Perfectionism is a double-headed creature.
One face inspires us to accept nothing but our very best resulting in success or creation of a masterpiece. The other face, the darker side, threatens to keep us mired down in a crippling bog of self-criticism, self-doubt, and fear of judgement from others.
“Perfectionism is self-abuse of the highest order.” ~ Anne Wilson Schaef
Most perfectionists understand the crippling quality of the dark side. The extremes of perfectionism are exhausting.
I am a perfectionist.
Throughout my life, I have enjoyed the fruits of the positive face of perfectionism and struggled with the dark side. The result of this tendency is a mixture of success alongside a pile of projects never finished or ideas never shared due to my paralyzing distaste for judgement.
My recent early retirement has forced me to face my lifelong relationship with perfectionism. I now have time and opportunity to step outside my comfort zone and pursue another line of work, but the dark side of perfectionism haunts me and prevents me from moving forward.
“We can choose to be perfect and admired or to be real and loved.” ~ Glennon Doyle Melton
What is perfectionism?
Striving to be great and doing things well is not the issue. The problem comes when the worry about not being perfect or falling short hijacks our desire to take any step.
“Healthy striving is self-focused: How can I improve? Perfectionism is other-focused: What will they think? Perfectionism is a hustle.” ~ Brené Brown
Perfectionists tend to see life as a constant parade of judgements from others. This can result in our failure to act or in self-deprecating self-talk. The fear of being seen or of failing can overcome the excitement of an opportunity or the desire for success.
“At its root, perfectionism isn’t really about a deep love of being meticulous. It’s about fear. Fear of making a mistake. Fear of disappointing others. Fear of failure. Fear of success.” ~ Michael Law
Bobby Hoffman, Ph.D., Associate Professor at the University Of Central Florida, wrote in a July 21 article appearing in Psychology Today:
“…many individuals operate under the unrealistic presumption that perfection is not only possible, but expected. The flawless quest can both energize and debilitate motivation. For some, perfectionism increases effort…for others, the drive for perfection is wrought with anxiety and angst,”
Dr. Hoffman maintains there are two types of perfectionism: beneficial and dysfunctional. Beneficial perfectionism involves setting high goals that stretch our abilities. In this case, we measure our success by focusing on our own continuous performance as opposed to comparing ourselves to others or looking outside for validation. Dysfunctional perfectionists, on the other hand, have an unhealthy preoccupation with self-criticism and continual comparison to others and are overly afraid of failure and negative feedback. Dr. Hoffman explains:
“In the worst case, maladjusted perfectionists are neurotic and compulsive, ruminating on their weaknesses. The negative emotions result in higher levels of irrational behavior, social anxiety, and perpetual doubts of worthlessness.”
How do we maintain a competitive edge focused on high achievement while overcoming the dark side of perfectionism with its debilitating consequences?
Here are 10 ideas for tackling the ugly side of perfectionism:
1. Personal mission statement.
A personal mission statement encapsulates what is most important to us and what we want our lives to be about. It doesn’t need to be lengthy, yet reading it must stir our soul and lead us forward when life’s day-to-day distractions threaten to hijack our time and energy. A well-written mission statement should serve to motivate and provide a purpose and direction with enough clarity to pierce the veil of paralyzing self-doubt.
It may seem counterintuitive to do a self-analysis when a tendency to be self-critical is part of the problem, though this step is necessary. Most of us who have experienced a debilitating form of perfectionism find that it creeps into certain areas of our lives. We can begin by asking ourselves where in our lives perfectionism has spurred us toward greatness and where it has led to being overly self-critical or failing to follow-through due to fear of being judged by others.
Before we can tackle the beast that is perfectionism, we must first take care of ourselves. Ensuring we get enough sleep, eat well, and have balance in our lives. Equally important is striving to reduce those practices that waste time, cause us to compare ourselves to others too much, or reinforce negative thoughts we have about ourselves.
“Have no fear of perfection—you’ll never reach it.” ~ Salvador Dali
4. Don’t take yourself too seriously.
As perfectionists, we need to allow ourselves to make mistakes, lots of them. And we need to give ourselves the gift of laughing at ourselves in a loving way. We ought to pay attention to our self-talk to ensure it is positive and fair. Another potential trap for perfectionists is making comparisons to others or blaming ourselves for all failures regardless of the reason.
5. Read the stories of others who have overcome struggles with perfectionism or repeated failure.
Attend workshops, lectures, or situations to learn from other people in a non-threatening way. Notice that we are kinder to those we encounter who are not perfect than we are to ourselves.
“I can accept failure, everyone fails at something. But I can’t accept not trying.” ~ Michael Jordan
6. Find an accountability partner.
The right person for this job is someone who will push us, encourage us, and doesn’t accept our self-deprecating talk and excuses for inaction.
7. Use the clock.
We can protect the time of day we feel most creative, optimistic, and productive and use it to tackle what is most important to us in line with our mission statements. Create space and/or a ritual that optimizes this time. I sometimes set a timer and make myself work on the tasks I know are most in line with my mission statement, but that I have been avoiding.
8. Go for good-enough.
Consider that when effort is genuine, flaws may be valued and there is beauty in imperfection. In traditional Japanese aesthetics, Wabi-sabi (侘寂) is a worldview centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection. This aesthetic is derived from Buddhist teachings and accepts all that is authentic by acknowledging three realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.
9. Be kind to yourself and acknowledge effort.
Spend time each day reflecting on our effort to take a risk or putting ourselves out there. Focus on what went right.
10. Accept compliments.
Perfectionists often avoid praise and discount compliments. Not only does this dishonor the person giving the praise, refusing to accept a deserved compliment reinforces the feelings of inadequacy.
“And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.” ~ John Steinbeck
Perhaps by allowing ourselves to be good, we will have the satisfaction that comes from diving in and making an effort, and once in awhile, we may even be great.
Author: Dona Zavislan
Image: Nicole Archer / Unsplash
Apprentice Editor: Gentrie Pool
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Copy editor: Waylon Lewis