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'Perfectionism' by Jeremy Lander

'Nobody's perfect' - the perfect ending of the magnificent 'Some Like it Hot'

I was at a Mentor Training session on Zoom the other day given by a human resources consultant. She shared with us various motivational images like one of a mountain that became ‘movable with a mentor’ and two giraffes who ‘look out for each other’. So far so HR. She then mentioned something that captured the attention of all of us in the Zoom room, all of us being architects and prone to the sort of thing she was describing. Apparently, there are three types of perfectionist and she listed them as follows:

1. Socially prescribed perfectionists

Socially prescribed perfectionists are very self-critical. They feel immense pressure to be the best and worry that others will reject them. They have perceived high external standards (which can come from family, workplace culture, society, etc.) and this can lead to anxiety and low confidence. “The people around me expect me to succeed at everything I do” they say to themselves; “my family expects me to be perfect”; “I mustn’t let people down”.

2. ‘Other’-oriented perfectionists

These are perfectionists who hold others to high standards and are critical and judgmental when they think these standards are not being met. They can be very destructive, and because they can’t delegate, they find it hard to build working relationships with other people. “If you want something done properly do it yourself” they might say, “otherwise they will let me/the side down”. They are control freaks.

3. Self-oriented perfectionists

These perfectionists are ‘organized and conscientious’. They set high standards for themselves and are not afraid to ‘pursue their goals’. They are generally associated with the most "adaptive" traits and, in the workplace, tend towards greater productivity and success, including ‘resourcefulness and assertiveness’. They tend to complete tasks on time, and have high standards for their work but, because they take into account their strengths and limitations, they don’t ‘overdo it’.

My alarm bells started to ring at this point. Apparently there are bad perfectionists (1 and 2) and good perfectionists (3), the ones the HR consultants want their clients to employ. “Oh that’s good, they’re a Type 3 perfectionist! Conscientious, hardworking, ambitious, but they know their strengths and weaknesses. They can start tomorrow!”

But isn’t this describing not a perfectionist but a perfect person, which we know does not exist? In fact these type 3 perfectionists are probably the ones most likely to have a nervous breakdown. I know this because I was that person. I was conscientious, hardworking, I set high standards for myself, but I knew my strengths and weaknesses... or so I thought.

If we are a little bit perfectionist, of whichever type, then of course that’s fine, and probably most of us are in some way. We are human and we have failings, especially when we strive to be perfect. The important thing is to realise that we are, and bring a sense of ‘allowing’ to our condition. And not think “Oh no, I’m a perfectionist.. that means I’m not perfect!”

I have some additional slogans for the HR consultants to add to their motivational PowerPoints:

“Don’t let the best be the enemy of the good!”

“If a thing is worth doing it’s worth doing badly!”

And finally, from Martine Batchelor, one of my favourite meditation teachers:

“What is the least I can do?”

We can be overwhelmed, particularly in our present state, by feelings of inadequacy. I have a friend who is a postman, a volunteer fireman and has recently trained as a reserve ambulance driver. A key-worker three times over! If I feel a little inadequate by comparison Martine’s advice is to think ok, maybe I can’t be a key worker times three but what is the least I can do? At the moment, it might just be getting out of bed in the morning and smiling at the weather outside, rain or shine. Once you have done that then maybe you can do another small thing, and then another. It’s not perfect, but it will be more than enough.

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