So now that you’ve acknowledged that perhaps maladaptive perfectionism/self-criticism might be at the root of your pain, the next step is making change. Actually…that’s not true. The next step is deciding you actually want to make change. Change is scary, especially where perfectionism is concerned. It risks coming with an undesired outcome and–you guessed it, a lot of internal abuse as a result. But let me assure you, I’m not asking you to change everything. If you think of change as being on a spectrum, we’re just gonna make an itty-bitty tweak. If you like what you see, you can do more. You’re the one in control, here (although perfectionism will tell you the opposite–that if you change things you’ll be out of control). But as I’ve said before, if you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’re always going to get what you’ve always gotten (and by “I’ve said,” I’m mean “I’ve shamelessly stolen from Steven Hayes.”–no, not the murderer…really unfortunate they have the same name). You know what this way of being looks like, and I’m guessing there’s some crap it brings you that you don’t want.
As with anything, practise self-compassion during this change. I often get clients who decide they want to make change, and then they come back for a second session, so frustrated with themselves because they’re not totally “fixed.” Be kind to yourself during all of this. Change is not a linear process. Expect dips and setbacks. But, unless you suffer some sort of amnesia or dementia, you’re not going to become less aware than you are now.
So, part 2 of this post will focus on strategies for reducing perfectionism/making it “adaptive,” and then examples of how you can apply these strategies to specific areas on your life where perfectionism might manifest. Disclaimer: this is not the encyclopedia of managing perfectionism, so def check out the resources I mentioned in Part 1 for more!
Another disclaimer: It’s important to note that although “strategies” can be helpful in making change, your “life philosophy” and relationship to yourself are, in my opinion, the most valuable and stable source of happiness :).
- Realistic, fluctuating expectations (75% or “Good enough”): I’ve emphasized this many times before, but a large portion of the detriment of perfectionism comes from uber-high expectations (resulting in uber-high anxiety). Work on shifting those expectations to something more manageable. If 75% is too scary for you, start with 95%, then 90, etc. Adjust based on situation/environment/context. Some days, it’ll be more like 30%. Consider sleep, energy, mood, relationships, context, resources, etc.
- Compassionate formulas: Learning self-compassion, as I’ve said before, is truly like learning a new language. You can’t remove the language of self-criticism without teaching a new one, or else you’ll be unable to communicate (or make sense of the world, really…but I’ll save my social constructionism rant for another day). Here are a couple of formulas I teach clients (and use myself): 1) for when you’re feeling underconfident, and 2) in response to a “mistake.”
1) When Feeling Underconfident/Anxious/Nervous/Etc: “It’s understandable that I feel ________ because (insert situation that caused emotion here). My feelings are a testament to how much I care about _________. Given my experience and knowledge with this task, I can expect ________ from myself. I hope to meet my expectations, but if I don’t I will know what to change for next time. The worst-case scenario is _____. Realistically, I can probably prevent that from happening by _______ , but if it does happen I will ________.”
2) After making a “mistake”: “It’s understandable that I feel ________ because (insert situation that caused emotion here). It’s understandable that I (insert behaviour you’re beating yourself up for here) because (Take into account external factors, energy, sleep, mood, lack of prior experience, humanness, etc.). Something I did well in spite of the outcome was ________ , and something I learned from this experience that I can take forward is ___________. It’s a good thing this happened, because now I know/experienced/learned __________.”
Remember, these are tools. As I said before, learn the language of self-compassion and you can always go back to self-criticism if you want!
- Reality checking and stepping outside yourself: “My teacher/parents/partner will be disappointed in me!” “I’ll never be a Nurse!” “I’ll get fat!” “I’ll be ostractized!” “My arteries will clog with plaque!” Often, we have catastrophizing thoughts that we perceive to be truths. It makes sense, because we’re hearing them in our minds, and we don’t have someone there to tell us we’re being irrational. Try to become aware of when you’re getting into these traps, and tell yourself “I am having the thought that ______.” For example, rather than “I’m going to fail,” say, “I’m having the thought that I’m going to fail.” How does it change how you feel? Now try to step outside yourself and ask, first of all, what would I say to a friend? And, what would I think of someone if they had a stain on their shirt/stumbled over their words/left the gym after 20 minutes/etc.
