Whether we like it or not, we are often our own biggest critics’
I think all of us have that little nagging voice inside our head. You may be honest with yourself or you may choose to deny it, but I’m sure most of you have heard statements like these rolling through your head at least once in your life:
- ‘You’re not good enough as you are’,
- ‘You could have done better than that!’,
- ‘That mistake was bloody obvious looking back, why didn’t I pick up on it earlier!?’
- ‘You fool! You’ve practiced for hours and yet you still messed up on that section!’
- ‘You’re too thin or conversely ‘you’re not buffed up enough’
- ‘I’m not a good parent’ or conversely ‘I can never meet my parents’ expectations of me’
- ‘You’re stupid/you’re an idiot!’ or conversely ‘your standards are too high/you’re a perfectionist!’
- ‘Why can’t I be more like him/her?’ and this is sometimes accompanied by ‘why do I have to work my ass off when they do the same thing with virtually no effort on their part?’
- ‘You ate too much, you fat pig, you’ve got to restrict yourself more!’
- ‘You’re weak, pathetic, a coward, etc…’
- ‘You’re not cool enough’ or alternatively ‘you nerd/geek/dork/loser etc’
- ‘You should have worked harder than you did, you slacker’ and this is sometimes accompanied by ‘if you don’t put your full effort into it, you’re a failure’ whether it be related to exercise, studying or work
- ‘They’re just patronizing me when they say I’ve done well: I know myself that I can do better than that!’
This little voice is the one that is often responsible for people suffering from low self-esteem and it diminishes any achievement that we may have in a matter of seconds after feeling any elation by pushing the limits even higher. It is also responsible for the adrenal response associated with anxiety and over a chronic period, this nagging voice can trigger depression and a range of other disorders, which I’ll discuss separately.
On a personal note…
I know I’ve felt this myself, as after a couple of minutes after I held my bachelors’ parchment in my hot little hands on that fateful graduation day in March 2012, after the initial euphoria wore off, my mind was already going ‘what next? You didn’t have a GPA high enough to go for honours, so how are you supposed to get recognized above those applying for jobs that already have years of practical experience?’ Turns out that voice was partially correct, as it took me two years to find a job in my chosen field after that. I was caught in a vicious cycle where I had the qualifications but not the practical experience and that was the response I was constantly getting post-interview; believe me, it was infuriating after a while, as I was looking for something more constructive to focus on. Later on, I took some time off and studied a certificate III in a slightly different field… Thankfully, now I have experience in multiple fields because someone was willing to take a chance on me in part due to both of these qualifications put together, but for many young people, it’s easy to fall into the cycle of depression either post high school or post-university because unfortunately some organizations are lazy when it comes to training people at the junior level.
What happens in the mind of a perfectionist?
Several things do occur to keep the vicious cycle of perfectionism going, as this graphic below shows.
Why do some people develop perfectionism and not others?
That’s been a niggling question that has plagued people for generations. Some people are generally easy-going and just go with the flow no matter what pops up, whereas others become highly anxious if things don’t go their way and are afraid to go outside of their set routines. Argument has roused up both within the scientific community as well as within the general public about whether this personality trait is purely genetic in nature, or whether perfectionism is a product of the environment they’ve grown up in. Truth be told, it’s more than likely a combination of both factors that lead to this trait creeping in.
What type of familial circumstances are there that can contribute to the development of perfectionism in children?
Like many other psychological conditions, perfectionism is far more likely to appear within yourself if one or more of your closest relatives have an obsessive personality. What do I mean by that exactly? There are several examples I can think of from the top of my head:
- Having a parent/guardian or both parents/guardians that are notoriously difficult to please and rarely give compliments.
