What do I care if I’m not a perfect size zero, when I’m grappling with a serious disease? I’m the same person, just more invested in life. Nothing less than the threat of death does that…”
Lisa not only embraces her cracks, she believes she is more beautiful, more whole and more fulfilled because of them. She uses the analogy of the Japanese tradition of Kintusukuroi – the art of repairing broken pottery with gold lacquer and understanding that the piece is more beautiful for having been broken – to describe her own life.
“Often, we expect repairs to be seamless and to make the object appear to be ‘new’ again, whereas [kintusukuroi] art pays homage to the idea that there is a place for ‘better than new’. Not merely observing your cracks, but decorating them with gold is a philosophy which would serve us well in this world.”
“I don’t mind that my body will not resemble my ‘Bombay Dyeing’ days silhouette after steroids and chemo-induced menopause. I work and offer my talents as an actor and woman even as I celebrate my forties and finding my voice and the love of my life post a stem cell transplant…Today, make a choice. Don’t observe your wounds and cracks with any sort of regret, but instead decorate them with gold. Highlight that you’re ‘better than new’ and understand you’re more beautiful for having been broken.”
The next time you find yourself questioning, what will people think? STOP. Ask yourself what YOU think, and how YOU feel. Are you painting your own cracks with gold, or hiding them away? And if you hear such comments from your children, address these negative self-beliefs straight away. As Shauna Niequest writes in her book, Present over Perfect, “[W]hat people think about you means nothing in comparison to what you believe about yourself.”
Get creative & let loose
Another fun way to overcome your perfectionist tendencies is to tap into your creative streak. “Draw, paint, write, cook, colour, take photos – whatever inspires you. Make a mess. Make it imperfect. Perfectionists are often quick to say, “I’m not creative.” I’ve learned there’s no such thing. There are only people who use their creativity and who squander it,” says Brown. Creative courses like “Art Jamming” studios abound in the city and are a great place to get you started. For your child, encourage them into extra-curricular activities where they can have fun, be authentic, and actually enjoy themselves!
It’s also important to pick your support crowd wisely; surround yourself with people who are going to embrace your imperfections along with you and make you feel comfortable, rather than those who judge you. A real friend will call you on it, and embrace you when you show weakness. And finally, practice self-compassion for all the times that perfectionist monster raises its ugly head.
I’m not saying it’s going to be easy, but it will be worth it. I’d even go as far to say it will be better than perfect.
Justine Campbell leverages her experience as a positive psychology practitioner in Hong Kong with Mindquest Group. Amongst the solutions-focused interventions she uses, these include the Daring Way™ and Rising Strong™ curriculum from Dr Brené Brown to help people of all ages overcome a perfectionist mindset and embrace their potential. Please feel free to contact us if you have any questions.