We are definitely our own worst enemies sometimes and perfectionism is one of those characteristics that can help us...or make us a little crazy.
My regular listeners – and thank you sincerely for continuing to tune in – have heard me refer to myself before as a recovering perfectionist. I usually say it lightheartedly, but just as with a substance addiction, perfectionism is a hard habit to break. I developed it in childhood as a coping strategy to avoid being in trouble or to avoid being criticized and it was very effective, then. That’s the problem with most of our childhood coping mechanisms. They worked, so we keep doing them well into adulthood without recognizing that they don’t work anymore.
My perfectionist tendencies periodically show up all over the place, from my home to my work to my body image. One of my latest is my voice, which as you can imagine is a problem considering the number of recordings I do. My mouth makes unpleasant noises. I’m trying to remind myself that most people’s mouths probably make noises, and I recognize that I’m being way too self-critical, but I have to set a time limit on the amount of editing I do for this podcast or I could literally do nothing else but try make each recording perfect. Staying mindful does save me from doing that, but there’s still that little niggle, that thing in the back of my mind when I listen to it.
That’s why I found my interview with Dr. Z helpful last week because her book isn’t about stopping perfectionism but adapting it. What resonated for me was her description about perfectionism as occurring because we care so deeply or compassionately about something that of course we want to get it right. So maybe I’m not completely crazy.
That relieved some self-judgment for sure. I’ve talked about the problem with perfectionism before, but since I do still experience it occasionally, I thought it was worth bringing up again because it shows up in some pretty interesting places. Leaders of organizations that can’t delegate because they fear employees can’t do the duties as perfectly as they can, for example. People working off the clock to make sure something is quote perfect without their bosses knowing has come up in more than one coaching session I’ve conducted recently. New parents fearful of letting other people care for their children because they may not do it perfectly in their absence. People who are hesitant to invite friends over because their home may not be perfect is another common issue.
What that leads to is burned out leaders, burned out workers, stressed out parents and increased loneliness. That’s pretty far from perfect. Why do we continue to put this pressure on ourselves? Let’s face it. Life is messier than ever. We’ve been under more pressure and stress collectively than probably any period in recent history. We’re in the midst of a global transition related to work and home and everything in between. Can’t good enough suffice sometimes?
It can, but we have to change our mindset in order to be comfortable with it. There will always be times when we want to be as perfect as possible. For a job or contract interview, when we’re making an important presentation, when we’re on a first date, when we’re going for a promotion, when we’re throwing a big event, like our own wedding. That’s just human nature. The key is to recognize when it’s a situation that is normal to want to aim for perfection, even though we’ll probably never quite hit that mark, versus everything having to be perfect.
There’s a difference between perfection and excellence. I think excellence is when you strive to do your best under the current circumstances and perfectionism is a rigid perception that nothing can be or go wrong. That’s just not reality. Stuff happens and usually it’s stuff that’s completely out of our control. That includes my mouth making noises. I obviously can’t control that or believe me, it wouldn’t happen. It rains on your wedding day. The power goes out in the middle of your presentation. Someone asks you a completely off-the-wall question in an interview. We’re not perfect and once we accept that, life gets a little easier.
We all do the best we can all of the time. I know this probably makes supervisors crazy when I say this in workshops, but it’s really true. No one wants to fail or be labeled as a loser or incompetent or any other negative description you can imagine. No one wakes up in the morning and thinks, how can I be mediocre today? Life happens. We have mental and physical and emotional challenges and disabilities. We have stress and overload and problems ranging from health issues to children stressors to financial challenges to relationship trials to identity crises.
Stuff gets in the way of our aspirations. But we bounce back. We’re resilient. If we can keep our heads about us, we can get through these periods of imperfection and remember that we’re doing the best we can. It may not be good enough for a boss or a corporation or a spouse or a friend. But in that moment, we’re doing the best we can and we have to have faith that this moment will pass. That those who are judging us will recognize that even if we’re not meeting their expectations right now, overall, we’re worthy employees or spouses or friends or parents.
