Is perfectionism holding you back?

Aiming high may get you far - but it comes with a huge dollop of self-pressure and anxiety. Could it be time to ditch perfectionism?

(Image credit: Rex)

Aiming high may get you far - but it comes with a huge dollop of self-pressure and anxiety. Could it be time to ditch perfectionism?

Words by Jo Usmar, author of This Book Will Make You Fearless

“Perfection” is a myth, perpetuated by the inner critics that live in our heads. These critics want us to feel anxious so we stay ‘safe’ within our comfort zones. They mock our attempts to take chances. They decry anything less than flawless as a failure and taunt us for not being good enough. Our inner critics are, in short, a pack of jackasses.

Perfectionism – the refusal to accept any standard that falls short of perfect – is at epidemic levels. As a rule, we try to be ‘perfect’ in areas of our life that we’re most self-conscious about. Therefore, if something goes wrong, we’ll give up, berate ourselves and put off trying again. This is plain wrong. It is our mistakes, flaws and shared experiences that make us relatable, personable and able to develop and learn. It’s actually more preferable, if you want to get on in life, to make mistakes, to laugh at yourself and to accept your foibles – so here are my seven steps to being perfectly imperfect.

1. Stop checking social media

Perfectionism is fuelled by the immediacy of social media. We can quantify what makes someone ‘successful’ by the number of followers or likes they receive – and, by that very same yardstick, we can supposedly quantify what makes someone ‘unsuccessful’ or a ‘failure’. We set ourselves unrealistic goals and put ourselves under pressure to live up to an online version of ‘perfection’ that simply isn’t real. STOP.

For one day monitor how many times you check social media accounts – just make a tally in a notebook – and notice, every time you check, how you feel when you’ve looked: good, bad, insecure, anxious? Over the next few days cut down how often you check. If you checked 10 times on day one, check nine times on day two and so on. And don’t forget to note down how it makes you feel.

Perfectionists and those who are hard on themselves will notice that how often they check - and what they check - directly correlates to feelings of insecurity and anxiety. By checking less and not feeding your preoccupation you’ll feel more in control and positive. You’ll realise that checking actually aggravates your fears. People only post what they want you to see, not the boring nitty-gritty of everyday life. Social media isn’t real. Step back and take a breather.

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Who wants to be a Victoria's Secret model, anyway?
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2. Set a rejection limit

If you’re considering doing something new set yourself the challenge of failing – and failing more than once. For example, if you’re going to apply for a creative writing course, aim for 10 rejections. If you’re going to audition for a television role, aim for 100 ‘no thank yous’. If you’re going to apply for a new job, aim to receive at least 20 non-responses from various HR offices. Sounds weird, right? It’s not. Collecting rejections is a strategy writer Kim Liao has sworn by for years as it takes away the stigma of so-called failure and removes the pressure. It’s in our nature to want to be adored and patted on the back – which simply isn’t realistic. This strategy means you’ll feel braver about putting yourself out there.

After a rejection take what you’ve learned, ask for feedback and improve your next attempt. You will find you’ll rarely - if ever - reach your allocated number of rejections before you succeed. And, if you do reach your limit, ask yourself: 'Did I really take on-board all the feedback? Did I look for every avenue I could pursue? Is there anything I can do differently next time?'

3. Do something you’ll be rubbish at

Think of something you’re genuinely not very good at or that you’ve never tried before and sign up to do it. This is a good way to force yourself to embrace your limitations. No one can be immediately wonderful at everything – and shouldn’t want to be. Try tap dancing, playing the tuba or learning Italian and enjoy the sensation of doing something just for the sake of doing it, not to win at it.

4. Laugh at yourself

When you bodge something up or make a mistake, laugh long and hard at yourself. Laughing has so many healing properties, releasing endorphins in the brain – a natural chemical high. If fear is Dracula, laughter is the stake. Physically your body’s response to laughter douses fight or flight hormones (the body’s response to anxiety and fear), while mentally, finding the humour in a situation means you’re actively looking for alternative views to the doom-and-gloom options.

5. Get in the grey zone

Things aren’t ever just black or white – there is always a grey zone. It’s time to stop looking at things as either wrong or right, success or failure, acceptable or unacceptable. Different people do different things at different times for different reasons. We all live by our own personal rules and these rules vary from person to person. Realising this will make you stop taking things personally. Okay, so maybe you wouldn’t have done what your friend did – but instead of assuming they did it to hurt you, consider whether it isn’t more likely that they were just being a bit thoughtless. Cut yourself and others some slack, stop moving the goalposts and setting yourself and others impossible standards, and you’ll find life much less of a slog.

6. Embrace your inner klutz

People like people who aren’t perfect. In 1966, psychologist Elliot Aronson undertook a ‘coffee spill’ study in which tapes of a quiz were played to a series of panels. One of the tapes included the quiz host spilling a fictitious cup of coffee over himself at the end. Every single panel rated the person spilling the coffee as more likeable than the others. People who are fallible – who stumble, trip and walk around with their skirt tucked into their knickers - are relatable, less intimidating, more ‘normal’ and remind us of ourselves (because none of us are perfect).

7. Banish the word ‘failure’

Replace the word ‘failure’ with ‘experience’, ‘learning curve’ or ‘practice run’. Words have an enormous influence on how we view ourselves and our experiences. How we talk to ourselves (what our inner critic chats about) can totally change how we view problems or mistakes. Change your vocabulary and you’ll start changing how you view your ability to cope with set-backs. So 'I failed' becomes 'I had a practice run' or 'It was a learning curve'. It suddenly doesn’t seem so bad.

This Book Will Make You Fearless by Jo Usmar is out now, £8.99, Quercus

Tracy Ramsden