From Perfectionism to Personal Growth
[originally published April 28, 2022]
Do you find yourself constantly striving for perfection and pushing yourself to be productive all the time? Are you constantly busy, trying to accomplish as much as you possibly can in a day?
I’m slowly raising my hand over here. I admit I’ve been guilty of this too, and still am at times to be perfectly honest. I used to wear my obsession with productivity and perfectionism as a badge of honour until I realised that it wasn't serving me as much as I thought it was.
In this article, I’m going to explore the impact perfectionism and obsessive productivity has on our lives and why prioritising self love might be the answer. I’ll share my own journey along the way and try to unpack why self love is so important.
First, here are some alarming facts about perfectionism to shock us all into action.
- “One study of nearly 42,000 young people around the world found that perfectionism has risen over the last 27 years.” World Health Organisation
- “[Socially prescribed perfectionism] increased at twice the rate of self-oriented and other-oriented perfectionism. It is also the form of perfectionism that exhibits the largest association of all the dimensions with a host of mental health issues including anxiety, depression, social phobia, and suicidal thoughts.” Perfectionism Is Increasing, and That’s Not Good News
These stats aren’t fun or sexy but I do believe they’re helpful. There’s knowledge in power after all. Let’s use this knowledge to help us take a step back and reflect on our relationship with productivity and perfectionism.
As modern professional women, it's all too easy to fall into the trap of constantly striving for more and feeling like we need to be perfect at everything. I’ve been there!
My own obsession with productivity wasn't coming from a healthy place. In fact, as I embarked on my personal development and self love journey, I learned that self love is so important precisely because it allows us to let go of perfectionism and embrace imperfection.
Now I’ll be real with you here. Overcoming my productivity obsession and prioritising self love is a slow and ongoing process of unlearning, setbacks and forming new habits that actually serve me.
The impact of perfectionism and obsessive productivity
As much as we want to believe that productivity and striving for perfection is a good thing, the truth is that it can reach a point where it’s actually detrimental to our well-being. Harvard Business Review pulled together a lot of research on this and discovered the following:
“Our results indicate that perfectionism is strongly and consistently related to numerous “detrimental” work and non-work outcomes, including higher levels of burnout, stress, workaholism, anxiety, and depression.”
Most of the women I’ve spoken to have more than enough stress and anxiety in their lives as is. Many are also feeling even more prone to burnout and depression post-pandemic (not that the pandemic is even completely over yet). That’s why I think talking about these things is so dang important.
Let’s not forget the impact all this stress and anxiety has on our relationships. Everything from communication challenges to an increase in conflict. There’s so much we could explore just about the impact of stress on relationships that I won’t go into it in this article. I invite you to set aside 10 minutes to think about it though.
Ask yourself this...
Here are a couple of prompts to get you started.
- Have you noticed that you’re struggling to be present or that you’re less able to connect with your loved ones?
- Are you getting into arguments more often?
- Have you stopped appreciating your relationship, perhaps taking it for granted?
- When was the last time you had quality time with your partner? This could be a date or simply a time when you were present with each other.
Tip: Write the prompts in your journal now so you can get back to them later.
By practising self-love, we can learn to manage stress and anxiety, which can help us to be more present and connected with those around us. More on that later.
Now you might be thinking that it’s still serving you in some ways and that you couldn’t possibly let go of it. That fear that your world will collapse if you ever fully stopped is very real, and I see you. Let’s debunk it right here and now though.
Turns out HBR also wanted to find out whether these perfectionistic traits help us perform better. They did the hard work of researching the topic extensively - thanks HBR. The conclusion was that “perfectionists are not better or worse performers than non-perfectionists” (The Pros and Cons of Perfectionism, According to Research). So there you have it!
My own journey
“Perfectionism is a fear of failure in disguise”.
I’m not sure who the original author of that statement is, but it certainly resonates with me. At the beginning of this article, I admitted that I’m guilty of having obsessed over productivity and perfectionism myself. I share that not to make this about me, but rather to show you that I’m a flawed human too and that I understand the struggle.
For the longest time, productivity to me meant staying busy and squeezing in work or other 'accomplishments' into every hour of my day. Being a good person meant getting a lot of things done. There was a sense of safety in staying busy and accomplishing things. As I'm sure you can imagine, that's not a super healthy belief for anyone, especially a neurodivergent person like me who is prone to overwhelm and consequent burnout.
