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I hope you are all keeping well and safe as the pandemic continues and, in many parts of the world, escalates once again. Please keep doing the basics – wearing masks and washing your hands – no matter how “over” this stuff you are.

I have realized that there may be other behavioural pandemics present in our world at the moment. Okay, so I am not sure there is such a term as behavioural pandemic, but you know what I mean. One that I have realized for some time now, is that a lot of my coaching clients profess to be perfectionists, and I guess that is understandable in a world where we constantly drive ourselves and others to achieve ever-increasing targets.

A quick google of the term “perfectionism” came up with the following: “a refusal to accept any standard short of perfection”. That’s a tough definition. For the purposes of this newsletter, I’d be prepared to accept something even a little less stringent like “striving to achieve perfection”.

Whatever our definition, and my clients’ definitions, I am always a little surprised when, in answer to my question “can we ever achieve perfection?”, my clients acknowledge that one can’t. A discussion then normally ensues around the consequence of constantly striving for something we can’t achieve – for if humans can never attain perfection, that is we are always falling short, then aren’t we marginalizing ourselves? In fact, isn’t that the very worst thing a perfectionist can suffer, falling short of perfection? Not being perfect? Worse, because we don’t necessarily look at it like that, but rather keep striving for the unattainable, we enter what I call the self-defeating vicious circle of perfectionism – our response is to try harder, and then we don’t attain perfection, so we try even harder, and so on and so forth. What a terrible thing to do to ourselves? What a terrible thing to do to our colons?

What does normally emerge in our conversations, however, is that perfectionists strive for perfection as an adaptive strategy because they fear the dropping of standards. This part I understand – none of us want standards to drop. I just think we should be wiser, and kinder to ourselves, about what strategy we adopt to take care of our fear.

Well, if perfection is unattainable, what is attainable? What is the most we can expect of ourselves, and expect of others, whilst retaining our standards? Virtually all my perfectionist clients are agreed on this: our best, and the best from the others. However, our best (like perfection) is somewhat of a moving target in at least two respects: firstly, it’s (almost?) humanly impossible to be at our best all the time; and secondly, our best gets better as we get better at being at our best. Let me use Usain Bolt as an example. As many of you will know, (although he has retired from athletics) he I think still holds the men’s record for the 100 meters – so the fastest runner ever. He broke his own records a couple of times on his way to his record, so he had several bests along the way. At the same time, he didn’t break his record, or equal it, every time he ran competitively. Yet, most times, on the day, he tried or ran at his best.

So, what’s the moral of this story? I believe our goal should be to be able to be at our best more of the time. In this way, our best will get better over time, and we will more consistently be at our best (even) more of the time – and our standards are maintained, or improved!

There is another perspective that is also important here – several new clients I meet tell me early on that they are perfectionists but, when we unpack what they mean by the term, they readily acknowledge that they do not strive for perfection, they strive to keep standards high. My fear for them is the harm this perfectionist self-talk might do over time. To a large extent, we are what we think so that we are the language that we use to describe those thoughts. Over time, after repeatedly calling oneself a perfectionist, what happens to us? Like with ‘real’ perfectionists, what happens to our self-image and self-belief when we never seem to be enough?

My warning is therefore to be careful and clear what you mean when you call yourself a perfectionist – in fact, when you call yourself anything. Unpack it and check whether it is fact, or just your opinion. For example, some people call (and see) themselves a failure when they fail to achieve a goal. Is Djokovic a failure because he lost to Nadal in the recent French Open Final, or did he just fail to beat Nadal?

Watch that self-talk this week!

Until next time, stay safe and well.

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