[Anna Magee just can't help being perfect at being perfect]
Having high standards and paying attention to detail are all seen as good things, right? Not according to new research and it could even be 'driving women mad'. Self-confessed perfectionist Anna Magee agrees.
My obsessive perfectionism starts at 4.30am when my alarm goes off. I light a candle and do a 20-minute mindfulness meditation to keep my anxiety contained. Then at 5am I have a pint of water and lemon (perfect to get your digestive system going) and email myself my to-do list and my colleagues their to-do lists. Then before work at 6.20am I drive to the gym and do 20 minutes of High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) a type of exercise with the most proven effectiveness in the shortest time.
At 7.10am I shower, straighten my hair, apply make-up and head to my office - where I run a health website - to be at my desk exactly at 8.15am. My perfectionist streak applies to everything I do. In fact I am so particular about my beauty regime I once left a brow bar with only one eyebrow threaded because she had the shape of the arch wrong. If I don’t do my yoga or exercise in the morning l beat myself up all day for failing to tick that off my to-do list. I avoid alcohol, coffee and sugar and my perfectly balanced diet is a running joke among my friends.
But I am certainly not alone in my exacting standards. The actress Emma Watson recently admitted to putting pressure on herself to be perfect while Gwyneth Paltrow revealed she thought her attention to detail would lead her to ‘check myself into a mental asylum.‘ Society rewards a perfectionist streak and striving to reach goals and taking care over tiny details are seen as laudable. Take Yahoo chief exec Marisa Mayer whose perfectionism is well documented. ‘She will spot a lot of details other people will not notice,’ a former colleague said. ‘When you add them up, it’s the different between a beautiful, polished product and one that feels more awkward.’
At work I’m seen as a control freak perfectionist (they say so all the time) because I have little tolerance for their mistakes. ‘How’s world domination?’ asked a friend just last week. To be honest, it’s exhausting.
So, could this kind of extreme perfectionism be working against me, instead of for me? That certainly seems to be the new thinking. Two recent studies have shown that far from being a positive trait, having too much of a perfectionist streak could be having a negative impact on us personally and professionally. Not only did one study in the The Journal of Psychosomatic Research find that perfectionists had more day-to-day fatigue than night shift workers, but the authors of the new book Mistakes I Made at Work; 25 Influential Women Reflect on the What They Got out of Getting it Wrong, argue that we need to admit our imperfections otherwise our fear of getting it wrong could act as a sort of ‘glass cliff’ – where we shy away from making bold moves because we worry we won’t do them well enough.
I can totally relate. I recently cancelled a freelance job worth £2,000 a day because I felt I hadn’t prepared for long enough despite it being on a topic I know inside out. This 'I Don't Know' problem was highlighted last month in a new book, the Confidence Code, which explains if women don't feel confident about a subject, they won't talk. In contrast, men will happily chat away about something even if they don't know anything about it. I know I am a rubbish public speaker and even though I am always being asked to do talks promoting my books, my website or to chair meetings on things I feel passionate about such as women’s body image, I often avoid them. I am convinced all anyone will notice is my shaky voice or that there are too many ‘umms’ in my language rather than the value of what I am saying.
You see the dark flipside is an obsessive type of perfectionism is stewing over mistakes and doing things over and over again because they never seem good enough. Scientists at John Curtin University in Western Australia found that obsessive perfectionists with traits like mine - extreme concern over mistakes and exacting attention to detail - experienced pathological worry and Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD), a type of continuous low-level anxiety. I have knots in my stomach almost permanently and have taken numerous courses of anxiety medication – others I know self-medicate with alcohol or drugs to take the ‘edge’ off.
And bona-fide obsessive perfectionists like me feel little joy in our achievements. I always feel I need to have some new achievement to talk about every few months, be it finishing a book or winning an award. I have done both in the last couple of years but there’s always that little voice in my head whispering, ‘One day you’ll be exposed as the failure you are...’
So, why am I like this? ‘Most perfectionists would have had a critical parent, older sibling or even a teacher growing up,’ says Stephen Palmer, visiting professor of psychology at Middlesex Univeristy. ‘It can lead them to grow up determined to prove them wrong.’ I remember as a kid whenever I did well at school I would come home and say to my dad, ‘Dad, I got 95 per cent in the test!’ and the answer was always the same, ‘Why didn’t you get 100?’
I do have some blindspots though – perhaps the reason I haven’t gone completely mad. At home I couldn’t care less about perfectly stacked magazines or ironed knickers and barely wash up. It resonated with me when in her book Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg quoted Dr Laura Glimcher, dean of Weil Cornell Medical College who admits to slacking at home, saying, ‘I had to decide what mattered and didn’t I learned to be a perfectionist in only the things that mattered.'
Experts tell me obsessive perfectionists can change by learning the trait of self-compassion. So, while I struggle to lower my standards and the demands I place on myself, I have stopped setting any more goals for a while so I can focus on the present. I make it compulsory that I go out at least one night a week, finishing work at 6pm. On one of these nights I admitted to a friend that I was having those problems fighting with my husband. She told me about something similiar happening to her and I felt a sense of comfort that what I was going through was normal and nothing to catastrophize about. It felt so liberating. Baby steps. One day I will be perfect at not being perfect…
5 signs you’re a perfectionist
1. There are times when you feel responsible for everything
2. When things are not working out well, you feel that you must be perfect in order to get things back on track
3. You have a sense that you should be keeping busy all the time to meet expectations
4. You feel a sense of shame when you fall short of expectations, even when they are not realistic
5. You are not satisfied with your accomplishments and can be very self-critical
Created by Professor Gordon Flett, psychology lecturer and researcher into perfectionism and health, York University, Canada
Anna Magee is the editor of healthista.com