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Image / Self / Advice

Perfectionism is a ruse – here’s how to stop it


By Niamh Ennis
10th Nov 2023
Perfectionism is a ruse – here’s how to stop it

Do you remember the answer that we all thought was the best one you could give at interviews when you were asked to share your weaknesses? We were convinced that we were so clever responding with ‘my biggest failing is that I’m a perfectionist.’

It wasn’t until years later, when I found myself sitting on the other side of the interview table, that I realised that, in fact, my biggest weakness was most likely offering up that as an answer!

It points to something deeper, however, when it comes to perfectionism and it’s this – perfectionism is an elusive ruse behind which we all hide. We believe that if we declare ourselves exhausted, working on getting things perfect, that it will impress others and totally justify our need to keep trying. The reality, in fact, is that it doesn’t really achieve either, but to understand this fully, let’s take a step back and explore first of all what perfection actually means.

PERFECTIONISM DEFINITION
The dictionary describes it as the action or process of improving something until it is faultless. Further investigation offers that ‘Perfection is a flawless state where everything is exactly right, the state or quality of being or becoming perfect, the highest degree of proficiency, skill, or excellence, a perfect embodiment or example of something, a quality, trait, or feature of the highest degree of excellence.’ You can’t help but notice that all the language around perfection is positively aspirational and therefore out of our reach. Let’s be honest, who wouldn’t want to be described as flawless? Based on that interpretation, it’s hardly surprising that we spend so much of our lives chasing it.

ADDICTED
A few years back, a coach I was working with described me as being addicted to perfectionism. I thanked her, thinking she was complimenting me, only to work out some time later that it wasn’t praise, but an accurate observation of all that I was hiding behind. It took me some additional time to confess that the reason I was chasing perfection was that it meant I wouldn’t have to face all that I was avoiding – such as not being good enough, funny enough, slim enough, bright enough or lovable enough. Does any of that sound at all familiar?

If you were reared by a parent with somewhat high standards and even higher expectations for you, there is a chance you might have been told from time to time that you needed to do better, to be better. And here might also mark the earliest starting point on your own lifelong quest for perfection.

This next statement, therefore, might come as good or bad news depending on your current relationship with perfectionism, so brace yourself. Perfectionism does not exist.

Now I’m not trying to be all grinch-like about this but you need to hear this. There is no such thing, and no such place, as perfection. None of us are created to be flawless. It’s just not in our DNA. It’s simply not possible to achieve, or arrive at, a point where everything is perfect. So why do we waste so much of our lives chasing something that doesn’t exist? Think of it like your crock of gold at the end of a rainbow- you’ve heard about it, you want to believe it’s true, but you know deep down that it’s not.

DO YOUR BEST.

When both my parents died, I recall playing back all the scenarios repeatedly in my mind. What I know now to be part of the grieving process, led to me torturing myself by thinking about all the things I could, or should, have done better as to how I could have been a better daughter. I tormented myself with unanswered questions such as ‘if only I had pushed them to go to their doctors sooner’, ‘if only I had spent more time with them’ or ‘if only I had told them more often how loved they were’. The repetition of those ‘if only’s’ is natural when someone leaves us, but what isn’t natural is the automatic expectation where we demand absolute perfection of ourselves.

What served me so much better came the day my bereavement counsellor asked me did I honestly think I did my best for both of them? When I was forced to answer this question in an honest way, I saw that I had, and most of all, I believed it. That admission helped me realise that while I would never be able to describe myself as a perfect daughter, I could definitely own the mantle of a daughter who always did her best. This left me feeling free of guilt and trust me nothing matters more when you’re grieving.

So instead of putting demands on yourself to be perfect, which we now know to be an illusion, why not ask yourself each time you find yourself punishing yourself for not doing enough or putting outrageous expectations on your shoulders, simply stop and ask yourself ‘am I doing my best’? Aim for continuous improvement rather than perfection, it will always feel so much better to pursue excellence and achieve it rather than constantly chasing perfectionism and never getting it.

I’ll leave the final words on this to the ever insightful, Reese Witherspoon, ‘I don’t believe in perfection. I don’t think there is such a thing. But the energy of wanting things to be great is a perfectionist energy.”

Niamh Ennis is Ireland’s leading Change & Transformation Coach and Author of GET UNSTUCK who through her private practice, writings, programmes, workshops and podcast has inspired, activated and helped thousands of people to make significant changes in their lives. She is an accredited Personal, Leadership & Executive Coach and the Lead Coach in the IMAGE Business Club. Her debut book “GET UNSTUCK” is for anyone feeling stuck in their lives and looking for a way back. It is available now from niamhennis.com/book and selected bookshops nationwide. Instagram @1niamhennis.

Photography by Emma Simpson on Unsplash.

This article was originally published in December 2022.