Are you working too hard? Maybe it’s time to try to be imperfect | Barbara rysenbry
As a psychologist working in the Sydney CBD, I see many people working in high performing work cultures across various industries.
Nicole was one of those clients referred for therapy by her GP for the treatment of anxiety and panic attacks. 33-year-old Nicole worked in the financial industry, where four months earlier she had been promoted to a managerial position. For the first time in her career, Nicole had several people under her command and wanted her team to be among the most successful in the organization. She couldn’t wait to prove herself.
Nicole regularly worked nights and often weekends as she believed she needed to go above and beyond for her career.
In addition to her daily gym sessions, Nicole was also training for a triathlon in three months.
However, things had not gone well over the past month. There had been issues with a project that Nicole and her team were leading, and she was worried that she would have to tell the client that she wouldn’t meet the deadline. She also felt that she couldn’t tell her boss what had happened because she was afraid he would find her incompetent.
To try to make up for lost time, Nicole had worked even more hours than before, leaving little time for anything else in her life. She felt very anxious, had trouble sleeping, often stayed awake, going through her mind over conversations or issues of the day or worrying about other issues.
At work, Nicole would often find herself staring at her computer screen, unable to complete the priority tasks on her long daily to-do list. Instead, she devoted her time to work that was neither urgent nor particularly important, and constantly checked and rechecked work done on her behalf. She felt like she was drowning.
After a difficult meeting with her boss, Nicole had her first panic attack at work. Finally, Nicole admitted that she was not doing well and went to see her GP.
In our first session, Nicole expressed that she found it very difficult to admit that she was struggling, telling me that her problems were “first world problems, and I can’t believe I can’t fix it.” that ”. Already, it was obvious that Nicole was very hard on herself.
I explained to Nicole that from what she told me about herself, perfectionism seemed to underlie her current struggles, especially her anxiety and panic attacks.
Nicole looked puzzled. “That doesn’t ring true. So you’re saying people shouldn’t have high standards? She couldn’t imagine her life without constantly monitoring and evaluating her performance and how others viewed her and was initially reluctant to relax her standards.
Perfectionism and its constant companion, the Inner Critic, continually dictate demands such as having to be or appearing perfect, never making mistakes, never failing, never disappointing others, and never losing control.
We then learn to base our self-esteem on our ability to continue to pursue and achieve these unrealistic standards despite the negative consequences to our well-being and other important life goals. Perfectionism can also cause us to have similar and unrealistic expectations of others, which can put pressure on work, romantic and personal relationships.
As I pointed out to Nicole, all human behavior has a function. Perfectionism and all the behaviors associated with it have become strategies we use to avoid negative emotions and feelings such as shame, failure, embarrassment, anxiety, and rejection.
During subsequent therapy sessions, Nicole began to appreciate how self-critical she was and how fearful she was of making mistakes. She was clear that she would never use her own internal dialogue with her team, and when asked why, she replied, “They would feel demotivated and demoralized.”
Ah ha! Understanding this and making a list of the pros and cons of meeting these very high standards also helped Nicole recognize that being so self-critical was counterproductive and did not improve the situation or her well-being.
We also discussed that the thoughts and feelings that arise in our minds are not facts, and we don’t necessarily need to act on them. However, as I explained to Nicole, our inner world is what we know and we believe that what goes on in our mind is real.
Learning to step back and observe our thoughts rather than holding onto them and fighting them takes practice. I recommended Nicole to participate in an 8 week mindfulness course to give her a good foundation in mindfulness practice, especially since there is a lot of research evidence on the benefits of mindfulness. awareness of psychological and emotional well-being.
In addition, Nicole also began to question the rules of life and unnecessary thought patterns that she had learned over the course of her life, especially her tendency to see things in all or nothing terms, to catastrophe and to jump to conclusions.
She could also see that holding onto these inflexible ways of seeing the world made her feel safe and in control, which is how she tried, unsuccessfully, to deal with anxiety.
Nicole struggled at first to accept that her beliefs about control and certainty about the future were illusions. I pointed out to him that we all control very little.
Our behaviors, beliefs and concerns give no guarantees or certainty about how others might perceive us or what will happen in the future, no matter how hard we try in our heads to prepare for all eventualities. Accepting that all we can control are our actions and the values we choose to live our life on is a simpler and more empowering way to live our life.
Nicole worked really hard in the beginning to be the best customer she could be, which we both acknowledged with mild humor – of course she did! She did all the homework and finished the readings and lessons – perfectly!
Over time however, her approach became much more balanced and self-accepting as she gained insight and understanding. Nicole learned to accept and sit with uncomfortable thoughts and feelings until they disappeared and was much better at keeping herself from sinking into burrows of worry and rumination.
Nicole now sees me about once a month for what she calls refills. She remains very committed to her career but has made room for other valued areas of her life, and as a result her life is richer and more fun.
She tells me that she’s now a lot nicer to herself and doesn’t struggle so much when things go wrong, instead focusing on solving the problem and moving forward.
I asked Nicole to tell me one of the most important things she learned from therapy, to which she responded, “the courage to be imperfect”.