How do we free ourselves from the perils of perfectionism? Counsellor Abi Crossland-Otter, who lives with anxiety, assesses what we can do.

With the welcome rise of mental health awareness, the personality trait perfectionism is losing its status as a positive asset, and instead becoming thought of as increasingly problematic. 

"What was an unexpected pleasure yesterday is what we feel entitled to today, and what won't be enough tomorrow."

Whilst there is still belief in a level of perfectionism that produces healthy perseverance, perfectionism in its maladaptive or ‘neurotic’ form as psychologist D.E. Hamacheck refers to it, is on the rise. Some have even declared it a “hidden epidemic”.

This adverse form of perfectionism that is overwhelming millennials today is manifesting itself in low self-esteem, depression, anxiety disorders, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and other obsessive personality types.

Fear of failure

Albert Ellis, psychologist and developer of Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy, once went to the extreme of declaring perfectionism as being at "the root of most human evils" 

It stems from a fear of failure, of not being accepted, either in your own eyes, or in others'. 

But is perfection ever possible or are we striving for something, at the detriment of our mental health, that doesn’t actually exist?

According to Emmy van Deurzen, Director of the New School of Psychotherapy and Counselling, "perfection can only be a remote and never fully achieved goal." Without realising this, we risk existing in a state of anticipation, waiting and hoping for things to fall into place; wishfully thinking and struggling for the day when we finally like the way our body looks, or how our house is decorated, or how we raise our child, or how we perform at work. Ultimately, we may end up living, not wholly, but partially. 

Van Deurzen sheds light on this notion as she states, "if things are not entirely satisfactory today, it is hoped that they will be one day soon. Living can thus be postponed until a later date. At a later date some other dissatisfaction catches up with you and so on until you finally wake up to the fact that life is precisely about coming to terms with such imperfection." 

Cultivating disillusionment

Without becoming cognisant to the reality of our inability to create perfection, we risk doing ourselves a disservice in actively cultivating the conditions for what some may call inevitable disillusionment.

In a similar manner to this, even having reached a point of anticipated satisfaction, it is suggested that the mind will always want more or different. Sapolsky, neuroendocrinologist and author of Behave, describes this continual process of wanting:

"The more we consume, the hungrier we get. [...] What was an unexpected pleasure yesterday is what we feel entitled to today, and what won't be enough tomorrow." 

Thus, perhaps, the only solution to this endless sense of dissatisfaction intrinsic in perfectionism is accepting that we are, as inherently imperfect beings, enough, and that the world that we create around us, full of limits and boundaries, is enough.

This does not, of course, mean that we should stop working out or working hard. 

Endeavouring to better one’s self and generally prosper in life is natural and formidable. 

Carl Rogers, creator of Person-Centred Counselling, defines this concept as the ‘actualising tendency’- that is, a basic life force driving people to maintain themselves through continual development. With this in mind, optimistic growth is encouraged, but not with the goal of perfection. 

It is in this way that we can be both okay with ourselves as we are and still invite change.

To shrug off the fear of failing to be good enough and instead embrace the imperfect, it is suggested that we need to replace anticipation with equanimity. Cory Muscara, a mindfulness teacher, describes this state of mind beautifully: "When our mind ceases to push or pull [...] we are still able to take action and make changes, but instead of it coming from a place of need, it comes from a place of inspiration."

In being completely at ease with all that the present holds, we may be able to shift our desires positively. This does not invite complacency, but rather it may free us to embrace the paradox of imperfection, allowing us to understand that there is a difference between striving for excellence and demanding perfection, whilst becoming aware that we are enough as we are, but that we always have the chance to seek change and growth, if we so choose it.

See also: Join us at MHT Wales 2020 to continue learning 'how we can do mental health care better'.

See also: Anxiety: Fighting fear and negative thoughts