Overcoming people pleasing and perfectionism
The art of fitting in
If you’ve ever tried too hard to fit in with a group of people, you will be familiar with the unique sense of loneliness you feel when you are accepted by a group for a version of yourself that you thought they would like, and have to hide your true self to maintain their acceptance. People-pleasing is part of our evolutionary heritage; as a social species we need the security of being accepted as part of a tribe. Perhaps as a result, belonging to a group where you feel loved and accepted is a basic psychological need. When we have the courage to be ourselves and find people who appreciate us, there is little else that feels so liberating. However, when we think the people around us do not appreciate or approve of us, there is an overwhelming temptation to edit out the parts of ourselves that will drive people away and present an acceptable version of ourselves to the world. Over time, this creates dissonance at such a deep level that it eventually becomes impossible to be happy with the group you spent so long striving to be accepted by.
I have always struggled to fit in with stereotypically masculine men, and so felt particularly intimidated by the prospect of travelling for two months with four such men on a reconnaissance trip to prepare for my PhD research in the Kalahari Desert, Botswana. I visited more pubs in the days it took us to travel through South Africa to our study sites than I’d visited in my whole life until that point, sipping slowly and pretending to enjoy the beers they ordered me. I tried to laugh in the right places but had no idea how to enter into the banter.
When we got to the field, they explained that we would be taking samples along transects in a National Park that was famous for having the highest density of lions anywhere in Africa. When I asked what would happen if we met a lion, they laughed and suggested that I had nothing to worry about, as with my long legs, I’d get back to the Land Rover before anyone else. I felt uneasy about the plan but didn’t have the confidence to counter the bravado of my colleagues. When we arrived at the park, my colleagues mocked a large sign forbidding anyone to get out of their vehicle on any account. It was only at this point that we began to seriously discuss how we would collect our data without being eaten by lions.
Luckily, I had visited a hardware store in the capital city the day before and had come prepared. Unluckily however, the knife I had bought turned out to be a carving knife which easily bent if I attempted to stab anything. Luckily, I had a Plan B. I knew animals were afraid of fire, so I had also bought a can of hairspray and a lighter in the hardware store that day. Unluckily however, the lighter took at least five attempts to light, and I would have been eaten before the hairspray ever turned into a flamethrower. I left my purchases in the Land Rover and we took it in turns to stand on the roof looking for lions while the others collected data.
As it happened, we didn’t see a single lion in the whole time we were travelling through the park, and the only thing that was injured was my ego, as my colleagues laughed about my failed plans to protect myself from the imaginary lions. I have laughed at this story many times since, but at that moment, I wished I was anywhere but here with these men, drinking warm beer around a campfire. I missed my wife who loved me for who I was, and despite being in the company of these men every day for over a month, I felt more alone than I had felt since the church camps my parents used to send me on as a child.
It wasn’t until near the end of the trip that I came to my senses. We were sitting in the sand around a campfire after having eaten yet another meal of baked beans and corned beef stew. That evening, after consuming more beer than usual, the conversation turned to sexual conquests. The stories disgusted me, and for the first time, as everyone else laughed together, I got up and told them I was going to bed. To laugh along with these stories required me to cross a line, and that line defined a part of who I was. It took seeing that very obvious line in the desert sand for me to realise that I had actually crossed it weeks before, the day I decided to try and be the kind of person they wanted me to be, so I could fit in. I decided that day that when I returned to the desert, I would do so alone. Over the following four years, by myself in the company of the plants and animals of the Kalahari, I never once felt the loneliness I experienced during those two long months of trying to fit in. And while there were no jokes to laugh at, I often found myself laughing spontaneously with joy as I walked home through the desert sunset after a day cataloguing plants.
Getting to the heart of people pleasing
At the heart of people-pleasing is relational self-esteem: I have value because others value me. The evolutionary and psychological roots of this type of esteem run so deep in most of us that it is hard to see how much of ourselves we view through the eyes of those around us. The first time you are likely to realise how dependant you are on this form of self-esteem is when the people you love or respect turn against you. Your initial reaction to the disapproval of others may be a sense of loss or anger. However, over time, it is likely that you will start to hold yourself in contempt as you are held in contempt by significant others, no matter how hard you try to tell yourself that they have misunderstood you.
As a result, you may go to humiliating lengths to seek forgiveness and regain approval, or seek out two-dimensional new relationships with the kind of people who will look up to you and give you the external validation you need. Workaholism is not the answer either, although for researchers it is a tempting option, given the formula our work gives us to get external validation from the entire world when we get an important piece of writing published. Achievement-based self-esteem is just as brittle and liable to be shattered by circumstance as relational self-esteem (more on that in the next section).
Tackling the root cause
The only sustainable answer is to build intrinsic self-esteem: I have value because I am me. I was blown away recently to discover that my eight-year-old daughter already knew this. She was telling me how sad her brother and sister had made her feel and I told her that no matter what they might think of her or say to her, she didn’t have to listen to them or believe them. But she didn’t need my advice; she was already there. Her matter-of-fact response was beautiful: “Daddy, I know I’m good because I’m me and that’s all I need to be.” I hope she holds onto that for the rest of her life.
