In an earlier blog post, I reflected on some of the perils of perfectionism. In this post, I am going to focus on one of these in more detail: inflexible or overgeneralised high standards. Perfectionists often have unrealistic expectations and rigid beliefs. For example, you may find yourself starting a lot of sentences with: ‘should’/’must’/’got to’/’have to’. This could apply to the expectations you have of yourself and other people.
Do you assume that you and others should act the same way at all times and that everyone should live by your standards?
Unnecessary demands and expectations of ourselves and others, where we are continually trying to prove that we are worthy and successful, can lead to feelings of low self-esteem, stress and anxiety.
Are you aware of how often your thoughts or statements start with: “I should/must do/got to/have to ….”; “They should/must do/got to/have to …”? Until we take a step back to observe our thoughts and language, we may not even be aware that we are setting inflexible rules for ourselves, other people and/or the world.
This thinking pattern can evolve over many years and the extent to which we engage in it is greatly influenced by experiences in our upbringing, education, family, culture and wider society, and the expectations we perceive them to set out for us. For example, from an early age you may have been taught to believe – either directly or indirectly – that by a particular point in your life you should have achieved certain things in order to be seen as a success. These standards will differ between societies and across cultures, but generally we are bombarded every day with images of what ‘success’ looks like. This is not made any easier if we engage with the filtered images of other peoples’ lives presented on social media. For example, you may believe that in order to be perceived as successful you need to have all or some of the following: a perfect body, a beautiful home, a nuclear family, expensive car, university education, successful career and lots of money. You may have even grown up with expectations of what you should have achieved by a certain age, e.g. all of the above by the time you are 35. However, life is rarely this linear and predictable and when reality does not match up to our expectations, this can lead to us getting upset or angry and wondering what is wrong with us. We may feel that we are ‘not worthy’, ‘not good enough’ or even ‘a total failure’. This is likely to lead us into a downward spiral experiencing stress, depression, anxiety, and even burnout.
If we pursue the path of achieving all the goals that we think will make us a worthy person and accepted by others, we can in turn become judgemental of others who have not followed the same path as us. This can lead to us branding those people who haven’t followed societal norms as ‘losers’ or ‘failures’. This may be a protective mechanism which we use to justify the choices we have made in our lives. For example, you may find yourself being judgemental of people who have chosen not to follow a career path that will guarantee them a secure financial future. Perhaps you are judgemental of people who have made a conscious decision to follow a particular type of lifestyle which does not fit with your definition of normal. If you find yourself being judgemental of others in this way, it may be that deep down you are not happy with the choices you have made and secretly envy others’ ability to follow their heart and live a life that is more aligned with their values. You may have worked really hard to achieve goals which you were taught would bring you happiness, e.g. having a high-flying career and earning lots of money, but find that you are still not happy, feel constantly stressed, and that you are always on the lookout for the next project, in the hope that this could finally bring you eternal happiness.
Is the constant pursuit of goals good for us?
There is currently a lot of discussion about how the constant pursuit of goals can actually lead to us feeling unsatisfied with our lives. Some of the reasoning behind this is that if we spend all our time and energy focussing on the pursuit of a distant goal in the belief that this will bring us happiness, we will not be fully engaged with whatever we are doing in the here-and-now. By doing this, we may be missing out on the enjoyable experiences that make life worth living and are available to us right now. How many times have you thought along the lines of: “When I achieve x, then everything will be great/ I will be happy”, only to get there and feel empty and wonder “what’s next”? We then set ourselves on a path of forever pursuing goals and putting pressure on ourselves to do this.
Does this mean that I shouldn’t be ambitious?
Quite the opposite – you need to have a clear direction to help you to live a meaningful life. However, make choices and commit to actions that are aligned with and guided by your personal values. When you figure out what is important to you and what you want to stand for in life, you may find that this doesn’t necessarily fit in with what other people have been telling you to do your whole life – follow your heart!
What can I do if I suffer from ‘should-it is’?
Take a step back and observe your thoughts and the language you use. You may find it useful to record examples of when and how often you use ‘should’ and ‘must’ statements in a notebook or a journal.
Reflect on your thinking patterns. Challenge yourself by asking the following questions:
Where is the evidence for this statement, e.g. I must perform well on this task, or I am a failure?
Is this a logical way of thinking, e.g. how does it follow that not performing well makes you a failure?
Is this thought helpful or unhelpful? Even if it is true, do you feel better or worse for believing it and does it help you to stop making mistakes?
Try changing rigid and inflexible beliefs and statements like ‘shoulds’ and ‘musts’ to more flexible statements like: ‘want’, ‘prefer’, ‘could’. Practice and reflect on how differently you feel if you change a statement like: “I must deliver a perfect presentation, otherwise I’m a total failure” to something along the lines of: “I want to deliver a perfect presentation, but if I don’t it is not the end of the world. I can use learning from this experience to do a better job next time.”
By treating ourselves and the world around us in a more realistic, flexible and compassionate way, we can increase our personal effectiveness and decrease negative emotional outcomes for all concerned.
If you need some support with this, working with a suitably trained coach, can give you the safe space to reflect on and explore your values and thinking patterns in more detail. A coach could help you to find more helpful ways of thinking that are not so hard on yourself and those around you.
If you are interested in finding out more about coaching, please don’t hesitate to contact me. Please visit www.mandymurdoch.co.uk for further details.
Health & Wellbeing Coach and Consultant