Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Perfectionism: What it is and what you can do about it.

What is Perfectionism?
  • Do you feel that what you do is never good enough?
  • Do you have a hard time accepting critique? 
  • Do you procrastinate because you believe that you need more time to get things right?
If you answered yes to any of these, you may be engaging in perfectionism. In our culture, we often see perfectionism as a good thing--it's a sign that someone has high standards. It turns out, however, that perfectionism is not good for you.

According to Brene Brown, perfectionism is rooted in this thought: "If I look perfect, live perfectly, and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of shame, judgment, and blame." In other words, perfection is not really about having high standards at all. It's about you, and your fear of being shamed, judged or blamed. 

Perfectionism is usually marked by a cognitive distortion called all-or-nothing thinking. Basically, this is seeing the world in stark black and white, and believing that the alternative to "perfect" is "failure."

In the movie Talledaga Nights, Will Ferrell's character gives us an example of perfectionist thinking. The interviewer says, "You either win, or crash the car trying to win." Ferrell replies with a great example of all-or-nothing thinking: "If you ain't first, you're last!" 

How does perfectionism cause problems?

There are many ways that perfectionism causes problems in our lives. Here are just a few. 
  • Fear of failure: Perfectionists may feel as though their self-worth depends on a single activity or outcome. If they do not succeed at this one thing, they are failures. 
  • Fear of mistakes: Perfectionists often avoid doing tasks for fear that they will make mistakes. This can be the cause of procrastination. 
  • Shoulding: Perfectionists believe that they "should" act a particular way. Further, they believe that others "should" do certain things, and may become frustrated when these expectations are not met. 
  • Believing others have it easy: Perfectionists often believe that other people have an easier time achieving success than they do. 
What can I do about perfectionism?

Perfectionism does not have to cause misery! It can be addressed by altering some basic thought patterns. Of course, changing thoughts takes time and dedication, but in this case it is worth the effort. Some ways to start challenging and transforming perfectionism are:
  • Set reasonable expectations. When you feel depressed or anxious about a situation, let that be a clue that your expectations are probably unrealistic. Ask yourself what a more realistic expectation would be, and make an effort to hold that expectation. 
  • Confront the fears of not being perfect by asking, "What would happen if I make a mistake?" If all the outcomes are survivable, then not being perfect is not so  bad. 
  • Practice being comfortable with being imperfect. Learning to be present with distressing emotions is a powerful skill. 
  • Recognize that "the best you can do" is not the same as "perfect." Your best effort might still be flawed. 
  • Recognize that perfectionism is a very common problem, and you are not alone. No one in the world is perfect, yet many people try to be. Recognizing that others are struggling in the same way can create connection. 
  • Focus on the process of doing an activity, not just the end result. 

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