When I had CBT – that’s Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for the uninitiated, shortly after 5 year old Ava was born, I was tied up in knots about my need for order, control and my own idea of “success” – which to my mind was financial and career orientated. In short, I was something of a perfectionist – and the fact that I felt I was failing at my own expectations of myself was causing me to fall off a cliff. In the short term, I felt I was failing with Jonah – who was later diagnosed with Asperger’s, despite “doing everything by the book” . This, coupled with my husband’s redundancy from his banking job – this was 2008 – and my own failure to live up to my academic promise – because I’d had two kids by the age of 27, meant I was beginning to chase my tail like a headless puppy.
My need for control and order and my vision of success has deep roots, untanglable roots. My own natural inclination was compounded by early instability – my mother left my father, who valued academic and financial success because his own dyslexia had made him feel like a failure at school – and my mother had left him for a richer, older man.
In the midst of teenage angst, when my father – himself, rigid and blinkered in his world view, possibly on the spectrum himself, kicked me out to live with my mother and her heavy drinking and smoking, soon-to-be disabled from a stroke husband, who had been my father’s boss, back in the 80s, and who was none to pleased by my sudden, seemingly permanent arrival, I took refuge in exam results in a new school in which I struggled to otherwise find my feet.
In my mother’s sometimes chaotic house, with my father no longer speaking to me for reasons that will always seem disproportionate to fact, I also found comfort in my bedroom’s clean carpets. It was a short lived ritual, but one which mutated, never quite leaving me. Tidy drawers, colour coordinated wardrobes, a compulsion to match my shoes and my handbag followed, not in themselves particularly worrying , but symptomatic nonetheless of a wide need to control my environment, and anxiety about how I was perceived by others.
My therapist turned my world view on its head, suggesting my fear that I wasn’t a good enough mother was caused by deep rooted judgement about other parents. Because I was tough on myself, I was tough on others. The feeling that I was being judged came not from them, but from myself. My perception of success warped by my upbringing, which had focused on material rather than emotional reward. My long term goals, which as a child, had been to become a writer, perhaps of children’s books had become clouded by the short term, but insistent needs of my children, which had led me to turn my frustration at them into myself. It was a toxic mix of self loathing and circumstance.
The remedy, according to my therapist – a woman no older than me – was to accept my flaws, in order to try to accept those in others, to judge less in order to stop feeling so judged. In short, it was to try less hard on myself and learn to accept things the way they were, rather than to keep striving to reach goals that, at least for the time being, were out of reach. This I did, and I felt better, embracing the mums who were rather less than “perfect” parents and finding friends – hence the reprobate mum trope – my therapist, god love her, told me to make friends with the mums who drank the odd bottle or two, smoke more than the odd fag and whatever else they needed to do to keep themsleves buoyant through tantrums and toddler parties . These women, with their messy homes and less than ruly children kept me sane, because they made it ok for me to not be perfect too.
Back in the workplace, several years, a whole lot of soul searching and CV sending later, and my ‘be kind to myself’ routine has found less favour.
In a wobbly economy and a world of high unemployment, leaving on time, taking a lunch break, working from home and generally making life a bit more comfortable for yourself doesn’t seem to go down well.
When wages are squeezed, the workplace becomes a young, ruthless, work hard play environment and if you’re not prepared to skin your knuckles, someone else will.
But burn out rates and mental illness thrive in such an environment; creativity is stifled by a play it safe mentality where mistakes are criticised, and an unhealthy hierarchy develops that only accepts certain types of people as leaders.
Without denigrating my own workplace, which has as far as possible, been accommodating of my needs as a parent and understanding enough when a vomiting child forces me to work a day from home, whilst rewarding staff with regular social events, often followed by bacon butties for the morning after, the expectation that at work, you should work harder, be better and exceed expectations is common place.
The expectation of workplace perfectionism a universal problem that is becoming better understood by enlightened companies who recognise the carrot, rather than the stick is the best way to motivate your workforce – the idea that people need to be allowed to fuck up without fear of reprimand means the fucks up, when they happen, are fewer and further between.
Allowing people to be human and imperfect means stress, exploitation and fear are reduced. Remembering that we all, from the CEO to the intern shit and bleed, so removing culpability – and power – from the individual means people are more likely to take responsibility for themselves rather than palming things – work, mistakes – off on other people.
This from the Financial Times – about the need to rein in perfectionism in the workplace is a brilliantly argued piece from psychotherapist Naomi Shragai, about her own clinical experience and how it should be applied to the workplace.
You may need to answer a marketing question to view the page – an excellent foil to the a divisive paywall, but it’s only one, and it’s well worth having your data mined for.