But if you, like me, grew up thinking that you were only good enough when you had done enough to please your parents, then you will know that such truths are hard-won. If I have done something that lets my wife down badly, and she is upset with me, I psychologically crush myself. I do the same when I get into trouble for something at work. As I see the disappointment (or worse) on my wife or boss’s face, I can’t help feeling ashamed and hating myself. Then, once I finish punishing myself psychologically, I get angry with them because they made me feel so bad, when in fact it was me who was punishing myself the whole time. In reality, my misdeeds are typically minor, and usually involve losing or forgetting things at home and organisational mishaps at work. But my reaction is disproportionate, and people-pleasing is what I do to prevent these situations from occurring again in future. So how can we stop people-pleasing? For me, the only answer is to go deep and tackle the root of the issue.
Relational self esteem:
I have value because others value me
Achievement-based self esteem:
I have value because I achieve things of value
Intrinsic self esteem:
I have value because I am me
When people are not pleased with me, I have found the most effective way to deal with the rising panic is to apply the principles of mindfulness and Transactional Analysis:
First, I become mindful of that gnawing sense of unease and nervousness, and rather than pushing it back down and ignoring it, I make time in my day to look that unease in the face and listen to what it is telling me.
When my fears speak, they do so in an exaggerated, child-like voice, catastrophising and generalising. But I ask what is there and allow the fearful child inside me to elaborate the sensationalist story of how this mistake will ultimately cost me my job, how I won’t be able to pay my mortgage and somehow as a result, I’ll lose my marriage, my children and my whole life.
Now I’ve heard the whole story, I realise it is little wonder that I felt slightly uneasy earlier in the day. But now the story is told, I have the power to challenge it and explain to the frightened little boy inside why it is highly unlikely to be that bad. There might even be some silver linings.
Even if it does look bad, I’ll still be alright. I’ll still be me and I’ll still love me, and to prove it, I visualise giving the little boy a calming hug and hum a lullaby into his tousled hair, adult-me to boy-me.
Doing this takes practice, and you need to make space to reflect and identify the stories and characters that are playing out before your eyes. Like a muscle, I have found that I need to remind myself of these practices daily to build the kind of “muscle memory” that enables me to apply Transactional Analysis instinctively.
You can love parts of yourself that you never learned to love and build intrinsic self-esteem, one bruising situation after another, until eventually the frightened, shamed or angry little boy or girl inside knows that you’re there for them no matter what they do, and you love them unconditionally. You are free to be the adult you are. You no longer need others to respect you before you can respect yourself. You no longer need to be loved, respected or even liked by the people around you to feel good about yourself. You can overcome people-pleasing.
The Paralysis of perfectionism
Perfectionism is often held up as something to be admired in the academy, given the importance of rigour and attention to detail in good research. But while aspiring to perfect our work as far as possible is a mark of our passion and dedication, being driven to produce perfection can quickly and easily become pathological because perfection is by definition unattainable. If everything you publish has to be perfect, then you will never submit anything for review, and if you do publish something eventually, you may later want to retract it as you learn and develop further and realise how you should have written it.
I have worked with many researchers who are paralysed by perfectionism. First, you need a long enough block of time in which to write. This is typically measured in weeks by early career researchers and consecutive days by most other researchers, but neither are realistic for most people. As a result, the perfect uninterrupted time never appears in your schedule. Even if you can get a couple of consecutive days blocked out for writing, you need the perfect writing environment and so you waste time tidying and cleaning, or travelling to a retreat that turns out to have more distractions than you expected. Even when you find the perfect place to write for the perfect amount of time, it still isn’t good enough because you failed to create the psychological space you need to write. In my experience, this is far more important than any other factor. Researchers who are able to create psychological space find themselves able to write creatively in noisy and cramped snatches of time on their way somewhere or between appointments in a busy week.
The researcher who has not prepared a psychological space in which to write may be plagued by both people-pleasing and perfectionism. You will constrain and entirely crowd out your writing time with tasks for other people you want to please, and when you do sit down to write, you may get the sudden stabbing realisation that you’ve forgotten that you promised something for someone else. So, you prioritise that because you don’t want it hanging over you as you try and write, and you never find time to write. All you wanted was two days in a month, or half a day at the end of the week, and you consistently allow other things to take over and you use that time to please others. A couple of days in a month or a couple of hours in a week is not selfish, so what does your inability to write say about how much you value yourself?
If you do manage to make the time to write, however, you may then be plagued by the ghosts of critical colleagues and reviewers who have criticised your work in the past. My second paper was dismissed by a journal editor in a one-line response I’ll never forget: “This manuscript reads like a bad term paper.” I laugh about it now, but reviews like that suck, and they can suck the confidence right out of you as you write. Now you can hear “Reviewer 2” whispering over your shoulder as you write and rewrite the same sentence over and over again, and far from perfecting your writing, you end up staring at a blank page. Moreover, to avoid criticism, you continue perfecting and never submitting your work for review because you know it isn’t perfect.
