Why perfectionism isn’t necessarily a good thing

Perfectionism is a personality disorder. That’s what Chris Ward has come to realise after more than fifty years in which he’s been hugely successful, by anybody’s measure, but also unhappy.

He left school with no qualifications, his ‘failure’ a symptom of the perfectionism which has dogged his life – if you aren’t going to be the best, don’t bother trying at all, was his thinking. After an unprepossessing start as a shop assistant, and a lucky break with a job which fed his passion for music, he became rich beyond all expectations with a succession of entrepreneurial ventures.

He turned the kitchen table success of the Friends Reunited website into a highly lucrative business and was the creative brain behind Comic Relief. He’s also been a World Championship cyclist. But not a great father or husband, by his own admission.

His drive for perfectionism made him difficult to work for and nigh on impossible to live with. After twice leaving his family to live separately, and hours of counselling, they are happily back together. He charts his journey in the book ‘Less Perfect, More Happy’. I talked to him about about it, and he was extraordinarily open and frank.

Trying to please his father

He’d spent his life trying to please his father (now dead) he told me. He was at pains to point out that this was not his father’s fault. His parents were products of their time, conforming to society norms. Many of us will recognise the type of father who spent all his time at work and when at home was always doing things, ‘too busy’ to just relax and spend time with his kids. The family trod on eggshells, not knowing if when he came through the door he’d be calm or give vent to his frustration in a torrent of criticism of his wife and kids.

Chris didn’t understand the pressures they were under, he said, until his father died and his mother wanted to talk about him. They’d struggled for money. He was himself a perfectionist and couldn’t cope with factors outside his control, such as being made redundant. Chris’s father didn’t do sentimentalism or cuddles. He did do long bike rides and pushed himself to the utmost.

I understand the generational mindset, but reading the book, I still winced to read that when Chris was a grown-up, a father himself, with the same interest in cycling as his own father, he rang him to tell him he’d come second in his first cycling race and this was his father’s response: ‘He didn’t say “Well Done!” He just replied matter of factly “Probably the best riders weren’t out today”… Chris writes: ‘I drove home and tried to explain to Helen (his wife) how he had reacted but just couldn’t stop the tears rolling slowly down my face’.

Perfectionism and OCPD

The book explains: ‘Together with all its associated traits, Perfectionism is classed as a personality disorder, known as obsessive compulsive personality disorder (OCPD) and has been identified as one of the most prevalent but most misunderstood disorders’.

Each short chapter looks at a stage of Chris’s life with examples of how his behaviour at school, at work and at home display the traits of a perfectionist. Whether it was knowing all there was to know about music, working with musicians such as Ed Sheeran, Coldplay, One Direction and Snow Patrol on Children in Need, creating the perfect home or the perfect family holiday or pushing himself in his chosen sport, he was completely obsessive.

At the same time when he achieved success experienced the ‘imposter syndrome’ that he was just getting away with it and didn’t really deserve it. And he pushed his wife and children away, making them feel they were unimportant because he didn’t have time for them. ‘Children of perfectionists can grow up feeling they are not important to their parents because, despite their parents being right there with them, they are invariably too distracted by something actually not that important to actually engage with them’.

The public and the private face

He has achieved lots of accolades for his success. Cycling Weekly did a full page feature on him when, aged 51, he took part in La Bicinglette – to ride to the summit of Mont Ventoux and down again six times within one day. ‘Last month Chris Ward became the latest, and at 51, one of the oldest of 13 Brits to complete the challenge’.

Early on in his career PR Week wrote a feature on him with the headline ‘A cocktail of energy, drive and creativity’. He gives it as an example of how wrongly a perfectionist’s life can be perceived from the outside. ‘To the outsider I was at the pinnacle of my career and was living the perfect life. To the insiders, my wife and children, my friends, myself, it was a very different scenario’… my real life couldn’t have been more different’.

Competitive sport bedevilled with perfectionism

Chris gives examples in the book of other people who have been afflicted with perfectionism in the same way he has. To be at the top level in any sport now he says you have to be a perfectionist, and this is something competitors and trainers have to be careful how they handle.

Victoria Pendleton CBE, one of Britain’s most successful Olympians, describes herself as a ‘self-critical perfectionist’ and talks of a similar relationship with her father to that which Chris had with his. In her autobiography Between the lines she describes how he pushed her to achieve on long, hard bike rides as a child. ‘He doesn’t love me, I said to myself as I tried to keep up with the distant figure of my father. He doesn’t love me’.

Bobby Moore OBE was an excessively neat child. Biographer Matt Dickinson writes: ‘Perfectionism became a defining Moore characteristic and with it a hatred of being shown up’. Chris too says he has always hated people making jokes about him. Taking yourself very seriously is another sign.

Ellie Soutter was one of the most progressive junior snowboard athletes of Great Britain until she died by suicide on her eighteenth birthday. Chris too admits to having had dark thoughts in that way. Ellie worried about her performance all the time, but gave no clue externally about how desperate she was, according to her family, who have now set up the Ellie Soutter Foundation to help other young winter sports athletes, to fund their training and help them cope with the unavoidable stress.

Young people under pressure

It is beginning to be recognised that the rise of perfectionism is negatively affecting young people. Chris has made his money promoting brands and he can see how advertising combined with social media piles added pressure on children, already under the cosh to do well at school. Anorexia is associated with perfectionism, and is a disease from which both Chris and one of his daughters have suffered.

Chris’s book is well written, well laid out and an easy read, broken down into brief chapters of memoir, interspersed with advice and snapshots of the experiences of others. If any of this is ringing bells with you, it would be a good first step to read the book, and then seek help.

Less Perfect, More Happy is available online and from bookstores.