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How I learnt to manage my perfectionism

Due to the prevalent hustle culture in Singapore, many students and young adults in Singapore tend to be perfectionists.

Khalisa Zulkiflee

Creative writer and comedian on the side.


Published: 3 September 2021, 11:07 AM

Many people would think that having high standards and striving for excellence is a good thing. However, when you constantly accept no less than perfection in terms of work, chores, or other aspects of your life, it can take a toll on your physical and mental health. 

After all, perfectionism is strongly related to detrimental effects including higher levels of burnout, stress, workaholism, anxiety and depression. 

An experience that impacted me profoundly was when I felt deeply unhappy with my school and work performance. Nothing I produced satisfied me, even when my teammates constantly assured me that my work met their standards. 

This made it difficult for me to let go of work I’ve already submitted as I kept thinking about how it could have been better. 

This eventually led to burn out in the middle of my submission period and hindered me from doing my best. I have since learnt to break free from the impossible standards I set for myself, and be content with what I have accomplished. 

Managing my perfectionism was a two-step process: recognising that having such a personality trait was detrimental to my life and finding the tools to manage disruptive thoughts that came from it. 

Identifying perfectionism

As a perfectionist, I have a tendency to procrastinate. As I feel the need to have pristine working conditions before starting work, I get frustrated when I have to work in situations I deem less than satisfactory. 

For example, I find it hard to do work when I’m surrounded by too many people, in an enclosed space, or if I don’t have my AirPods with me. In these situations, I put off doing work until I’m satisfied with my working conditions. 

I’m also very detail-oriented when I work. I pay intricate attention to everything that I do, including everything that may go wrong or has already gone wrong. I get so caught up in a single mistake that I may spend over an hour fixing it, which drains me. 

 

mitigate-stress
To mitigate some of the stress I put on myself, I sometimes have to stop doing work entirely. PHOTO CREDIT: ELISA_VENTUR VIA UNSPLASH

 

Perfectionists may also experience feelings of constant unhappiness and dissatisfaction, which can be a struggle. 

I continually blamed myself for mistakes, whether they were my own or others’. Beating myself up for making these mistakes contributed a lot to my daily internal struggle of managing my thoughts while still continuing to go about my day at school and work. I also struggled with managing my stratospheric expectations, and not being able to ask for help from friends, teachers, managers or family. 

These feelings are common among perfectionists as we find it difficult to let go. Other times, I found it hard to delegate tasks, and even when I did, I worried about what would happen after the task had been delegated to my group mates.  

Other perfectionists may also keep thinking about their past failures and ways they could’ve done better. The inability to move on makes them feel weighed down by every small mistake. 

The most destructive effect of being an obsessive perfectionist is disregarding your own health. Headaches, heart diseases and insomnia are among the health issues that come easily to those who are in a perpetual state of worry. 

During examination and project submissions periods, I’ve spent days, weeks, and even months, weeks and days without sleep.

 

drinking-smoking
Others may turn to vices such as drinking or smoking to cope with the side effects of perfectionism. PHOTO CREDIT: KETUT SUBIYANTI VIA PEXELS

 

Fear not – it is possible to heal from this debilitating perfectionist lifestyle. Take it from someone who’s battled with perfectionism throughout her teen years, and is now entering her twenties with a healthier idea of what perfectionism can mean.

The first thing I did was recognise that I was an obsessive perfectionist. It’s pretty simple to identify perfectionistic tendencies – if your standards have ever been said to be too high, or if you constantly criticise your work even when you’ve spent a great deal of time and effort on it, or tend to think in black and white (such as “If I make a mistake, I’m a failure”), you’re probably a perfectionist too.

How to manage perfectionism?

You can use tools to manage your perfectionism, like changing the way you think and behave. 

Incorporating realistic thinking, perspective-taking, and compromising into your daily thoughts can help you deplete your negative self-talk and reframe your perfectionist mindset. 

Realistic thinking is repeating helpful and positive statements to yourself. These statements can sound like “Making one mistake does not negate my other good works” and “It’s okay to not be at my best all the time”. 

 

realistic-thinking
What helped me to build the habit of realistic thinking was saying five positive statements to my houseplants everyday when I water them. PHOTO CREDIT: VERONEZCAROLINE

 

Perspective-taking involves seeing things from another person’s point of view. While you may think that taking an hour to complete a task is too long, others may take a longer time to finish the same task. It’s important to compare your personal narratives with others to judge whether they are realistic or healthy

Finally, compromising helps with the black-and-white mindset of seeing things in extremes. It helps you find a middle ground for your high standards to be more flexible and create realistic goals. 

I try to see my ideals as guides to achieving success instead of rigid, inflexible targets that I have to meet. I allow myself more room for mistakes, and quell any berating thoughts I may have about mistakes made. 

This is what healthy perfectionism looks like: being able to set high standards for myself and working hard to achieve it, and most importantly, not beating myself up if I fail to meet my expectations.

Other than changing your mindset, it’s also helpful to restructure actions and behaviours that exhibit perfectionism. As perfectionism is similar to having a phobia of making mistakes, you can overcome your phobia through exposure therapy

Exposure therapy helps people confront their fears in a safe environment. For instance, you can purposefully place yourself in situations where you make mistakes. This includes lessening the time you spend checking for mistakes, wearing mismatched socks, not using cue cards during a presentation, or showing up late for a meeting. 

With time, exposure therapy can help to decrease their fear of making mistakes.

 

indulgences
Tackling your mental issues can take a toll on you, so it’s helpful to give yourself indulgences when you reach a milestone. PHOTO CREDIT: ARTURO REY VIA UNSPLASH

 

Another healthy way to cope with perfectionism is through rewards. Self-improvement is  a long and arduous journey, and you should treat yourself every once in a while. 

Personally, I treat myself with shopping trips when I reach certain milestones, such as getting good grades or recognition for my hard work. I also try to do the same when I feel overwhelmed and negative about my progress in work. 

Perfectionism isn’t always a bad thing, especially when you know how to manage it in a way that motivates you to attain better results. 

Your achievements should not come at the expense of your mental health. Value your relationships with your family and friends, and celebrate every success you get, be it big or small. 

If you are looking for more mental well-being resources, check out Youthopia’s resource page with everything from mental health self-assessments to tips for coping with challenging seasons in life.


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