We prefer to use the term ‘unrelenting standards’ as there are a number of common misconceptions around the more familiar term of ‘perfectionism’. Being considered a ‘perfectionist’ is often misapplied and can be misleading that you strive for and actually achieve ‘external perfection’. Often individuals’ who experience perfectionism don’t identify with this description or connect this with their pattern of thinking or behaviour.
Perhaps let’s start with some of the statements below. Do any of these resonate with you?
- My happiness is determined by the quality of my performance and successes (in most things I do – (i.e., work, parenting, exercise, appearance, relationships)
- I feel that I need to be the best at what I do and exceed expectations
- I feel that whatever I do, it is never quite good enough for me.
- I feel guilty that I feel tired and my body wants to rest
- I feel guilty and that I am wasting time when I sit down and rest because there are things I could be doing to be productive.
- I am often afraid of rejection, letting down or disappointing others
If they do, there is a strong possibility that you may struggle with unrelenting personal standards.Unrelenting standards can operate in a very subtle way, and left undetected can undermine your emotional and mental health and wellbeing. As indicated in the statements above, not meeting these standards can leave you feeling anxious, uneasy, irritable and emotionally drained.
We will address some of the factors that can drive these standards and how they developed over-time (as a coping mechanism) shortly, however it is important to recognise that these standards that have driven your behaviour have mostly likely worked for you for a long period of time. They ensure your value in your relationships with other people, in the workplace, socially and romantically, because you always achieve/deliver, and you are responsible, reliable, thoughtful, dedicated and driven.
All are very admirable attributes. But they have a dark side. And it shows up when you can’t sustain or maintain these standards for living.
When we encounter a life context such as an illness, injury, change in our health and/or change in our life circumstances (i.e., becoming a parent, higher responsibilities at work) we often struggle to maintain these standards that we hold for ourselves across all areas of our life. It is under these circumstances that levels of stress, anxiety, and hyper-self-criticism can quickly escalate.
Individuals’ can feel as though everything is spiraling out of control and this can throw them into a cycle of fatigue and exhaustion. During these times, offers to help don’t feel ‘helpful’ but overwhelming (it is impossible to delegate), and any attempts to help you make you feel more like you are further losing control (and then guilty you should be ‘grateful’ for the help). In most circumstances the person trying to help you won’t do the task to your standard, or the most challenging situation is when people start to tell you “it doesn’t matter”, “let it go”, “it isn’t important”. At this point, most individuals will notice a change in their mood, they may withdraw and feel a sense of agitation and irritability as it seems no one understands and you are the only one who seems to care!
When recovering from an illness or change in your health, it can be especially difficult as you will often be receiving advice from your healthcare team or family that you need to ‘be flexible’, ‘pace yourself’, ‘take it easy’ and explore ways to break things down into more ‘manageable goals’. For a person with unrelenting standards “using your spoons” (this is a pacing analogy) is impossible as the have to do’s will always take priority over what is most meaningful.