Letting Go Of The Myth of Perfectionism
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.
Perfectionism 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.
So what happens when we are diagnosed with cancer and life falls far from perfect?
Sometimes we feel a need to transfer these expectations to being the perfect cancer patient.
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. Be gentle and kind to yourself in the process.
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 notice that I can often reach that point of good enough and then waste precious energy and time polishing and perfecting something past that point.
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 focused and when the time is up, let it go. Don’t waste any more time polishing and perfecting the task.
4. Set yourself realistic goals
Psychologist Tal Ben-Shahar says:
While stretching ourselve 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 am very moved by this picture of the little girl below 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.
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything,
That’s how the light gets in.
Does this post resonate with you? What tips can you offer to those of us who are recovering perfectionists?
This is a darned good post! Perfectionism is a trap.
Hi Elizabeth, I still struggle massively with this myth – I needed to remind myself of it this week.
Very much to the point. I urge you to take a look at this project that touches on aspects of what you discuss here.
Thanks Jonathan – appreciate you sharing this information with us.
This steps are definitely useful and easy to follow. I need to win the battle with setting a deadline and your comment made me think it is not that hard at all. Ultimately, it will help me to finish any of my goals in a good way. Thanks!
Hi Marie, I am not a perfectionist, not even close. However, I think there is real pressure for cancer people to do “big” things following a diagnosis, which I really have a problem with. One more expectation. One more burden. Your article here certainly relates. Thank you for a thought-provoking read that makes me wanna write about this topic too. I agree with Elizabeth, this is damned good post and perfectionism is a trap!
LikeLiked by 1 person
Thanks Nancy for reading and commenting. Being the perfectionist that I am, I fell into that perfectionist trap of wanting to be the perfect cancer patient!
Hello Marie and thanks for this! The message applies to all kinds of diagnoses and all kinds of people. I once wrote about a kidney transplant patient who had become very active in her local Kidney Centre after her surgery, but was increasingly frustrated by the kind of patients invited to speak at their fundraising events – because those heroic, perky patients made her feel not so much inspired, but strangely inadequate. For example, she wrote:
“All I ever wanted when I was on that dialysis machine was to have a ‘normal’ life (and at the age of 26 that meant holding down a job, having enough energy to raise my children, have a social life, volunteer in my church, and staying healthy enough to do all that. And I did!
While those goals are nowhere near as glamorous or dramatic as running marathons, climbing mountains or skydiving, they felt just as difficult to me at times, and often insurmountable. I paid a high price to live the life I’ve led for the last 20 years. But it was worth it!”
I believe that her message (and especially yours!) are so important to women who already feel both societal and self-imposed pressure to be “perfect” after a life-altering medical crisis. Instead, we should all be encouraging each other that, as you say, “good enough is good enough”.
Sometimes, just getting through a rough day in one piece can feel like a heroic achievement!
Just catching up with your wonderful comment Carolyn – thank you – I really love what you have said here.