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Perception is Everything

Striving for perfection

I am a perfectionist. I like to say I’m a recovering perfectionist. Or maybe an almost perfectionist – perfection is after all almost impossible to obtain. From the very moment my eyes open each morning I see the world with the eyes of someone striving for perfection.

Every single interaction I have, every choice or decision I make, and all the experiences I have are directly affected by how I perceive the world around me. As a perfectionist I perceive everything with a ridiculously critical eye. I am, almost always, harder and more critical of myself than anyone else. I zone in on tiny imperfections and fail to notice successes and achievements, or at least I notice them and quickly spot the things I could have done better until the achievement is in the shadow of my own perceived failures.

The standards I set for myself and, too often, for others are not always reasonable. I become anxious at the very thought of failing, and the extreme anxiety often leaves me stuck in a world of procrastination. I get stuck in circles of my own over-thinking. It goes something like this: I want to do this, I must do this perfectly, I can’t do this perfectly, I can’t do this, I won’t do this. Guess what? I don’t do it.

It happens when I’m learning lines for shows. I think: I want to learn these lines, I must learn them perfectly. I start trying and find I can’t learn them instantly (oddly…!). Thoughts continue: I can’t do this, I won’t do this. I stop learning lines. I put it off for a couple of weeks. I get stressed I’ve not learned my lines.

It’s not fun to be in this thought loop, it isn’t joyful or healthy to be ultra critical of myself in every single minute of my waking day. Yet it’s been a part of me for as long as I can remember. I didn’t have a clue how to even begin tackling this in the past. How can you change your behaviour when you’ve never known anything else?

Check your filters

The truth is you may well have behaved very differently before in your life. It’s highly likely at some point someone said something to me that went a bit like: “you’ve got to get it right” or “keep trying until it’s perfect”. And immediately what happened was I started to see the world through a filter, a perfection filter, like a visor on a motorbike helmet, only this filter slightly distorted the way I saw the world and interacted in it. Over time other filters popped up as well, like “don’t bother people” (ooh, ‘don’t bother people, do it all on your own’ filter) or “you’ve got to work hard” (hello, ‘working hard’ filter). Until suddenly my visor was, and is, so covered in filters I can’t see out of it clearly, and all I see and experience is affected by those filters.

Your story may not be exactly the same, and some version of this will have happened to you. You only see reality through your own filters, not necessarily how things really are in reality.

These filters of ours aren’t all bad. On the contrary, striving for perfection has enabled me to work hard, to achieve amazing things (I notice how my “I must be humble” filter doesn’t like me saying that out loud), and to throw everything into all I do. And yet, it causes anxiety, slows my progress, even resulting in total lack of action, and it doesn’t have to be this way.

You always have a choice

I have a choice, and you do too. I can choose whether to keep looking at the world through my filter of perfectionism. Or I can choose to start noticing where it shows up and what happens when it does. I can notice when it stops me in my tracks. And when I do, I can choose to do what I’ve always done or try something different. I can choose to test out whether there might be another reality I can’t see yet.

How do you try on another idea of reality? Sounds a bit sci-fi, right? If I notice my perfectionist filter is causing me to be super critical of something I’ve done, I’ll ask someone I trust for feedback. More often than not they will find positives I hadn’t even noticed, and I start to see that there is another version of reality I hadn’t seen before. Or I just get into action anyway – noticing the perfectionist filter is often enough to give me breathing space to take action, to move beyond it to a place where I can see maybe I had a distorted view.

Notice it, and take action

So today, if you find yourself putting something off, or thinking there’s no point in trying to change/do anything differently, start to notice what filters you might be looking through. Don’t try to take them off, just notice them, and ask yourself how can you test out whether there might be another version of reality. And take action.

Go well, and have fun.

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