Anxiety Tame Resources

Perfectionism? Try Flexing the Rules a Little!

When I started writing this blog, I looked through some ‘famous quotes’ about being perfect. The more I read, the more it seemed that the take-home messages from people like Natalie Dormer and John Legend were:  a. none of us are perfect, and b. we need to accept our ‘imperfections’ for what they are.  Thanks for that guys, consider my flaws accepted!

Sound like a plan? Rather than fixating on our perceived flaws (because perfect does mean ‘without flaw’) we embrace them for what they are and get on about our business? I love the theory, but very often the practice is much more challenging.

Just like many other people, I like things to be done a certain way and I have self-imposed standards that I hold dear and only let slip in case of a grave emergency. So you’re unlikely to bump into me without mascara and I ‘have to’ brush my teeth twice a day! I’d like to be able to write the perfect blog, however, I reckon that the more I practise, the better I will become.

For people with perfectionist traits the list of ‘shoulds’ and ‘musts’ is far more comprehensive and rules for living are often rigid and in the long-term, exhausting or demoralising. 

Rules like –

I must go to the gym for an hour, every day

I should never let the kids eat ready meals

I have to get all the housework done before I can concentrate on anything else

No one can see my house looking a mess.

In her book, Overcoming Perfectionism, Roz Shafran explains that for some individuals, once they have achieved one target the bar gets set higher and higher still until they can’t possible ‘win’. Not achieving reinforces negative beliefs about themselves and obviously this makes them feel stressed and low. 


The Psychologist, Albert Ellis discussed a phenomenon called Musterbation – the ‘having tos’ and rules that people impose upon themselves, the world and other people. I must be listened to, others should be kind, The world should be a just place. Considering we have little to no control over others or the world…it’s a bit of a hiding to nowhere! I should, I shouldn’t, you should, you shouldn’t…so many rules, so little time to actually get on with life.

Although perfectionism is a trait and not an anxiety disorder, if it gets out of control it can contribute to many different problems like stress, chronic worry (GAD), panic, depression. 

Self-confidence may well get a battering when you feel like you never achieve enough. Striving to do well is one thing but straining just isn’t healthy. 

Being super human!

Perfectionists often have a very black and white thinking style – “I have either achieved or I’ve failed”. There’s no grey area in between. Little sense of satisfaction at your accomplishments to date, it’s more a case of keeping the plates spinning. Or in Wonder Woman’s case, the lasso spinning!

I’m winging it!

Imposter Syndrome is an interesting concept.  It’s the sense that you’re not good enough at your job, under qualified, not as capable as everyone else (there goes the compare and despair again!) Basically, we will attribute our successes to luck, chance or maybe even other people haven’t discovered how bad we are yet?! Perfectionists rarely feel as if they are coming up to scratch or achieving what they ‘should’ be achieving. How about taking a minute to write down all the things you have accomplished? Think about all the times when you were faced with a real challenge and you coped. Excelled even. Seriously, you wouldn’t be so hard on a friend.

Try a little flexibility!

So, if you recognise yourself in the description above AND your perfectionism is causing you distress, are you able to practise a little flexibility with the rules?

You don’t have to completely change how you operate. Heck no! But what if you tried to reduce the rigidity just 10% to start with?

I must go to the gym for an hour every day could become I am going to try to get to the gym when I can this week.

My kids must never eat a ready meal could become, I’m going to try to cook from scratch for the kids but when it’s not possible, beans on toast is fine.

The rigid ‘nevers’ become ‘when I can, or most of the time’…10% more flex to the rule equals reduced stress when the targets can’t be met.

Now I realise that toes will be curling on the feet of any perfectionists reading this because the rules have kept you safe. You’ve created a comfort zone, but at what cost? If you’re feeling like there aren’t enough hours in the day or that however hard you work you can’t get it all done, then perhaps it’s time to reduce the shoulds and musts?

If you think it might be helpful to speak to someone about perfectionism or anxiety, then please do get in touch.

“The rise in perfectionism doesn’t mean each generation is becoming more accomplished. It means we’re getting sicker, sadder and even undermining our own potential”.

BBC The Dangerous Downsides of Perfectionism