The myth of perfectionism
When you aim for perfection, you discover it’s a moving target. George Fisher
Now I know I am in danger of generalizing here, but through personal observation, I have noticed that many cancer survivors are high-achieving, driven, perfectionists with very high expectations of how they should be after their treatment has ended. They want to be back to that same level of competence that they operated on pre-treatment; so extreme fatigue, chemo-brain and emotional dips leave them feeling very frustrated and upset. I know because I am one of those women. So for all of us who struggle with perfectionism combined with post-treatment fatigue, I have put together some tips to help.
1. Don’t buy into the myth of perfection
Webster’s dictionary defines the word ‘perfect’ as follows:
- Lacking nothing essential to the whole: complete of its nature or kind.
- Being in a state of undiminished or highest excellence: FLAWLESS
Pretty high expectations to put on ourselves don’t you think?! Perfectionism is merely an illusion because if it were a reality then it actually wouldn’t be perfect; this is what makes it such an insane desire to achieve something that is not real. It is basically a never-ending quest that is often media-driven and extremely unhealthy.
Sometimes we fall into the trap of believing that we can only feel whole after we’ve done everything to ours or society’s unrealistic level of perfection. So we strive to have the perfect body, the perfect home, the perfect job. Cancer can give us a break from having to be perfect in this way (although sometimes we feel a need to transfer these expectations to being the perfect cancer patient) but then what happens when all treatment is over? Do we go back to being the perfect wife, mother and employee again? Sometimes we put such realistic expectations on ourselves (and others) to be a certain way and end up damaging ourselves (and loved ones) in the process. The pursuit of perfectionism can become an obsession that sometimes leads to depression and psychological distress.
Try this instead: Accept whatever is unfolding, whatever you’re feeling, right now. If you are tired, your energy levels are low, you feel down, you struggle with your body image, then honour those feelings and don’t put unrealistic demands on yourself. You are perfect just the way you are right now. Believe it!
2. Good enough is good enough
Setting high standards is admirable. When a person strives to be their best, it says to the world that they care about excellence, they appreciate the value of hard work, and they’re committed to personal development. But for some, there is a point at which efforts to achieve perfection stop being positive, and turn instead into an exhausting state of being. Sometimes you need to realise that good enough is sufficient and when you reach that point in your endeavours, then simply stop. This is not an excuse to do a poor job, but it is intended to give you permission to do a good job and then leave it there. I can reach that point of good enough and then waste precious energy and time polishing and perfecting something past that point. It is about finding the balance and for perfectionists that isn’t always easy, but we have to try to find that balance somehow.
3. Set yourself a deadline
Give yourself a certain time by which you will complete a task. This works for bigger tasks such as work projects or even something as simple as clearing out a drawer. Allocate a certain period of time to the task – it will make your work more focussed and when the time is up, you will not waste anymore time polishing and perfecting the task.
4. Set yourself realistic goals
Psychologist Tal Ben-Shahar says that, “…while stretching ourselves…can be a good thing, there is a point beyond which it becomes a bad thing. We need to accept that our limits are real.” When setting goals make sure that they are based on your own personal wants and needs – not societal, family or friends’ expectations of you.
5. Break the cycle of perfectionism
The cycle of perfectionism often starts in childhood. I was very moved by the picture of the little girl above, because I can see myself so clearly in this image. I was often afraid to try something new in case I didn’t do it perfectly, and when I did undertake a task, I worked so hard at it, that even if it was a fun task I could take all the joy out of it, in my quest for perfection. Don’t be like that little girl. Learn to love your mistakes – they are part of being human. Appreciate them for what they are – precious life lessons.
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything,
That’s how the light gets in.