y name is Julia Williams and I am a perfectionist.
I first confessed to this some 20 odd years ago, at a job interview. I remember being asked what my greatest fault was. To which I replied that I was a perfectionist. I got the job.
But I concealed the dark side of perfectionism. For a while at least.
At University, I had begun to notice a pattern in my studying. I would put off starting things and I always work right up to a deadline. For some years, I thought that this was just the way I was. I was a procrastinator and lazy. I needed the threat of a deadline and, therefore some kind of punishment, to actually get me working. I used to stress and fret and cry over assignments until I had no more wiggle room left and just had to get on with it, or else…
During my early years as a teacher, I noticed a similar pattern emerging, this time with marking. I used to put it off until I absolutely had to do it. Planning too, or writing policies, or whatever else the Head deemed necessary! This only got worse as my career continued and expectations continually changed, to the point that I knew I could never get it right. I’d never use the right marking code, never write the “right” kind of comments, never do enough.
In my personal life, my perfectionist tendencies have manifested themselves in weight gains and losses, refusing to exercise (I wasn’t fast enough, fit enough, looked good enough in fitness gear). I was scared to try new things because I wouldn’t be good at them. I could shop for England and spend a fortune, looking for the perfect outfit.
People dropped from my life because they were not the perfect friend. They were not loyal enough or stayed in touch enough or stuck up for me enough. Or I did not believe that they thought I was good enough for them.
I would wear my perfectionist badge with pride. I lived by the mantra that if a job was worth doing, it was worth doing perfectly. So, I never actually did anything!
It was only a few years ago, that I took this whole set of beliefs out of their box and began looking at them, through coaching. I realised that I procrastinated because I was a perfectionist. And that I used that as an excuse.
Just what was I gaining from being a perfectionist? How did I perceive that role? Did I see it as a good thing, or as a bad thing?
On the one hand, it meant that I was giving myself a reason for not starting things that were clearly outside of my comfort zone, or even just a bit unpleasant. It meant that I could put off assignments because I hadn’t found the perfect way to start. It meant that I could give up on things because they were not good enough. It meant that I never had to face failure because if I didn’t do it, I couldn’t fail. I was turning some rather negative behaviours into a (very dubious) benefit. I felt smug to say I was a perfectionist. I saw it as a good thing – as long as I ignored the bad side of it.
So, what pain was I causing myself?
I was giving myself hours and hours of worry, sleepless nights and plenty of tears by not starting things. I used to leave my marking until 3pm Sunday (I needed Saturday to recover from the working week) and so I would whittle about it all weekend until I could put it off no longer. It used to ruin my weekend. I missed out on starting and trying new things because I was afraid of failing.
It was then a question of where did I want to be? Did I believe perfection was actually attainable?
Actually, no I didn’t. I knew very well that I would never attain it in anything and so I beat myself up with that stick for years and years. I wasn’t good enough. I would never be perfect. And yet I knew it was unattainable! Did I think others could achieve it then? Was I just inadequate to the point that I would never achieve it but others could? Well, maybe. There were countless images of perfect looking women, of course, and books, TV and films that showed perfect marriages and friendships. Celebrities appeared to have perfect lives, great houses, fast cars, glamourous holidays. I even met a few real people that put a great spin on their lives, especially on social media, so that I thought it was all perfect. But deep down I am generally sensible enough to know that, no, no one is or will ever be perfect.
So why was I beating myself up for not being something that I didn’t believe anyone could be? Did I think other people expected me to be perfect? Possibly. I can’t remember whether that was expected of me as a young child. I know that I was expected to do my A levels, expected to go to University. My Dad expected me to be a teacher (I was bossy and wore glasses!). It wasn’t my choice. I wanted to be an actress – but I was too scared to audition for drama school.
It is very uncomfortable to challenge a belief about yourself that you have held for many years. It is also very liberating when you acknowledge that belief is doing you no favours at all.
In the last few years, I have become much better at eliminating procrastination and perfectionism from my life. If I have something to do that I don’t want to do, either because it scares me or because it is a big task, I just start it. I break the task down into small chunks and just tackle one small chunk at a time. I don’t waste time worrying about how to start, I just start, acknowledging that I can always go back and tweak it afterwards, but if it isn’t started there is nothing to tweak. I haven’t missed a deadline in a long while – in fact I beat them now, and it feels great!
I have acknowledged that I am not, and will never be, perfect. And neither will anyone else, or any relationship. I am content to be as good as I can be.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not perfect at this not being perfect lark yet! I still can’t always tackle scary tasks straight away, and sometimes I do whittle about them. But I am getting better at allowing myself space to figure out how to find a starting point.
Beliefs are stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and the world, but they may not be true. Your mind will go off and find as much evidence as it can to back up a belief you hold about yourself. If you think you are lazy, your mind will find lots of evidence for that, ignoring all those times you showed you were not. If you believe you have no confidence, your mind will find plenty of occasions when your confidence failed you, backing up the belief. The good news is, beliefs can be rewritten. If you find evidence for the new belief you want to replace the old one with, your mind will find the evidence.
I believed I was a perfectionist and a procrastinator. And there was plenty of evidence to back that up! Now I believe that I am efficient and organised, able to tackle any task in the right time frame. My mind is getting very good at finding evidence to back this up. And the more it finds, the more I am now producing. I am a recovering perfectionist. Everything I do is good enough until someone who knows more about it tells me otherwise. And even then, they better give me good evidence!
Have you got any unhelpful beliefs about yourself? I’d love to hear from you. Comment below, e mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or drop by my Facebook page. I’d love to help you rewrite your unhelpful beliefs.