On a side note, this may seem harsh, but from what I’ve experienced first-hand from one of my parents having this kind of attitude, at least these types of people are usually brutally honest and ARE sincere when they do give compliments. It’s definitely better in my humble opinion than those on the opposite end of the spectrum; you’ve probably met at least at least one of these people in your life, and if you have any kind of special needs, you’ve probably met several of ’em. Yes, I’m referring to those types where (pardon my French) the inner bulls**t detector would scream at you because of their patronizing attitude, which is often accompanied by an arrogance minus the charm which can make them OK to be around. Due to my own special needs, I’ve had a few of these people to deal with throughout my life so far, and there is one in particular from my old high school which still gets under my skin to this day and I was seriously tempted back in the day to stick it to her like in the poster above!
- Having a parent/guardian or parents/guardians that display type A personalities and are competitive in nature
This may appear in sports games, in spelling or music competitions… I’m sure some of you have either been there first-hand or have witnessed a fellow parent taking these events far more seriously than they ought to be, especially those that have a go at the judges/umpires for not giving their child any particular type of special treatment. On a related topic, even though I’m not a parent myself, I have read about cases where some parents have pushed themselves and their budgets to throw ‘the best’ birthday party for kids that are so young that a) it’s not really a special occasion like a 16th, 18th or 21st where there are certain life events which people of those ages become legally entitled to and b) the kids are probably not even going to remember them anyway! In my humble opinion, those examples are more about the ego trip that the parents get from other parents commenting about the party rather than them doing what is actually best for their kids: as the kids at that age would probably be amused with something relatively simplistic such as dinner with their family.
- It may appear if you want to get more attention from your family for whatever reason
Unfortunately, there are many cases in which not all children within family units are treated equally, either because of special needs appearing or because of because of the discovery of a child prodigy in a certain field. Due to either of these factors, some kids seem to get less attention than their siblings, and therefore they employ the use of one of two techniques that are often used by these children in order to get their parents’ attention. They either choose to rebel and become the ‘black sheep’ of the family by acting out (I know someone in my own family like that) or they may go the other way and try to outdo the other sibling by beating them at their own game (to a certain extent, my brother and I were like that as kids). This may seem like a good thing to do on the surface, but ultimately it can be destructive to the self-esteem of both siblings competing as the majority of the times they would have separate talents to begin with. The healthier option in this situation is to just focus on what you are good at and work in that general direction and if your parents disapprove, so be it; in most circumstances, they will eventually learn to accept your decisions, even if they themselves don’t necessarily like it.
- Having one or both of parents criticizing your emotional state of being no matter how you’re really feeling
For those of you that may live with some kind of abnormality within your brain chemistry, or if you are a sensitive and gentle soul to begin with, you can probably relate to this one. In some families, there is a misconceived notion that only certain emotional states are ‘allowed’ to be expressed such as anger and frustration, and other, more passive states of emotion like crying are seen as weakness. This can lead to feelings of inadequacy for those who do not meet that ‘standard’ and it may even trigger feelings relating to depression and anxiety later on in life. More often than not, this particular view of life is very harmful, as it may scar you for the rest of your life, particularly if you live with a life-long (irreversible) condition to begin with, and can only be treated through extensive counselling. Matters here can be further complicated by not having your personality type accepted for what it is; you may have heard some of your family members saying ‘you’re too negative, smile some more, won’t you?’ or ‘you should be tweeting more positive messages or you should make your Facebook posts more uplifting/inspirational.’ I know myself I’ve had these type of comments throng my way. Most of the time I just choose to ignore them as I’m just not that type naturally (I’m more analytical than that generally and if I did put much more over-the-top happy stuff on social media it’d come across as fake), but sometimes those types of comments can get under my skin!
What is it about perfectionism that is so hard to break for some people?
Perfectionism is a weird thing: many people find it hard to get out of the trap, because it’s a double edged-sword in the fact that there are some aspects of it that can appear attractive on the surface, but in reality can be severely detrimental when you dig deeper or you go to the extreme. Your individual susceptibility to perfectionism is dependent on both your personality type and the environment that you were raised in: for some people it may seem like a comfort blanket whereas for others it is a completely foreign concept. I know myself I’ve found myself caught in its clutches because it can provide me with a sense of direction and stability; however, I know in the past I have taken it too far and I’ve had to convince myself with outside help that I am OK as I am and I don’t need to strive to impossible standards.
