Last weekI shared how perfectionism has been an issue for me, and why it’s important to get it under control.
This week I’m sharing with you my favorite tools to keep perfectionism from getting in the way.
Step 1) Assess Your Perfectionism
If you’re a perfectionist, you probably already know it. But what you may not be aware of is the degree to which your standards are unrealistic or how this could be getting in your way specifically.
One reason this is true, is because perfectionists tend to pay attention to experiences that confirm their beliefs and ignore information that does not support them. We tend to remember mistakes rather than successes, and are more likely to interpret ambiguous/neutral information in a way that supports our beliefs.
So to get started, we really want to take a look at our perfectionistic thoughts and behaviors and explore them–really get to know them.
Tip #1: Find out–which perfectionistic standards are helpful and which are harmful?
I invite you to get out your journal or a piece of paper and make a list of all the ways you consider yourself to be a perfectionist. Take note of the fact that some ways are probably serving you and are adaptive, while others are actually causing problems.
For instance, high standards may be expected for the job you have. But if you find that you are applying the same degree of standards to other areas of your life (like maybe your appearance or how clean you feel your home should be) it may make more sense to relax those standards a bit. It’s all about finding balance.
Tip #2: Find out what’s normal
Your standards may make perfect sense to you, but sound excessive to most people. You’ll never know unless you ask around.
Tip #3: Observe your thoughts
A cognitive behavioral approach to working with perfectionism begins with identifying perfectionistic thoughts and behaviors. This is a process where you may want to keep a thought record, so you can begin to notice as an impartial observer when and how often you are having perfectionistic thoughts.I like to imagine this process as being kind of like a Zen master sitting and taking notes about constant mental chatter and looking for insights.
If you don’t have access to formal thought records (I’ll be making some that I can share in the future), it’s pretty easy to do this informally. Simply make a note of the situation or trigger for perfection, identify the emotion you are feeling and assign it a number along a scale of 1 to 100, identify the perfectionistic thought, think of an alternative response, and assess the outcome.
This is such a revealing and worthwhile exercise, but if it’s too much to be writing down your thoughts all the time, you can try just observing them mindfully.
Tip #4: Write a perfectionist epitaph and one that is consistent with your values and compare them
To get a clear picture of how living a life full of perfectionistic standards may not be in alignment with your core desires for your life, consider writing an epitaph (gravestone inscription). You can write a detailed description about what your life is like while being a perfectionist, and the things you feel you are missing out on.
So my perfectionistic version might go something like this:
Christina spent most of her time cleaning to make her apartment look spotless and worked for countless hours on creating perfect articles and proof-reading them over and over again. She completed every single item on her to-do list.
My values-based epitaph would be more like:
Christina’s apartment may not have been as clean as she would have liked, and some articles she wrote may have contained some errors or could have included more information, but she enjoyed relaxing in her home and writing for enjoyment. She never completed all the items on her to-do list, but she valued pleasure and love and made sure to spend a lot of time with family and friends, making art, dancing, and just being.
(I invite you to share yours below in the comments!!!)
Step 2: Conduct an Experiment
Tip #1: Test your standard
If you’re trying to figure out if your perfectionistic standard is helping you or getting in your way, you may want to try a little experiment. Lower your standards just a little bit and see what happens.
For example, when I was in graduate school, I got used to backing up every statement in my papers with references. If I wanted to test the waters and see if I was going overboard with this, I might make a few statements without references. If I got negative feedback, I would know that I wasn’t overreacting about needing to get every fact and reference accurate. Or I might find that only certain types of statements require references, and I was being a bit ridiculous by referencing everything.
A more structured way to test a perfection-based fear is to use a hierarchy. You can make a list of related fears starting with the smallest version and ending with the largest.
So if I wanted to complete every item on my to-do list perfectly for instance, the smallest version of this fear might be leaving one item on my to-do list half-finished, while the largest version of this fear might be not ever completing anything on my to-do list or deciding not to have one at all! And of course other fears would also be specified that fall in between.
After making the list, you would actually act out the situations you fear starting with the smaller ones first and working up to the larger ones.
If there are some items on your list that are impossible to act out physically or you’d rather try visualization first–that works effectively too! Try visualizing yourself testing your standards in order to manifest a reduction in perfectionism. 😉
If your perfectionism is associated with anxiety, there are a few things you may want to keep in mind when testing your standards.
For one, it’s best not to incorporate any relaxation techniques, because feeling your anxiety fully while confronting your fear is what will extinguish it ultimately. If you are trying to keep yourself relaxed while testing your standards, you are not experiencing your emotion fully, and it won’t be able to run its course and subside. The purpose of testing your standard is to create an experience where you can feel the emotion that goes with the action fully, and then evaluate the consequences later. Also be mindful of very subtle ways you may avoid feeling the emotion fully, by say distracting yourself or reassuring yourself (or asking someone else to reassure you) that everything will work out okay.
As you begin to reevaluate your perfectionistic standards, you will find that taking more risks will lead to more mistakes and disappointments–but this is good!
Consider that if you are looking for a job, you need only one job offer, but the probability of getting a job may be something like one in 20. So if you only took a risk and applied for a job once every few months, it would take you much longer to get a job offer than it would if you were constantly applying for jobs and being rejected.
Also, keep in mind that stress magnifies all our weaknesses. So as you begin to make gains with perfectionism, be prepared for the possibility of falling into old habits when you’re stressed. Of course this is much less likely to happen if you anticipate stressful situations and how you’re going to handle them.
Here are two quotes that I really love about perfectionism (or lack thereof) that actually inspire me to be less perfect. I found these while researching the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi:
“Nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.”
“Understanding emptiness and imperfection is the first step to Satori (enlightenment).”
I got a lot of great information about perfectionism from the book When Perfect Isn’t Good Enough: Strategies for Coping With Perfectionism by Martin M. Antony, PH.D. and Richard P. Swinson, MD if you’d like to learn more.
If you’d like to read more about perfectionism on line, my friend and former Coach Celes Chua has a series on perfectionism at her blog Personal Excellence. Go check it out–you’ll get a lot of additional valuable information there! 🙂
P.S. Thank you to everyone who shared their thoughts and experiences about perfectionism with me on Facebook!
Leave a comment below if you have an expert tip for cutting loose and letting go of perfectionism!
Would you like to find out the best way you (and only you) can create a targeted plan to manifest your dream and remove emotional blockages that are getting in the way?
Call me for a private coaching session to find out the easiest way to get clear and take your life to the next level.
Call 610-420-3040 or email me at Christina@CoachingWithChristina.com