Open Blog Series – The Strive to be “Perfect” by Catherine Watson

Throughout much of our lives we’ll be confronted with questions regarding whether we are suited to a particular job, have paid attention to the fineprint in an important transaction or are deserving of a break or ‘cheat-day’.

Rationalizing several potential life-changing decisions, such as a career change or seemingly arduous emigration to an unfamilar country, may prove more difficult than saying “yes” to that favorite sweet treat of yours after multiple hours of rigorous ‘treadmilling’. Some, on the other hand, may not.

You see, your idea of  what constitutes “good enough” may have a drastically different meaning than the person nearest you. The built-in rationality of “good enough” versus “simply bad” versus “just okay” versus an “indifferent meh” can prove to have more of an effect on your mental state than you may acknowledge, let alone realize.

So when I sat opposite Catherine Watson for the first time this past May, the collective weight of my misgivings and shortcomings were exposed. Talking openly about how my lack of meeting certain expectations – whether self-imposed or otherwise –  was draining. You feel so naked with your thoughts, hopes and dreams being laid plainly and simply bare. The achievements that have yet to be fulfilled, friends and family kept in the dark, there was no “quick fix” in sight and rarely ever is. The confidence that she slowly mustered in me took time, as if reorganizing the internal unit to squabble less with itself and focus more on small, manageable tasks at hand. As a result, Catherine helped combat my persistent thoughts of being “simply bad” and that your shortcomings are not and never will wholly define “you”.

This elusive chase of perfectionism, in which disappointment often finds a home, is something that manages to inject itself into a manner of conversations and topics. Whether you then tackle the inclination to “master” a new language or elevate your favourite celebrity beyond flawlessness you would be doing yourself a disservice to think of either as able to or being “perfect”.

A coach at a youth basketball camp I attended left a memorable quote that he drove home every day during that week: “Practice makes BETTER, not perfect.” Sport includes both the skill and the celebrity often leading the average Joe to put many an athlete on a seemingly distant pedestal determining that they are the standard to which we must compare ourselves, often in more than just one set of criteria. Catherine, being a part-time therapist with Clear Reflection Counselling is no stranger to discussions centered around self-esteem and has devoted some time to penning out the following thoughts on whether we are treating our own efforts in life as fairly as we should be.

In my work as a counsellor, I’ve often come across the issue of perfectionism, which seems appropriate to shine a spotlight on in this particular blog. It’s something I’ve come across as a strong area of concern for many individuals, while it seems to be a particularly prevalent trait amongst students striving to achieve the top grades, as well as those with an interest in sports and fitness, whether that is due to a competitive involvement, for personal development reasons or keeping in shape.

Something about the idea that there’s always a higher record to beat or there’s a top level to reach, to be the very best we can be, can bring out either the best or the worst in us, even if it’s only our own personal best we are trying to beat. While it’s healthy to have goals (and even healthier to plan the process of how we are going to achieve those goals, step by step with rewards along the way) there comes a point where we must ask ourselves if it’s time to let go and accept our ‘good enough’.

Because that’s what good enough means – it really IS good enough. No more, no less. Trying to be the best we can be is a never-ending goal and could become exhausting if we lose sight of the good enough. It can lead to insecurity and self-doubt, or the inverse, self-aggrandisement.

First you need to establish what ‘good enough’ is, when you evaluate yourself. Is it 100%? If so I’d suggest lowering it a little; perfection is not an achievable goal. Is it 90? I’d call 80-90% excellent, but perhaps 60-70% could be reclassified as good enough in your thinking? Then you’re safe to strive for excellence, but will accept good enough as good enough and perfectionism will no longer drag you down.

There’s also a common tendency to blame ourselves when it comes to our own failures, while we can more easily see the failures of others as a result of their unfortunate circumstances. Conversely, we congratulate others when they succeed, putting it down to skill, whereas we assume our own successes must be all down to luck. It’s especially important to remember the context of your achievements and failures, so as not to miss out on the joy of congratulating yourself on sheer brilliance when you achieve something amazing against all the odds and certainly not to blame yourself when something was out of your control or the luck was not on your side. Was the bad night’s sleep you had before failing to beat your personal best at your chosen sport, really all your fault? Was it even in your control at all? Learning what is and isn’t in our control, what we are and are not responsible for, can lead to greater freedom and acceptance of ourselves, our successes and failures.

Please note you are neither the sum of only your successes or only your failures; both must be taken into account and there is still more to the whole of your being than all of your actions combined. One bad race doesn’t make a bad runner, just as one race won doesn’t make a national champion. What I’ve found is desperately needed by all perfectionists is pure acceptance of themselves as unique, imperfect individuals. Not based on what they’ve done or what they hope to do but on themselves, how they are right now. I see this as the most powerful and effective part of therapy, much more than giving someone strategies to combat their perfectionist thinking, which could actually become just another pressure and something to ‘perfect’. No, simple acceptance and unconditional positive regard, actively ‘prizing’ that person for who they are, exactly where they are, before they’ve won any prizes, before they’ve taken any steps, let alone achieved their 10,000 daily step target.

It’s time we accepted ourselves as 100% imperfect, yet wonderful human beings. Before we are students, athletes, fitness enthusiasts, counsellors or anything else.


 

We would like to thank Catherine for her insights as part of our “Open Blog Series” at Athlete’s Voice. Speaking out on mental health is never the easiest thing to do particularly if we are feeling pressured. With that in mind, a brief reminder that on the 7th of February, 2019, Time to Change is encouraging people to engage with and support others regarding mental health. Use #TimetoTalk on social media to aid the cause.

P.S.: For further information on Catherine or her practice both can be found here at Clear Reflection Counselling based out of the Norwich Wellbeing Centre.

 

 

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