Let's chat about the beauty of being ordinary, shall we?
Over the many, many weeks of social distancing and self-quarantine, it’s fair to say that we’ve been inundated with ideas of what we should be doing. According to social media, we should have been redecorating the whole house, working out for six hours of the day, become master banana bread makers, and written a best-selling novel. We had all this time that we should’ed all over the place. But if we weren’t filling our days by perfecting skill after skill, and instead bingeing Netflix documentary after Netflix documentary, well, that’s time very well spent too. Because we can’t all be above average and extraordinary in every possible way; we may try our hand at perfectionism, but there’s still beauty in being average and ordinary in our own ways too.
Perfectionism can be engraved in your personality, your traits, and your mannerisms without you even realising it. Sure, having high standards can go a long way, whether that’s proof-reading your cover letter before pressing the submit button when applying for your dream job (actually, that’s a must-do), or adding that final dusting of powder over your makeup before heading out for a long day.
But perfectionism is bigger than setting yourself high standards. It’s expecting every single thing in your life to be just right and feeling as if you’re not good enough when you don’t reach these unrealistic expectations.
This can also take over your job, your relationships and your whole life. “Perfectionism is the idea that you can’t make a mistake, that everything has to be perfect. In a nutshell, it’s those unrealistic, unrelenting standards that we set ourselves,” explains Dr Cliodhna O’Donovan, Chartered Psychologist and member of the PSI. Although it can be simply defined, there’s no such thing as a one size fits all. Cliodhna tells STELLAR that “perfectionism could be considered as at the extreme end of the conscientiousness scale, which is a universal trait. Some people will display higher levels of conscientiousness and others less so. Even still, for some people they may have more extreme, unrelenting and unrealistic or perfectionistic standards in some areas of their life (e.g. work-life or appearance) and less so in others.”
It comes in many forms and faces, but if it’s taking over your life to the point where you feel you can’t finish event he most menial of tasks, that’s when it becomes a problem. That’s when we can’t see past anything but the most perfect finished product, and we don’t recognise that sometimes there’s absolutely nothing wrong with being average and ordinary.
Cliodhna explains this further: “When it starts to really have an impact on you is when it becomes something that you might want to look at. The problem with perfectionism really is that it misunderstands the basic assumptions around what it means to be human. So we’re all imperfect, we’re all going to make mistakes, even when we’re trying our best. Perfectionism is not having an understanding or acceptance of that.”
Say you’re working in an office, for example, and you have to compile monthly reports for the first time. You know it’s a big deal, it’s not like they’re made for nothing, so you get it in your head that it has to be absolutely perfect. That’s why you’re there, to go above and beyond, to do the perfect job. The more you pore over the report, the bigger it seems, and it gets slightly scary. What if it turns out to be, well, nothing short of a shit show if it doesn’t meet your perfectionist standards?
Next thing, you’re doing absolutely everything you can to put off starting said report. You’re organising the folders on your desktop, searching for a new recipe for tonight’s dinner, even going as far as colour coding the files you’re gonna need. Because, surely, you can’t start it without the right files being colour coordinated? It’s like standard procrastination, only multiplied by a hundred.
Rather than trying to create a perfect report in order to receive the utmost attention and praise, Cliodhna explains that perfectionism is a lot more than that. “Often people will think that perfectionistic tendencies are about wanting to get a big clap on the back for doing well. But with these unrelenting standards, it’s not about wanting to get praise. It’s about wanting to avoid the kind of demonisation or the criticism they’ll give themselves if they don’t achieve that standard. It’s not about ‘I really want someone to tell me how brilliant I am’ – it’s more ‘I want to avoid me telling myself how awful I am if I don’t get this right.’
“We’re talking about the idea of feeling as if nothing is good enough. Recognising this or attempting to overcome it starts with understanding that even when you’re trying your very best, you might still make mistakes, and that it’s okay to make mistakes! It’s the fact of being human that we’re going to make mistakes We’re not going to be perfect all the time.”
If this sounds all too familiar to you, Cliodhna is on hand to explain how to identify these kinds of tendencies, and what you can do if you see them in yourself.
Thinking back to tests in college, or even school, can be good ways of identifying these traits in yourself. Think of the last exam or test you did. If you got 98 per cent, were you delighted? Or did you only think about the 2 per cent you didn’t get?
It can also be useful to think of receiving feedback in a work setting, or even in relationships. How do you take it? Do you hear the good and can you let that in, or did you only focus on things that are more constructive, the things that you need to work on?
Sometimes listening to our nearest and dearest is a really good way of identifying perfectionism in ourselves. They might say ‘you seem very hard on yourself’ or ‘you always seem quick to criticise yourself’ or notice that you find it extremely difficult to take compliments. Other people might notice before we do.
When it comes to overcoming perfectionist tendencies, it all depends on the individual. “If it seems to be an embedded problem and more so linked to your self-esteem, some people may benefit from going to see a qualified psychologist or therapist to work through some of those issues,” says Cliodhna. “For other people, it could be as simple as trying to develop a kinder, more compassionate relationship with yourself. Acknowledge that if you make a mistake, it doesn’t mean that you’re any less than anyone else. It just makes you human. It’s perfectly okay and reasonable to strive for perfection, once you realise that this isn’t always possible.”
So even though it may be hard to get your head around, it’s important to remember that you really don’t have to excel at everything, and at every point in your life. Because quite simply, there’s really something in being average and ordinary.
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