In society we tend to idolise or revere those who have achieved a high level of success. Premiership footballers, Formula One Drivers, Hollywood movie stars, Multi-award-winning singers, Supermodels. Reaching the top seems to be the standard for our expectations of success. So, what’s it like dealing with falling short of those expectations?
I have always naturally placed a lot of pressure on myself to do well in everything and hold incredibly high standards for myself. I’m sure that there are many others out there like me. With these qualities making up a large percentage of my personality, you may assume that I am successful in the things that I chose to spend my time on. If you do, you’d be wrong. All my life I have been average at best at most things I do.
The problem with having perfectionist tendencies is that contrary to popular belief, they don’t make you keep trying until you are perfect at something, more often than not, perfectionists will give up as soon as something isn’t perfect. This obviously leaves you in a position of not really completing anything you start and leads to a little rollercoaster ride of motivation and productivity ebbing and flowing.
This in turn leads to a horrible internal conflict of wanting to be perfect at something while simultaneously believing that you are the worst at it. In reality, of course, you’ve simply hit a bump in the road to improvement and have automatically reacted as if you’ve totalled the vehicle.
I refer to this cycle as the rollercoaster because there are lots of ups and downs and loops and it can feel really fast and really scary sometimes. When you are stuck in this pattern of striving for perfection and then dropping something completely, your motivation and therefore your productivity will spike, and you feel great.
You get everything done and you do it well, your house is spotless, your emails have been responded to, you feel like you’re really making strides towards reaching your goal. When you’re in this phase, you don’t ever see the snag coming. For me personally, I can never predict what little thing will come along that makes me want to instantly give up, and who knows when it’ll pop its head up.
When it does appear though, it feels huge, you can almost feel it in the pit of your stomach, just like when you get to a drop on a rollercoaster. A small thing like slightly lower results than you were expecting can feel the same as someone yelling at you to stop. When this happens, self-esteem tanks, and when self-esteem tanks you don’t need external sources, or data, or a lack of progress to tell you you’re not doing this thing perfectly.
Your brain becomes your own worst enemy and if you don’t catch it, suddenly there’s a massive corkscrew in this rollercoaster and there really is no way off. This is where your motivation is non-existent and you genuinely believe you cannot do anything right, you’ll never be a success at anything, and really, what’s the point?
This would be the moment where I’d usually throw in the towel, forget I ever tried to do the thing and try my hardest to erase any evidence from the world. In my little brain, failure is the worst. I don’t know if that is something I’ve been conditioned to think, I don’t remember my parents ever pushing me to the best at anything.
I think it’s more likely something that I’ve developed myself, probably stemming from some kind of inadequacy insecurity and it’s something that I have had to work on really hard over the years. It’s still a chore now to not just give up.
Let me make it clear, there is really no shame in giving up if something is becoming detrimental to your health, mental or physical, or if something is detracting from the things you consider a higher priority, such as time with your family. Quitting can sometimes be the right choice, and you should own that! It’s so important. However, the desire to quit the moment you make a mistake, is not productive. It is, in itself, detrimental to your mental health and potentially your quality of life.
When we destroy all the work we’ve put into something because of a small setback, not only are we ensuring that all our time and effort has been wasted, but we’re also reinforcing the part of our brain that thinks this is the correct way to react to mistakes.
What sort of life is that to lead? Never really doing anything because you’re afraid of being less than perfect? In all honesty, that’s not a life. It’s simply avoiding any and every opportunity to grow, to learn, to do something new and exciting because we let ourselves ruin it before it began.
Pushing through these urges is hard work, it requires a lot of internal pep talks, lots of inner conflicts and discomfort. It often takes tears, screaming, frustration, and sitting with some rather uncomfortable feelings, but it must be worth it in the end. To get to a point where you can try something new, learn from your mistakes, build on your experiences, and achieve something absolutely wonderful.
The rollercoaster that perfectionists ride must also be worth it, if only we could see it to the end. After all, we don’t just go to a theme park once. The thrill of the complete ride outweighs the fear of the drops. Keep pushing.