What I Learned: perfectionism and goals

Those who’ve followed me on Twitter or LinkedIn, or attended one of my talks over the last few years will know I have had a turbulent relationship with goals. Alongside my anxiety diagnosis a few years ago, the psychotherapist stated that I had obsessive perfectionism. “Perfectionism?” I thought, “the answer to that common [terrible] interview question: what is your biggest flaw? Is that even a real problem?”. But, unlike those who use the term perfectionism to describe their attention-to-detail, meticulous organisation skills or contentiousness, perfectionism to me became a world pre-occupied with control, low self-esteem, and ultimately living in fear of failure.

This summer, I listened to a podcast episode with Deliciously Ella and professor Dr Thomas Curran that summarised the experience of maladaptive perfectionism better than any other discussion I’d heard. Within this, they discuss how we hold perfectionism as an “emblem of the successful”, and how those who fit the mould of the perfectionist, whilst potentially successful in the eyes of society, have a greater tendency towards dissatisfaction, burnout and even suicidal ideation. All feelings I unfortunately knew too well, culminating in my burnout about this time last year.

In 2020, to help me re-assess my goals and, ultimately, needs – I decided to look closer at my diagnosis. I spent time this year, with the help of professionals, understanding why setting goals was so important to me, why these goals would always be the exceptional, the Bill-Gates-Michael-Jordan-Beyonce style “I can and will do anything” goals, and why I would set myself hundreds, if not thousands (yes, really) each year. Within this, I also learned I was driven by a fear of failure (as I defined it) and motivated by the same failures, and how my perfectionism was intertwined with my anxiety, depressive episodes and an adolescent eating disorder.

As Curran talks about in his TED Talk on the rise of perfectionism, each perceived slight, “every flaw, every unforeseen setback, increases a need to perform more perfectly next time, or else“.

As we enter the first weeks of 2021 – a time when it feels like the topic (and pressure) of goal-setting, New Year’s resolutions, is everywhere – I wanted to share my top three tips on setting goals. The lessons that have worked for me to stay motivated and focussed without the self-doubt, pressure or guilt.

Drop to-do lists and resolutions for reflection and gratitude

Most of us love lists. I love lists. Nothing has quite the same satisfaction as crossing a line through a tick box of tasks completed or seeing your online task manager fade text to grey and archive all you’ve achieved. Yet, in a world where we feel we must constantly perform, produce, over and over again, to-do lists can do more harm than good. If you, like me, have a tendency towards limitless lists, who find it hard to rest or ‘do nothing’ – rather than starting your week with a long list of tasks to get through, end your week with a long list of things you are grateful for and have completed.

At first this will be difficult, and we do need some reminders (e.g. work project plans or to pick up groceries). But, in my experience, flipping your week on its head like this brings far more satisfaction than staring at the I-hadn’t-got-to-it-last-week-and-so-was-a-failure-yet-again-list I used to have on my desk on Mondays.

I also urge you to do this with your New Year’s resolutions, especially after 2020. Instead of starting the year with a long list of resolutions you must achieve otherwise 2021 was wasted, wait until the end of the year to write a thank you note to yourself (as I posted here) and feel grateful for making it through another year older (and wiser…).

Swap out your five-year-plan for possibilities

The infamous five-year-plan. I used to be obsessed with this idea. “As long as I have a plan, I will be successful, I just need to stick to the plan”. I’ve been asked about my 5-10 year plan in job interviews, we see it in countless TV shows, motivational talks, books, in interviews with our favourite celebrities or business leaders. But what these leaders, or society-at-large, doesn’t tell us enough is that the key to their success (aside from financial privilege or networks) is an adaptability to change.

Goals, by contrast, don’t usually account for change. So last year, I gave up on my long-term plans. I decided to leave the career I was in and take a leap of faith into something I was interested in, driven by, because what was more important than my previous five-year-plan was my current mental state and wellbeing. Now, I live with possibilities. This, for me, meant spending time assessing what I enjoyed about my life; the physical, material things I wanted (homes, clothes, technology) and the emotional and psychological aspects I needed (my relationship, friends, family, career, time alone).

What does this switch mean for goals? For example, for me, it meant: I now know I love working with data, I am excited by machine learning and artificial intelligence and I am motivated to help create products that are both data-driven and ethical. I also aspire (like every millennial) to own my own home one day, one filled with all the Home Edit storage solutions and the Pinterest kitchen of my dreams, to travel to new countries as often as I can, to be fit and healthy, and make time for laughter and love in my relationships everyday.

But, instead of setting a detailed list of monthly, quarterly and yearly objectives to achieve this dream, I live it. I am a data engineer, I’m learning and exploring new ideas and products, I am saving a bit of money each month (where I can), I message my friends everyday and more openly express my feelings. There’s always another course to do, talk to attend, workout to finish, money to save, trip to go on, and I will, but I no longer set a limit on when this must be done. I just do what I can each day to feel I am living with purpose, adaptable to change, opening my world to possibilities.

Share your ambitions with others

The hardest lesson as a perfectionist: you can’t do it alone. Not only did I believe sharing my thoughts or tasks was a burden to others, I believed it made me a failure. How could I not do it alone? Isn’t everyone else doing it alone? Well, no.

We are all linked to one another and we need each other to survive. People you know and don’t know. When you are struggling, trying to reach a goal or get to the bottom of an issue – professional or personal – collaboration is king. Sharing my ambitions with others last year helped me navigate what really mattered, what steps I needed to do now and what could wait, and mostly helped keep me sane.

Talk to your loved ones, mentors, colleagues, people online. It’ll make your goals far more tangible, and more importantly, manageable.

“A problem shared is a problem halved”

If there’s a topic you’d like to hear about in my What I Learned series, or elsewhere on this site, please 📧 contact@rkulidzan.com or hit the socials below.

If you identified with any of the thoughts shared in this post and feel you would like to talk to someone about these thoughts, please reach out to your GP, contact Mind, or the Anxiety UK helpline. And if you feel like things are too much, please call Samaritans on 116 123 💚

If you enjoyed reading my post and would like to learn more about perfectionism, have a listen to this episode:

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