It is this fundamental lack of confidence that ultimately drives every perfectionist I’ve met. But far from protecting you, perfectionism leads to paralysis, which further fuels your lack of confidence, which in turn fuels your perfectionism in a downward spiral. Even worse than this, perfectionism in teams leads to unrealistic expectations and criticism. Now, despite knowing that you are your own harshest critic, you can’t help finding fault with everyone around you, especially if they are overtaking you with their slap-dash approach. Finally, for those who actually manage to achieve something close to perfection, there is the danger that perfectionism transforms into pride. Now you believe that your work is indeed the best and nobody else can come anywhere near the levels of rigour and insight you are capable of. You become unbearable to work with and a target for people who want to take you down a peg or two. So, when you do eventually make a mistake, nobody has any pity for you, and you come crashing down from such a great height that you do yourself a psychological injury from which you may never recover.
Getting to the heart of perfectionism
At the heart of perfectionism is achievement-based self-esteem: I have value because I achieve things of value. The paralysed perfectionist never submits anything for review and so they never achieve anything, further reinforcing their lack of self-esteem.
The narcissistic perfectionist builds their whole self-image on their achievements, so when they fail, as will inevitably happen at some point, they don’t just fail, they are a failure. The whole façade they built comes crashing down and they discover that there is nothing of value left if their achievements mean nothing. It is this subconscious knowledge that drives the narcissist to cling to their achievements in the face of overwhelming evidence that they are wrong, because to be wrong is to lose their very sense of self.
Tackling the root causes
If you want to tackle perfectionism you need to learn how to embrace imperfection, and to do that, you first need to have compassion on your imperfect human nature, with all its flaws, weaknesses and vulnerabilities. You are not perfect and so your work will never be perfect, but in your imperfection there is character, experience, laughter, gratitude and meaning. You have embraced imperfection when you have learned to love (or at least accept) the parts of yourself that you used to hate. Instead of hating your lack of organisation and direction, you now accept that you’ll never be particularly organised and embrace the random opportunities and ideas you stumble across that others, who work in straight lines, miss. Instead of hating the fact that you never seem to be able to finish anything, you embrace the fact that you are an ideas person and start working in teams with people who help you bring your ideas to fruition. Or maybe you are always the finisher of other people’s ideas, and now you value the fact that you got to put the idea into practice without worrying about when you’re going to have your own eureka moment.
There is one last thing you need to do if you want to become aware of the power of perfectionism, and loosen your grip on control. Perfectionism demands that things are done “right”, which typically translates to “my way”, and the reality of most decisions and actions in life is that there are many ways of seeing and doing that could be right, depending on your perspective. Someone joked during the recent Coronavirus outbreak that “Since lockdown began, my husband and I have been playing ‘my way is best’. There are no winners”. Whether it is the right way to peel carrots or the right way to write a paper or solve a problem in a project, the perfectionist finds it hard to see alternative visions of perfection because none of these visions are as good as their solution. The perfectionist needs control, and when you give people the freedom to do things their own way, you lose control over the outcome you are seeking. It feels like these people with alternative ideas are stealing the perfectionist’s freedom to pursue their perfect vision, when in fact the opposite is true. When perfectionists join (and especially lead) teams, they have to loosen their grip on control in order to give creative freedom to their colleagues.
This of course means trusting others, and an inability to trust is another key driver of perfectionism. But how do you trust when your trust has been broken badly in the past? There are no easy answers here, but one thing I have noticed in common with all the perfectionists I have worked with is that when you really get beneath the surface, they don’t trust themselves. People who trust others typically have a healthy degree of trust in themselves to start with, and so I am going to suggest that the first step towards trusting others is to understand why you don’t trust yourself, and work on that. When you do this, you are likely to discover your own failures and shortcomings that secretly haunt you, and that are driving your inability to trust others who may fail in similar ways to you. This in turn drives your need for control, and this in turn drives your perfectionism. How do you start trusting yourself? Again, the answer is to focus on building your intrinsic value.
There are no exercises or practices I can teach you to loosen your grip on perfectionism. Your trainer will be the circumstances of your own life, if you can become more aware of the times when you fall prey to perfectionistic, “all or nothing” thinking. The key is to let this trainer teach you, day by day, and be dogged in your determination to embrace imperfection and lose some control. As an imperfect researcher like every other, you will leave behind the air-brushed version of yourself that you needed to feel secure. As a result, you are a more authentic researcher with your own unique voice that includes all the beauty of your blemishes. You can empathise with others in their imperfections and give them the same compassion you give yourself when mistakes happen. As a researcher who is no longer in control of every aspect of your life, things can feel uncertain and scary at times, but also exhilarating, creative and together, as you build increasing trust with those around you, and learn to learn from them. You are able to accept that the outcome of a team or participatory process might be different to the one you had envisioned, and even if it isn’t as good, it might still be good enough. While you may have had to constrain your own freedom of action to let this happen, you have given the gift of creative freedom to your team. And as you give up some individual control to embrace the uncertain and messy reality of a team solution, you may be surprised at how enjoyable the process is and how creative the outcomes are. It is possible to overcome perfectionism.
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