Perfectionism Paralysis - letting it go

We’ve reached our final instalment of the gripping tale into perfectionism. Previously on ‘Perfectionism Paralysis’ we defined perfectionism and explored how paradoxically, the demands for perfectionism can impede performance. We looked at how perfectionism can be nurtured in earlier childhood experiences and through an individual’s temperament and the factors that can keep us trapped in the spiral of perfectionism. All the while focusing on a mildly fascinating case study – myself.

I’ve procrastinated in writing this last post on this subject. Perfectionism does not feel like something I have ‘overcome’. Sometimes it doesn’t even feel like I ‘manage’ it all that well. I suppose what I am trying to say is that I am not perfect at being imperfect. I see the irony in my procrastination. It appears some habits do die slowly.

Rationally I always knew that the reality was that no perfect being ever lived. However, it took me a long time to really accept that the struggle to achieve perfectionism was not only futile but damaging - in terms of anxiety and panic and other unhealthy negative emotions.

Increasing my tolerance to my own imperfections was not particularly easy. But over time I have learnt to be more flexible about what is possible and what is “good enough”. Interestingly, “good enough” gets shit done a lot more efficiently and frequently than what might be “perfectly possible” does.

And sometimes “good enough” is on repeat in my head. When the black and white thinking patterns of perfectionism lurk, sometimes this is my go-to catch phrase. To give up perfectionism, there’s lots of advice around adopting a new mental script. Psychologist, Albert Ellis offered the following mantra for reducing perfectionism, and rating the behaviour, deed, or performance, but not the person:

“I’m not bad, I’m not good, I’m not okay, I’m not un-okay, I exist and my acts are rotten, stupid, foolish, not when they are imperfect, but when they really do me in and do other humans in, but I am not ratable, I’m too complex. I’m never going to rate myself, my being my essence, I am just going to rate what I do.”

Perfectionism and self-doubt were really, really ingrained for me. So the inner critic still appears and can still be easy to believe. But I’ve got more arsenal in my pocket now to keep myself in check. And sometimes it is asking myself the following the questions:

  1. Are my thoughts factual, or are they my interpretations?
  2. Am I jumping to negative conclusions?
  3. Is this situation as bad as I’m making it out to be?
  4. What’s the worst thing that could happen? How likely is that to happen?
  5. Will this matter in five years? At the pivotal moments of my life, will this moment actually matter?

By the end of all that internal dialogue, I’ve either forgotten what started the funk or come to realise that I was building elaborate falsities in my mind while awaiting validation. As perfectionists, we have a tendency to play the starring role in countless self-doubt sagas and confuse compliments for deep, authentic sources of self-esteem and inner peace. This reality test simultaneously makes us accountable for our own reassurance and less dependent on others for positive reinforcement.

"There is a crack, a crack in everything. It's how the light gets in." - Leonard Cohen

Another thing that was really friendly with my perfectionism was procrastination. Often I would try and cope with the fear of making mistakes by avoiding doing what needed to be done all together. If I was still in the Perfectionist Sam era of 2012, there is no way this blog could have been written. Either I would put it off and off and off because I’d be afraid it would never be good enough. Or I would work on it for hours and hours and hours and then probably not click the publish button anyway. These days it’s all about really clear time management. Once I’ve got the idea, the timer goes on for 1.5 hours. If the blog isn’t finished in the allotted time it doesn’t go up. If it is, it can. But that’s it. No more and no less. (Currently, I have 27 minutes left).

But mostly, I’ve tried my very hardest to learn to embrace failure. This is hard. But sort of awesome. Initially, what I did was conceptualised my problem with perfectionism as a lot like having a phobia. A phobia of making mistakes and being imperfect. And then I tried to use the best known evidence-based practices available for treating phobias – exposure. For example, we know that the best way to overcome a phobia of spiders, is to (very) gradually spend time with spiders, to learn that (sometimes) they are not as scary and dangerous as initially thought.

Similarly, overcoming my phobia of failure involved doing just that – gradually and purposely allowing myself to make mistakes and coming across as imperfect. This really involved putting myself out there. Into situations that I was very good at avoiding for fear that wouldn’t work out perfectly.

I started small. Doing things like, not making my bed of a morning or leaving a visible area of the house messy to learn that the world wasn’t going to crash in. I would send an email that I knew had a typo in it. I would talk at a meeting without first rehearsing what I was going to say in my head. I refrain from checking documents three hundred times before sending them out – once is enough. And before doing a presentation, there is only one chance for preparation.

But far and away the best thing I’ve learnt in attempting to embrace failure is talking to others about it. This is all about being vulnerable with my peeps and growing those connections and it’s beautiful. So much comes from it. I’ve taken to owning my flaws and weaknesses and imperfections, as opposed to hiding, avoiding and suppressing them and I love it.

Like I said, I’m not there yet. Not quite a reformed perfectionist, but maybe some where in the process of reforming. And in this case, practice isn’t going to make perfect. Practice will make good enough progress.

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