- Viewing it as experiential learning: Next to teaching others, experiential learning is the best way to incorporate information. Just as I never spelled the word, “surprise” wrong again, chances are (if you respond with compassion and awareness), you’ll be less likely to make the same mistakes again, too. Remind yourself that we were not born into this world with a rule-book or script for how to do things, and reading about something is hardly going to be sufficient preparation to do it or do it well. Consider this the “practical” part of your learning.
- Situational vs. Global: I also refer to this as “state” vs. “trait.” We do this thing where we experience a mistake or “failure,” and we globalize it to our entire existence. in other words, we take a state occurence, and make it a trait (e.g. I failed my exam and therefore I am a failure. I hurt my partner’s feelings and therefore I am a bad person.). Remind yourself this is a situational slip-up, not a defining personality characteristic. As all those mental health ads say, “It doesn’t define you!”
- Worrying ’til the end: I’ve suggested this strategy before in my article on managing anxiety, but it’s really quite helpful. We tend to think about what is going to happen if we don’t (insert perfectionistic behaviour here), but we stop at “What if” then just feel powerless and anxious. Ask yourself, what IS the worst case scenario? What will I do if it happens? Then what? Then what? So you fail the exam. What do you do? Perhaps you talk to the instructor and see if you can rewrite. Perhaps you study that much harder for the next one. Perhaps your fail the course and have to take it again. Yeah, they’re not favourable outcomes, but you can live with them. Usually the bulk of our anxiety lies in unknown; the uncertainty. When you can picture surviving the worst possible outcome, anxiety usually dissipates a bit. As a general rule, as yourself 2 questions: 1) What’s the worst case scenario? and 2) Can I survive it? Oh, and this video is nice for some perspective.
- Behavioural experiments/Exposure: The scariest, yet most effective strategy for managing perfectionism is “behavioural experiments.” No, this isn’t some sort of mad doctor scenario where you’re hooked up to electrodes (unless your fear is of electrodes). Behavioural experiments are instances of stepping out of that comfort zone that you’ve developed. By completing them (and surviving them), we prove that the outcome we expected is actually untrue.
- Finding comfort in discomfort: Anxiety is a very uncomfortable emotion. There’s no doubt about that. Yet reminding yourself that each time you are experiencing anxiety you are growing your comfort zone can be somewhat comforting. In this article, I talk about “turning into the skid” (Thanks, Jennifer Rodrigues, for the analogy:) ) Think of yourself as “turning into the skid” with perfectionism to ultimately gain more control. Go against the instict. Perfectionism tells you to do something to alleviate anxiety? Stay with that anxiety for a moment instead. Go into it. See what it’s telling you.
Examples of Specific Areas Perfectionism Will Show up in your Life and Sewer You
- Relationships (romantic and otherwise)
- Personal Hygiene, Checking, Cleaning, Counting
- Personal Growth/Self-betterment
I’ll now expand on each of these, and use personal examples of how I intervened to prevent perfectionism from taking over my life. Feel free to ignore whichever don’t apply to you. Because perfectionism manifested for me mostly in the areas of diet and fitness, those will be a bit more extensive with personal examples. As always, feel free to skim and take in what fits for you and leave what doesn’t!)
- Relationships–romantic and otherwise: Perfectionism can manifest in many different ways, depending on if our criticism is directed towards ourselves and/or others (self-oriented, other-oriented, or socially-prescribed perfectionism):If you’re lean towards other-oriented perfectionism, you have high expectations for those around you. This can be pretty destructive in relationships (partners, family, friends) because they end up feeling like they’re never good enough/can never meet your expectations. You end up feeling continually disappointed, frustrated, and resentful. I used to correct my friends’ grammar and take it personally when they showed up late (Yeah, I’m amazed they stuck around, too). Lower expectations and practise compassion with the people around you, just as you would yourself. A person’s ability to use conjugations properly(“You’re” and “They’re”) is not indicative of their morals and values.Another way perfectionism might show up in your relationships is with your expectations for yourself as a friend/partner/parent/sibling/etc. You might expect yourself to be the “perfect son/mom/wife/etc.” This is highly anxiety-provoking, and highly exhausting. Focus on being a “good enough _____.” Set boundaries. Say “No.” Don’t be a martyr.Yet another way perfectionism will pop up is by “raising the bar” of what you should “achieve” in a relationship/partner. Twice, I’ve left what I now understand were very healthy, long-term relationships. The men were wonderful, compassionate, accomplished, attractive, engaging. But, perfectionism seeped in and told me that if these men truly loved and adored me as much as they seemed like they did, I should leave them. Why? Three reasons: because if they truly love me so much, it means I can do better. I should work to be with someone whose love I have to work for. I also feared that if I stayed with someone who loved me irrespective of my appearance or success, I might “let myself go” or become complacent. It’s the same reason we fear being compassionate with ourselves. If we (or they) don’t “keep us in line,” who will? But, remember that this is one of perfectionism’s great lies. You will not become what you perceive to be useless if people love and accept you.
