Accepting Imperfection - for many able, high achievers, a tendency to perfectionism becomes a problem.
Whilst aiming high and making the most of our abilities seem to be good things, the trap is to become entirely achievement-led. The danger is becoming ‘addicted’ to achievement with the result that we are never satisfied, never peacefully happy, always driven on to achieve the next thing and with a marked tendency to beat ourselves up if we don’t achieve or do as well as we think we should. This can result in intense anxiety about achievement and keeping on top of things. ‘Should’ and ‘must’ are the key words here. Typical beliefs might be: • I should make the most of my abilities. • I must achieve my potential. • I must do well or I will let other people down. • Other people are less fortunate than me. Therefore I must use my abilities in the best possible way. • I should be top. • I should be able to cope. • I should be happy – what have I got to complain about? • I shouldn’t be worried or afraid. • I must do better than Tom, Dick and Harry. Maybe tick the ones that sound familiar to you! Some of these beliefs lead to other negative thought patterns which then add to the turmoil. Eg: I should be able to cope, seeing as I am so able. Why can’t I stop worrying then? Am I really stupid? Where does all this start? The answer will be long ago. The beliefs that rule us become embedded very young. Some are really helpful, some are really unhelpful and some are a bit of a mix. Professor Steve Peters, author of ‘The Chimp Paradox’ has this to say about what he calls ‘The Fridge Door Syndrome’: It is the first day of school or even nursery, and the child is full of emotion. She or he is asked to paint a picture. When he/she meets his parent at the gate, emotions are still running high for both the child and the parent. ‘What a beautiful painting!’ cries the parent. ‘It’s fantastic! Aren’t you clever? I am so proud of you. Let’s take it home on put it on the fridge door for everyone to see.’ The child now becomes a potential victim of Fridge Door Syndrome, and with recurrences of this scenario, it will become hard-wired. The child learns that he or she is valued because of what he/she has achieved and also that the rest of the world will value him or her in the same way. The message is. ‘It is what you can achieve in life that will make you worthy.’ This is one way, the ‘perfectionism goblin’ can get in. Another is having perfectionism modelled by a parent; the perfectionism patter is passed on because that is what the child learns is acceptable and leads to acceptance and love. On the other hand, living in a chaotic or abusive family can be the trigger. Perfectionism can be a way of taking control, when we have come to distrust our environment very early in life. Any psychological way of taking control is a response to fear - fear of chaos, of being abandoned, of not being loved, for example. However, even if we don't know where our perfectionism has come from, we don’t have to carry on living with it. Do we really want fear to rule our lives? The downside of achievement Obviously, believing in the value of achievement can be highly motivating. But believing, deep down, that that is what makes us worthy? Really? Supposing we have a talent for something that we actually hate and makes us unhappy? Supposing something stops us from achieving? eg. The money runs out for our music lessons, we have a terrible accident and can no longer play rugby. Supposing, although we’re reasonably able, everyone else seems to achieve more than us? What then? How helpful is the belief? And how will we know when to stop? When will enough be enough? Will we have to strive to achieve for the rest of our lives? Will Olympic Gold be enough? The Man Booker Prize? The Nobel Prize? Of course, a tiny number of people will reach those goals. But most of us won’t and if we are to be reasonably happy, we need to find a way of living with that reality. Even people who do achieve those incredibly unusual goals, have to deal with ‘what next?’ So you’ve got an Oscar/landed on the Moon/trekked solo to the North Pole? What next? Is the rest of your life going to be all downhill from this peak achievement or are you going allow yourself to relax and enjoy things a bit more? It is normal to ‘do our best’. The problem is when our best never feels like it is good enough and our standards are so high that we can never be at peace! We can become workaholics and control freaks. Life is full of uncertainty, imperfection and striving but failing. We can make an impact on our destiny in lots of way, including doing our best, but we cannot control it, however hard we try. These wise words of Dr Edith Eger, Auschwitz survivor and author of bestsellers ‘The Choice’ and ‘The Gift’ might give us pause for thought, if we are going down the perfectionism route. “…if you’re perfectionistic, you are going to procrastinate, because perfect means never…It doesn’t take courage to strive for perfection. It takes courage to be average. To say, ‘I’m okay with me.’ To say, ‘Good enough is good enough’.” So might the following poem, which is called ‘Leisure’:.
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