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Paul Abraham: Allow yourself to be human and fallible

Words: Paul Abraham of www.headingonwards.com

The past two years have been incredibly stressful and life-changing for many people.  Now as we start to return to some sort of normality there is the threat that we will try and make up for the past two years by pushing ourselves too hard in trying to make up for “lost time”.

Is your best never good enough? The demanding standards of perfection we set ourselves can drain the joy out of your life and keep your stress levels high. 

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Is it time to give yourself a break? Perfectionism might sound like a great trait, after all, people who care about high standards in any walk of life are likely to be achievers.  However, holding ourselves to excessive standards can be highly stressful.

A British study in 2003, which is still relevant today, found that the people most at risk of hopelessness and distress were those who combined perfectionism with “avoidance coping” – that is dealing with problems by ignoring rather than confronting them.  

The combination of impossible standards and avoidance behaviour caused stress and depression. Psychologists’ opinions differ as to whether perfection can ever be a positive attribute. Taken together the evidence suggests perfectionism has a tendency to make it harder to cope with the stresses of life.

Here are six pieces of advice when you start pressuring yourself to reach perfection in whatever form.

  • Prioritise based on you values.  Trying to do everything perfectly is hugely stressful .  Save your high standards for the things that matter to you most.
  • Get comfortable with the idea of experimenting.  Taking risks and making mistakes needn’t be a disaster and can be a positive learning experience.
  • Be process-smart.  The majority of the payoff for your efforts tends to happen fairly early in the process; after that, the benefit-to-effort ratio starts to decline and at some point it stops being worthwhile.
  • Reward yourself for imperfect achievements.  For instance, it may be better to meet a deadline with a slightly less-than-perfect  product than spend so long getting it right that you don’t deliver at all.
  • Find role models.  Who do you know who has similar goals, but seems to struggle less? When facing a challenge, ask yourself or them, how they’d tackle it.
  • Stress-saving cue cards. Write some positive, realistic statements on small pieces of card and carry them with you to serve as a reality check when perfectionism is making you too stressed.  Examples are – “Nobody is perfect”, “having an off-day doesn’t make me a failure”, “It’s okay to make mistakes – everyone does”, “I’m only human” and “If I’ve done my best, that’s the best I can do”.

We all have to learn to tolerate a level of imperfection.  Your life can be far less stressful if you can allow yourself to be human and fallible.

Read more of Bramley-based Paul Abraham’s wellbeing columns on WLD here.

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