A friend of mine recently ran her first marathon. She ran the whole way, not slowing down to a walk once. For about three hours after the race, she felt marvellous. Then the doubts set in. Could she have done it faster? If she had pushed herself a little more, would her time have been better? At breakfast she would have been happy just to complete. By dinnertime she felt a failure for not doing “better”.
This is what life looks like when you’re a perfectionist: little sense of achievement, huge sense of never doing quite well enough. That’s thanks to the little voice at the back of the perfectionist’s head telling them that, really, they could be doing a whole lot better.
Perfectionists know about the voice, and they know that it doesn’t come from a completely healthy place. But then again they don’t know what they’d do without it. Slope around in trackie bottoms, watching daytime TV, probably?
Personally, I think perfectionists would do just fine without their voice. What’s for sure is if you are a perfectionist, you are unlikely ever to be stress-free unless you eradicate it. Here is an art therapy idea that might help, though it is a bit unusual.
Think about a mistake you’ve made recently or something you failed to do. Hear the voice. Listen closely. Summon up a visual image of your voice and draw it. Every time you hear the voice – scribble on its image, deface it. If you know who your little voice belongs to – and it’s someone who brought you up – don’t be put off this idea because it seems a bit cruel.
No-one needs to know but you. Externalising helps you disconnect from your inner voice. And, really, it’s about time you did. Reject your inner critic. It’s rotten company.
And if this doesn’t work, think about therapy.
Elisabeth Wilson is a counsellor, psychotherapist and the author of Stress-proof Your Life (Infinite Ideas, £12.99)