Fixing The Perfectionist
“I am pretty tenacious as a perfectionist in terms of getting something right.”
One’s thoughts affect one’s experience of life. I’ve found this to be true, and after years of spiritual practice and critically testing various psychological self-help practices I’ve managed to rein in the negative thinking (mostly). The only thing that really tends to undo me these days are perfectionist expectations of myself.
What is perfectionism? In the negative sense (which I’m focusing on here) it involves putting crazy pressure on ones self by setting ridiculously high standards, and expecting to meet those high standards 99.9% of the time. This in turn powerfully affects the way one thinks about one’s self – particularly if one fails to meet those standards, which would make them, you know, human.
Researchers from the clinical psychology and psychotherapy department at Switzerland’ University of Zurich found that perfectionists (like me) get more stressed than people with more realistic expectations:
We also tend to beat ourselves up mentally, feel extremely nervous about and even put off starting a project, because the standards we hold make that project seem like Everest in our minds.
It’s “all-or-nothing” thinking, and it wreaks havoc on one’s life. For instance, I was using my armcycle the other day and refused to stop a mere 2 minutes before my time target, despite the fact I was bleeding profusely from my left hand, which had gotten caught on the apparatus. If I had stopped, I know I would have felt guilty for the rest of the day. Obviously, this is not a healthy way to think: “I will complete this task exactly as planned, even if I’m haemorrhaging blood, my hand falls off and I pass out from blood loss”. It borders on self-punishment, and it’s fucking insane.
Another way it can manifest is through procrastination. This seems paradoxical, but the two tend to couple together. The perfectionist procrastinator (also me) will worry so much about doing something less than perfectly that they become immobilised by the fear, failing to act at all… and thus manifesting the failure they feared in the first place! Thus chronic procrastination is a behaviour that merely masks a deeper problem: being overwhelmed, being afraid of failure… negative perfectionism.
This all-or-nothing pattern leads to a life of extremes, of polarities – and lack of peace.
But balance is possible. The thought-behaviour pattern is correctable.
The main key to correcting the negative side of being a perfectionist lies in the “perfectionista” recognising this:
“I AM PERFECTLY IMPERFECT.”
Seems simple enough, but perfectionists really struggle with this.
The perfectionist must develop compassion for one’s self, set realistic goals that stretch but don’t stress them out, and take small actions everyday – no matter how imperfect – towards goals. Practiced habitually, the perfectionist’s behaviour is gradually reprogrammed. They forgive themself for what they haven’t achieved, let it go, and focus on what small things they can do everyday that will move them closer to their goals. And hopefully enjoy the process.
So, no more dilly-dallying at the computer avoiding my screenplay drafting, and no more physical punishment to compensate for the guilt felt over dilly-dallying at the computer.
Rather than intimidate myself with the grandness of my own absurd expectations anymore, leading to constipated procrastination, endless anxiety and injuries involving exercise machines, I will remember this: the first draft never resembles the shooting script.
A comprehensive, free self-help module package on overcoming perfectionism is available here on the Centre for Clinical Interventions website.