I think probably 90% of the time, it’s not others’ judgment that bothers us, but our own self-judgment that does the most damage. We need to accept that we are who we are in each moment. Sometimes that’s spectacular and sometimes not so much. But our affect on the world is cumulative. If we practice mindfulness, which includes non-judgment and acceptance, as well as being compassionate human beings, no one is really going to hold it against us when we have an off day. If we’re consistently dedicated, hardworking people, no one is going to throw us out with the nightly trash because we missed an objective. If we’re loving toward others, when we have the occasional meltdown, we’re not going to be despised. The point is, we’re human. We mess up, sometimes a lot.
I could create a long list of all of my traits that aren’t perfect and then feel really bad about myself. But I could also create a long list of all of my traits that are excellent and feel really good about myself. Because our brains lean toward the negative, we tend to focus on the negative, everything we fail at because it isn’t perfect, but we can just as easily shift that to the opposite.
It’s amazing that we have this choice. It’s just our minds that get in the way and we can for the most part change our minds. It’s not necessarily easy, which is why my own perfectionistic tendencies still crop up, but it can be done. And in the meantime, if we can just learn to love ourselves as we are and remember that we’re doing the best we can under the circumstances, that self-compassion will spread out as compassion for others in the same boat.
Sometimes perfectionism can motivate us toward great things, but more often than not, it creates reduced productivity, self-judgment, judgment of others and basically a general feeling of failing or self-deprecation. If you struggle with this issue, start paying attention to when it arises. Is it related to what others think of you or what you think of yourself? Is it a habit that you developed in childhood that served you well? Is it still serving you well? If it’s part of a narrative that constantly says you’re not good enough, pause and reflect on that. Good enough according to whom?
The cycle of life is perfect. We are actually perfect. How our extremely complicated brains, minds and bodies work is a miracle – perfection. Nature is perfection. That doesn’t mean things don’t die in nature, that fires don’t devastate nature or that pollution or climate change don’t impact nature. But nature itself, with its intricate connection to so many impossible factors that allow it to flourish, is perfect. It’s no different for us. We are perfect and the only problem that arises is that we allow ourselves to be hijacked by our egos, or past traumas or other people’s judgment of us.
May is mental health awareness month and while not a psychological disorder in itself, perfectionism is linked to anxiety and other mental health issues, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, so now is a good time to consider making changes if you think you might be struggling with perfectionism. A few signs of perfectionism include not starting a task until you are sure you can complete it perfectly, which is really procrastination. Another is that you take much longer than others to complete a similar task. If you see the outcome as the most critical part of a task, that could be perfectionism. And finally, if you think a task is not finished until you think it’s perfect, well, you might want to take steps to reduce perfectionism.
Remember, there are certain situations in life where wanting perfection is normal and in fact, there are three types of perfectionism. Personal standards perfectionism is a healthy form because you’re motivated to achieve your high personal goals. Self-critical perfectionism, however, is the type that can cause you to feel intimidated or hopeless and can lead to stress, anxiety disorders and self-condemnation. Socially prescribed perfectionism is the third type and this is where the perfectionism is demanded by an outside source, like a job or career. This is also unhealthy, as it can lead to hopelessness, stress, self-harm and depression.
If you think you may be residing in the unhealthy forms of perfectionism, there are steps you can take on your own to better manage it, including noting the advantages and disadvantages of being a perfectionist. When perfectionism arises, review the disadvantages and see if you can move on.
You can set achievable goals for yourself, which will keep you from pursuing unattainable perfectionism.
Like me with the podcast editing, you can set time limits for tasks where perfectionistic tendencies seem to rise. Avoid spending time trying to perform a task perfectly by sticking with a time limit and stopping when the time is up.
Another method is to avoid procrastination. Break projects down into smaller, manageable chunks to complete one step at a time. If you have trouble even starting the smaller job, utilize time limits again. Commit to working on the task for 5 minutes only. Most of us can manage that, but usually, once you’ve spent even five minutes on something, you feel more motivated to just go ahead and finish it.
All of these steps require quite a bit of willpower and if you’re feeling depleted in that area, you may want to consider therapy to help you move into the healthy type of perfectionism or to eliminate it all together.
The bottom line is that we’re all perfectly imperfect and if we can accept that, we’ll be healthier and happier. That actually sounds pretty perfect to me.
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