I know now that I was leaning into my anxious overachiever energy rather than confronting and processing what I was anxious and insecure about. That’s very ‘coach’ language but in essence, what it means is that the constant productivity acted as an excuse to not think too hard about my relationship with myself & my body.
Not listening to my body’s needs wasn’t enabling me to live my best life though, which is why I ended up embarking on a sort of self love journey. Actually, it started off with me replacing my obsession for productivity with an obsession for personal development. Eventually, that got me on to the self love journey though, so don’t judge.
Is my obsession healthy?
I feel the need to add here that obsessions are not always healthy. It’s important to notice when a hyperfocus or special interest moment turns into an unhealthy obsession.
Things to look out for are:
- Is this still serving me, or adding value to my life?
- Is it negatively impacting my life in any way?
- Have I taken it too far and need to dial it back a bit?
Why is self love important?
Loving and being compassionate towards ourselves is essential for personal growth and combating those feelings of overwhelm and anxiety that we talked about earlier. When you truly love and accept yourself, imperfections and all, you give yourself the space to grow and evolve. You no longer have to live up to impossible standards or constantly chase perfection in order to feel worthy or valued.
Think of it this way - you wouldn't expect your best friend to be perfect, right? You love and accept them for who they are, flaws and all. So why not extend that same kindness and compassion to yourself? When you love yourself, you're more likely to approach situations and other people from a place of love too.
Love and Respect
I know it's easier said than done, but I’m confident you’ll find it worth the effort. Let me just clarify here that it's not about being selfish or narcissistic. Rather self-love is about cultivating a deep sense of love and respect for yourself. When you're coming from a place of self-love, you're actually able to make better decisions for yourself. It will also help you to prioritise your needs and desires - remember to listen to your body!
Evidence for self-compassion
Research has shown that self love, a key element of self-compassion, has a significant impact on mindfulness and well-being. Check out the following research paper if you want to learn more: A pilot study and randomised controlled trial of the mindful self-compassion program
Another study, this time on nursing students specifically, reached a similar conclusion. They found that “self-compassion might reduce nursing students' anxiety and depression through perceived stress.” Self-compassion may reduce anxiety and depression in nursing students: a pathway through perceived stress
Turns out it's not just coach talk. There’s actual research to back up that self love can improve our self-esteem, boost our mood, and reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression. I hope this encourages you to embark on your own journey of self love.
Did self-love work for me?
The short answer is: Yes. Mostly.
For the most part, I no longer tie my sense of self-worth to my productivity or my ability to be perfect. And let me tell you, it is liberating! I still feel the pull to be productive and perfect at times, but my partner helps remind me to stop and reconnect with the world around me.
I’m getting better at noticing that pull and not letting it take over. Instead, I remind myself that I'm doing enough, there's no such thing as perfect, and that done is better than perfect.
The lesson learned is that while productivity and perfectionism can be rewarding, it's important to be mindful of how far you take it. Notice whether you're doing more as a way of feeling less and overcompensating for your insecurities.
Please don't let fear run your life. Instead, try to approach your life with love - unrestrained love for yourself. That's the key to a healthy self-love journey and the foundation for a healthy long-term relationship.
Is self love the answer?
Finally, let’s answer the question of why self love is so important and why it may be the key to overcoming obsessive productivity and perfectionism.
We’ve learnt that by loving and accepting ourselves, we’re better able to manage stress, anxiety and overwhelm. That not only improves our physical health but also our relationships.
See now why I’m raving about self-love? It allows us to let go of perfectionism and embrace imperfection. When we learn to love ourselves unconditionally, we no longer feel the need to be perfect all the time or constantly productive.
My final piece of advice is this. As you embark on your self-love journey, please remember to be kind to yourself. Recognise that it's okay to make mistakes and that imperfection is a natural part of being human.
Keep practising self-compassion and giving yourself the same love and kindness that you would give to a friend. With time and practice, you will notice how it enables you to live a more fulfilling life.
So, my dear reader, let's make a commitment to prioritise our self-love journey. Let's embrace imperfection and approach our lives with love and compassion. And let's remember that we don't have to be perfect to be worthy of love and acceptance - we're already enough just as we are.