- Work/School: A few weeks back, I wrote a post for another blog. They usually tweak my titles in some ways, so I usually just send them a working title. I wrote something down just to have something on the page, and sent it off. To my horror, the post was published with the title ending in a preposition! I mean I’ve gotten over needing to adhere to strict grammatical rules in the body of my writing, but the title?! Thoughts of emailing them and asking them to change the blog title began popping up. What would people think??? Reality check: People don’t care. Perfectionism was telling me the whole post was a wash because of the less than perfect title. This became an excellent exercise in sitting with anxiety. You might relate to expecting perfection from yourself in the work you produce. You might have to finish everything, you might have to read everything through countless times, and you might only take on projects you’re certain you can do well. Perfectionism actually makes people less productive because they labour over tasks, ensuring they’re all done 100%. If perfectionism is present in your work/school-life, you likely identify as a “procrastinator.” You also probably have trouble making decisions, for fear of “making the wrong one.” Lower your expectations! Hand things in unfinished! It doesn’t have to be all or nothing! I respect this is difficult, but consider it your next “behavioural experiment.”
- Diet: I totally promote a whole-foods and healthy diet, but I also promote balance and am not a huge fan of extremes. When perfectionism was manifesting in my diet, it was totally authoritarian. NO FLOUR. NO SUGAR. NO BEER. NEVER more than a certain number of calories a day, even with hard workouts. NO eating past 7pm, no matter how hungry I was (Sidebar: I don’t recommend this. I frequently woke up in night sweats, starving). Saturated and trans fats were BAD. Condiments were BAD. Everything was BAD. You can imagine how anxious I felt all the time–not only was I always hungry, I was constantly fearing how I would a) find a next meal that fit into my “rules” and b) find an excuse not to eat at the next engagement I went to. When I started “doing something different,” I stopped recording everything I ate. For the first while, I still had a mental calorie count in my head, or beat myself up for having “too much” or “Bad” foods. But I rationalized to myself that this was stepping out of my comfort zone. This was doing one thing differently. This caused a hell of a lot of anxiety, and this was exposure. Now, some of my fears did come true… I did gain weight, I did feel yucky if I ate too much processed food, and my tummy did hurt and blood sugar soared when I started having sweets and fats again. But after the initial discomfort, I adjusted. I know nowadays most people will tell you to avoid certain foods because it’s healthy, and I still do steer away from those foods for the most part. But my definition of “healthy” involves the mind, and my mind is a heck of a lot healthier when it’s not being controlled by the diet warden (and when I can have birthday cake yayyy). And, most of my fears didn’t come true. People didn’t stop loving me. Men didn’t find me unattractive. I didn’t become obese.
- Fitness: I used to go to the gym religiously. Every day, without fail, after work, there I was. When planning for each day (sometimes weeks in advance), I would make sure there was time for the gym. If I knew I’d be catching an early flight or travelling all day, I was there at 5am. If something spontaneous (and usually fun) came up with friends and I hadn’t worked out, I would decline. It was my way of maintaining control and certainty, yet the joke was really on me. The gym was really in control of me. And not just when it came to whether or not I attended. Once I was there, perfectionism still lurked around. If I set the treadmill for 30 minutes, the only thing that was going to get me off of that treadmill before the 30-min mark was the firefighters putting out a blaze (and they’d have to be really persistent…and good-looking jk). My workouts had to consist of cardio and weight-training every time, even though I knew, as a trainer, this was not healthy and would have never recommended this to a client. A workout that lasted under a 1.5 hrs was considered a failure. A wash. I hopped on the scale every day. If I weighed less than before, good. If I weighed the same or more, a harder workout and stricter diet was warranted. At one point, at almost 5’7 and 106lbs, I remember having a moment of clarity where I was frightened. I had enough psychological and physiological knowledge to know that I was struggling with anorexia, but perfectionism even made its way into that awareness with all-or-nothing thinking. I believed I couldn’t be anorexic because I wasn’t like Portia de Rossi or the women in the stories I’d read.
