Perfectionists, here's how to handle the acute pressure of lockdown

Are you a perfectionist struggling with the lack of control in lockdown? Here’s how to loosen your grip.

If ever a time called for realistic goals, it’s during lockdown – when the barriers of everything we know have been pushed out of whack, and we’re living in a state of near-constant uncertainty.

However, if you’re a perfectionist – defined by psychologists as “an irrational desire to achieve along with being overly critical of oneself and others” – you may well struggle to readjust your expectations.

“Perfectionists are driven by this very intense and old feeling of not being ‘good enough,’” psychotherapist and coach Audrey Stephenson tells Stylist. “Their identity is entirely tied to their performance, meaning that it’s not a case of if they burn out but when.”

Highly driven people typically fluctuate between the extremes of what they deem “perfect” or feeling worthless and terrible, with nothing in-between. But the limbo created by the coronavirus outbreak means that it’s time to rethink those core feelings before burnout – a condition long associated with perfectionism – starts taking its toll. Here’s how.

Recognise that you’re in trauma

“We have to recognise that we’re all in something right now. We’re experiencing trauma and we won’t be fully aware of its impact until we are back on the outside again,” says Stephenson.

“For example, ordinarily, we might get pissed off by the person who bumps into us on the Tube on the way into work. This kind of everyday experience might be annoying but it also makes us feel alive and part of something. So without those daily cues, we’re in mourning.”

Stephenson compares the “bruising” effect of this trauma to having lots of windows open on your desktop. It’s stressful in a way that you may not even be fully conscious of. But this is the default setting for everyone in lockdown; even without adding in the extra pressures that a perfectionist has to grapple with.

This specific type of hurt is perhaps why Karen Meager, co-founder of career coaching consultancy Monkey Puzzle Training, is noticing more anger issues among the clients that she helps at the moment.

“People have been trying to hold it together for the past eight weeks and finally it’s coming to a head,” she tells Stylist. “They’re becoming more irritable and frustrated with little things like a diary clash. It’s really projection, because the fear of coronavirus is too huge and intangible to target directly with anger. So it’s coming out in other ways instead.”

Be mindful and compassionate

Perfectionists will likely feel the pressure of not being able to do the things they can do ordinarily more than most. Meager suggests that if you feel the anger and frustration building, it’s worth “being really aware” of where your feelings are coming from and checking in with yourself to get to the source of what’s bothering you.

“Your autonomy is being quashed and the sphere you operate in is being drastically limited,” she explains. “So the pressure you’re feeling may well be your way of trying to regain control.”

Stephenson says she notices a tendency among her clients to downplay their reaction to the coronavirus outbreak and the subsequent lockdown. “You’re not having first-world problems, or suddenly being a princess,” she says. “Sure, you might not be working on the frontline, or have a parent on a ventilator, but you can’t suddenly escape the mechanisms of being human.”

Stephenson says there are two sides to our brain: one that represents trauma and the other that is all about creative assimilation and learning.

However, you can’t just move between these two states. She compares being in trauma brain mode to not having enough sleep. You simply aren’t getting the same level of rest and rejuvenation you would do ordinarily, so it’s very hard for your mind to carry on learning and making connections in the way it would have done in a pre-lockdown era.

“Have compassion for yourself,” she says. “Understand that this is your ancient reptilian brain at play, being chased by wildebeest on the plains.”

To help with this process, Stephensen recommends mindfulness. But this doesn’t have to be half an hour of intense and deep meditation. Instead it can be something as simple as watching the steam rise from a boiling kettle in the morning, or focusing on your breathing, particularly the exhale.

“Your in breath is actually what you do when you’re in danger,” she explains. “So it’s that elongated out breath that really counts. It tells your mind that you are not being chased through the jungle by a tiger.”

Look to the long-term

Meager also suggests that perfectionists feeling frustrated with the current situation and their performance within that should try looking to a long-term outlook.

“At the beginning of lockdown, we were taking small steps that would be useful and valuable in the present,” she says. “We kept that up with the hope that there would be some respite by say, July, that would help take the pressure off.

“However, since the situation is now more uncertain and confusing than ever, I think it’s worth broadening out your timeline and planning a lot further in advance. For instance, look forward to Christmas and start making plans around that. It will give you back a sense of control and relax your coping mentality into a longer-term timetable.”

Meager recommends that perfectionists facing the constraints of lockdown should try and quell their need for order and instead adopt a “good enough” mentality.

Readjust what perfect means to you

Adjusting your expectations of what you can achieve as a perfectionist under lockdown is one step in the right direction, says Stephenson. But the real challenge lies in adjusting your overall grasp of what perfection means to you.

“You can’t achieve perfection as a way of life, any more than you can achieve happiness,” she says. “Instead, think of every day as being filled by small moments of perfection. These could be anything from feeling really connected to your partner to that delicious first taste of a Malteser. 

“The point is, you can’t strive for perfection. It’s a myth. Rather it’s an internal state that will be governed by small and spontaneous things that you experience without even trying to.”

Images: Getty

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