Well, anyway, back to the meat of the topic: there are six key reasons why perfectionism may appear superficially attractive:
- It may give you a sense of control True, the world is an unpredictable place: you never know when your luck may change: perfectionism may seem like order in the midst of all that chaos. Question is though: at what point does order give way to a life without any spontaneity or fun? When does the need for order and ritual become all-consuming? Find out here.
- It may help you get recognized as exceptional within the working environment and within the world in general
As part of your work ethic, you may be given some form of reward from your workplace. It is good to be a hard worker within your workplace, particularly if you’re passionate about the work you’re doing, but what point that this striving to work hard go too far? When does the need to work hard start to affect your health? Find out here.
- It may help provide a sense of structure within your day
Perfectionism may seem helpful in making you maintain a clean house and it may give you a sense of routine within your day, but there is a point where this sense of structure makes you more robotic than human. When it is healthy and when does it start to affect your relationships? Find out here.
- It may help other people in giving your praise for what you’ve done
If you’re the classic perfectionist type, you may have heard others remark how your a superman or superwoman, able to cope with every aspect of life. However, pleasing other people is only healthy to a certain extent: it may demonstrate your kindness and compassion for fellow people but it becomes a bad thing when you start to neglect yourself: hence balance is essential in order to benefit both parties. When it is time to people-please and when is it better to become a little selfish? Find out here.
- It may be a safety blanket in avoiding people and situations you don’t like
You may be the type that prefers solitude to being in social situations, and to be honest, it’s healthy to want some time to yourself to recharge after a hard day. Heck, there may be some situations where anyone would excuse you for not wanting to be social: one notable example off the top of my head is dealing with the in-laws on special occasions, particularly if you don’t get along to begin with. However, when does this need for solitude become an excuse to avoid the feeling of anxiety? Find out here.
- It may be a safety blanket for insecurity
Some people appear to have a natural talent at something, whereas others have to work their asses off in order to even be at the same level. It’s only natural that some people have gifts in certain fields, however there are some people that work hard not because they want to work that hard, but because they fear that if they slack off, they may be ‘found out’ by others.
Can perfectionism affect your sense of self-esteem?
Perfectionism may also be independent of your sense of self-esteem; for some people, they may have perfectionistic traits but have a healthy ego to match, however the majority of those that are perfectionists unfortunately also have a tendency to not like themselves in part due to this trait. In more extreme cases it may begin to interfere with your friendships and may prevent you from establishing close relationships with people for fear of rejection by others; whether romantic or strictly platonic. Sure, there’s always going to be jerks in the world (that usually have their own issues)but the majority of people will be receptive or relatively neutral to your individual quirks and even people you may initially have personality clashes with may even turn into your best friend! I’ll be tackling self-esteem separately: you can find the information regarding this topic here.
What is procrastination and how does it tie to perfectionism?
We’re all probably guilty of procrastination at some point in our lives, particularly when there’s something we dread hanging over our heads such as a high school/uni exam or a special occasion such as weddings or birthdays looming with much to be done beforehand. Indeed, this is basically a fancy way of saying we’re leaving things to the last minute. For some people this can work to their advantage as they thrive under high pressure and they do their best work in these circumstances with their adrenaline racing in the madness of the shopping centre or their muses working overtime, but there’s also a dark side to this habit. For some, rather than using it as a source of motivation, they tend to procrastinate in order to avoid the scenario in front of them. This is often complicated by a fear of failure: there are tragically some individuals who’d prefer to put off doing something as their neuroses get in their way, either through fear of not completing the task to their own standards of excellence or supposedly not doing it good enough for those people they’re completing the task for.