‘I’d strongly encourage those of us who put our obsession with achieving in sport, ahead of everything else in their life, to read this and learn how we can still achieve, but that people love us already. We don’t need to cycle around the world to prove anything to anybody.’
Sean Conway, world-record-breaking adventurer
I’ve been riding hard for the last twenty years; competing in mountain bike races like Cape Epic, riding the whole route of Le Tour just before the pro’s, being the oldest Briton to cycle up Mount Ventoux six times in one day, ridden to Everest base camp and twice competing in the amateur world championship finals. After the second time, in Perth Australia, I sent a message to my wife…
‘I’m finished with racing. Genuinely. I don’t need to do that again. I trained as well as I could. I qualified well. I expected decent things of myself. But sixty minutes in, as we hit the first climb I found myself going backwards through the peloton. Riders of all nationalities were flying past me. I couldn’t compete because I don’t need to compete anymore.
I spent that first hour racing as one of a group of men totally obsessed about their bicycles, their weight, their entire body composition, and who spend all their money on all three. Men, from all around the world, who, when they discover their best isn’t good enough, might well contemplate cheating or struggle with depression.
I know that because I was one of them. I saw my reflection etched in the obsessed, loneliness of my competitors’ faces.
I couldn’t compete because I don’t need to prove anything anymore. The death of my cyclist father opened the door to the end of my obsession. The person I’ve spent thirty years pretending to be to gain his approval is also dying. I think it is only through luck that I haven’t too.
But now I’ve found my answer elsewhere, from its source - my father, the feeling of being unconditionally loved, which we were really all racing each other in order to feel. I know now I’m good enough, I don’t need to compete with anyone to prove it”
Three years after that message I’ve just had my book about what I’ve discovered are the most misunderstood people – perfectionists, published ‘Less Perfect More Happy’.
We aren’t born perfectionists, we aren’t ‘just like this’. It’s an obsession to prove we are good enough. And we are not alone, there are now millions who feel the same. So much so, that there is an epidemic of people who feel they constantly have to prove themselves good enough - and it’s not just us on our bikes, but our partners at home, our children in the classroom, our friend in the coffee shop and our fellow cyclists who will be turning up on our doorstep for a boxing day ride.
It has affected so many people that we now have a recognised, but little known, mental health epidemic called OCPD, which is all the traits above, that you need to make something perfect, because since childhood you may have felt that you are not good enough and the only way to prove that you are is by making tasks that you do absolutely perfect.
I used to love cycling; the fresh air, the country lanes, the coffee, the cake, the endless cake…but I never started cycling to enjoy it, I took it up to prove to my father I was good enough. I had gone from reading cycling magazines and dreaming to reading professional training plans and having to ride them. Out on shared rides, conversation reduced to almost nothing. I started to wear an earphone while training with youngsters I had little in common with, other than that we could all ride up a hill at the same speed.
As I rode more, my friends rode less. As I pushed on, they would turn off and go home. I was no longer part of a community; I had joined a tribe – of obsessive racing cyclists. If someone couldn’t keep up, you left them behind. We were loners in a peloton of likeminded people.
Arch-rivals in bike races will work together for hours over hundreds of miles, just to race each other over the last few metres and seconds before the finish line – that’s road racing. There’s no collaboration, no compromise, no love lost. Because there’s no love to lose.
I’ve achieved a lot on a bike. Surely that’s good, and I certainly have had many good times. Do I really think that perfectionism is all bad? Being a cyclist, or indeed anyone, who trains hard to chase the win because they enjoy the (literal) journey or the potential rewards is good. Achieving a moment of perfection is great. But I wasn’t doing that. I was obsessed about achieving that win, just to prove I was good enough and to the detriment of all my relationships.
But now I don’t need to sacrifice everything anymore, sacrifice time with my family or friends for more time alone, with just my bike or my laptop. I’d reached the end of the road and discovered it was all built on a myth. There was nothing there for me that I didn’t already have.
Perfectionism / OCPD
Perfectionists are the most misunderstood people. That misunderstanding about what drives their thinking and behaviour has played a significant role in anxiety and depression rising by 48% in young people and men and students suffering serious depression in numbers increasing for the first time for six years.
We often come across people that seem to have a severe need to impose their own high standards on their environment, obsess at the expense of their relationships, are unable to delegate, find it hard to express feelings, are always distracted, have difficulty forming and maintaining relationships and often appear righteous and angry. They also often have no idea that there’s anything wrong with the way they think or behave - their way is correct and it’s everyone else who is the problem.
These people are not just driven, they are perfectionists, struggling with the unknown mental health epidemic of OCPD. They may appear uncaring and we may struggle to relate to them but underneath they can be a maelstrom of emotions and be suffering anxiety and depression
It’s because OCPD refers to people that have often reached adulthood believing some aspect of themselves wasn’t good enough and now they are trying to prove they are by making aspects of their life perfect.
Never-ending pressures from social media, advertising and schooling exacerbates millions of children’s anxieties that nothing they do is good enough and adult’s obsession with proving themselves worthy. Society now accepts nothing less than perfection.
But it’s all a myth, humans were never born to be perfect. Achieving perfection is meant to mean you will be universally accepted. The obsession to prove you are will be over. It never happens, which is why it is impossible.
How do we reign that back in? How can we make life less perfect, more happy.
Try to think through why you believe you aren’t good enough? Understanding what is the reason for your pursuit of perfection will enable you to start overcoming it. It’s a longer process to fully overcome as detailed in my book, but in the first place read a little more about OCPD that will enable you to park it – understand it is unlikely to be anyone’s fault but the fault of a world that now demands perfection as the base line.
‘Many of us believe perfectionism is a positive but researchers are finding that it is nothing short of dangerous, leading to a long list of health problems – and that it’s on the rise” BBC
So, don’t try achieve the impossible The possible life is good enough. One where you can relax! … (and, even better, allow those around you to relax); put relationships first; see others’ points of view; compromise; sometimes – very occasionally! – admit you could be wrong; let others do their things their way; understand that happiness comes from what’s already inside your head and around you and not from doing something perfectly, that you haven’t yet achieved.
Parents of four, Chris and his wife twice split up but have now been happily married to the each other for 25 years because they both understood where their demand to achieve perfection and prove themselves good enough, came from.
Chris was previously a leading global charity campaigner (Creative Director of Comic Relief etc). He has written the first book ‘Less Perfect More Happy’ that uncovers the truth behind the most misunderstood people in society – perfectionists. It uses his real-life experiences and stories from well-known people who’ve struggled with their pursuit of perfection including Bradley Wiggins, Davina McCall, Steve Jobs, Brené Brown and Brian Wilson.
“The almost perfect book about the impossibility of perfection.”
Richard Curtis CBE filmmaker of Love Actually and Yesterday.
‘Less Perfect More Happy’ is available on Amazon and in all good book shops https://friendfulness.com/