After my worldview was totally shattered when I was left by my long-term boyfriend in spite of being thin and successful, I lost the ground I had stood on for so many years. In what felt like “rock bottom” to me, I had nothing to lose, and so I started doing things differently I remember the day I was on the elliptical and decided to stop at 27 minutes rather than 30. I wish the person next to me could have heard the conversation that went through my head. “You’re lazy! Your’e a quitter! Pathetic! You just gave up!“–you get the idea. But then the self-compassionate voice piped in. It didn’t argue, it didn’t whine or yell or seduce. It simply said calmly, “Megan, it makes sense as to why you want to keep going for the 30 minutes you initially programmed into the machine. You’ve never stopped early without a “good reason.” But let me remind you that it is only you who will judge you negatively if you quit. The people on the machines behind you are not looking at your time, and even if they were, they really don’t give a shit about how long you’ve been on there. In fact, they’ll probably feel better about themselves if they “outstride” you. And so I got off. And it was liberating. #smallvictories.I started to do things a bit differently. I stopped weighing myself every time. Eventually, I stopped weighing myself entirely. I realized that a natural result of overcoming my eating disorder involved weight-gain. I wasn’t happy about it, but I had no choice but to deal with it. This meant getting rid of my size 0s, grieving the identity of “skinny,” and no longer weighing myself (as the number was inevitably climbing, it really did me no good to see exactly what this number was and beat myself up about it. It became irrelevant). Just keep pushing yourself out of your comfort zone. You’ll be amazed at what you previously would have never imagined being able to handle.
- Dating: Right. Here’s where I further extend the 20-foot pole between myself and potential suitors. As I’ve mentioned in past articles, I’m a bit of a dater. I enjoy people and conversation and food and wine and all the rest, and I’m not focused on finding “the one” at the moment. However, perfectionism can definitely come out with dating. Not only with how you view the person you’re going on the date with (“He has everything on my checklist!!!”), but also with whether or not you consider yourself “ready” to date. I speak to soooo many clients who don’t want to date “until” they…lose weight, are over their ex, get a job, finish school, etc. There’s always going to be something. If it helps, consider this period “practice dating.” You’ll be less likely to have high expectations for them, yourself, or the outcome that way. You’ll either have a good time, or it will be a great story.
- Personal Hygiene, Checking, Cleaning, Counting: Perfectionism and OCD are closely linked, so if you sometimes think “I’m OCD” or have habits of checking (e.g. the stove/straightening iron/door lock), cleaning (e.g. your hands, bathtub, phone), or counting (e.g. steps, ceiling tiles), chances are there might be some perfectionism tied up in there, and some “rules” about something bad happening if you don’t. This is a great place for reality-checking and behavioural experiments. Leave a dirty dish in the sink with company over. Don’t clean your tub for a couple weeks and see if the world ends. Two important points, though: 1) We call this “exposure and response prevention,” and the “response prevention” is a very important part of the equation. If you “respond,” you alleviate your anxiety, thereby reinforcing responding as a positive strategy for feeling better. We want to become comfortable with feeling anxious, not reinforce the behaviour, so start small and be prepared for discomfort. 2) The pathology of your “habits” is not for someone else to decide. You determine whether or not they’re maladaptive. For example, does the checking/cleaning/counting cause you distress, put wedges between your relationships, take a significant amount of time out of your day, etc.? Remember, it’s all a spectrum. Some degree of “OCD” and perfectionism can be quite helpful!
- Appearance: This often ties into diet and fitness and whatnot, but might manifest in areas like grooming, clothing, makeup, hair, etc. Behavioural experiments are great for this one. Go out in public with no makeup, or a wrinkled or stained shirt, or your hair unkempt. See if people ridicule you.
- Personal Growth/Self Betterment: Clients come to counselling for all sorts of reasons, but usually self-betterment or personal growth is either a goal or a byproduct of therapy. However (and I blame this on Buddha), clients often desire to become “whole” or “enlightened” or reach a destination point in their growth-process. My friend Jeremy once shared a quote with me (whose author I can’t seem to locate) that states: “I will spend my life learning but will die an ignorant (wo)man.” The more we know, the less we realize we know. That’s the paradox of learning. Become accustomed to the idea that there will always be more to learn about yourself, and growth will happen until the day you die.
There are certainly other areas where perfectionism will show up, but these are some of the more common ones I see/have struggled with, myself. And that’s probably enough from me for today. And I think I need to let go of my own expectations to complete a perfect post and say this is good enough! Hope some of it was useful to ya ;).