Perfectionism is a combination of experience, knowledge, analysis, and imagination. Coupled with fear and avoidance, it’s a vicious taskmaster, daring you to try and promising you’ll fail. Hypercritical, all-or-nothing, defensive, hypersensitive, EXHAUSTING.
Coupled with hope and determination, it’s an inspirational coach, inviting you to be daring and see how close you can come. Perfectionism is a function of the mind that can foster defeat or success. It all depends on how you use it.
You know (or you’ve been) the person who tries something, doesn’t instantly demonstrate mastery, and gives up, saying, “I’m not good at that.” That person imagines they ought to have innate knowledge of how to ski or paint or sing or speak Cantonese, and they can fall into an intense judgement of their performance, drawing errant perfectionistic conclusions. “You suck”, “I don’t know why you even try”, “You’re stupid”. Some folks call this maladaptive perfectionism.
You also know the person who tries something, learns a little, tries again, learns a little more, asks questions, notices improvements, and determines whether to pursue something based on its utility, interest, or enjoyment. That person also concocts a perfectionistic vision coupled with the permission to fall short and keep learning. This is sometimes called adaptive perfectionism.
Innumerable clients have heard me say, “When you’re sailing north, you can navigate by the North Star. But you’re not trying to get to the freaking North Star, you’re just using it to guide you!”
If you’re hung up in maladaptive perfectionism, cursing yourself because you still can’t sail to the North Star, there are things you can do to take a new approach. Your perfectionistic ideal is profoundly important, so don’t jettison that. Instead, put it to work making your life better.
Imagine a measuring stick with perfect just beyond one end and complete failure just beyond the other end. Well, you don’t have to imagine it. Here’s one:
The words aren’t on the line itself because they’re both imaginary. They’re ideas that aren’t going to happen. They don’t get to be on the line!
Now imagine the same measuring stick with some new demarcations on it.
KIDDING! You don’t have to imagine it. Here’s one:
What’s the task before you? What does it require? If you’re composing a symphony, you’re probably aiming for Excellent. If you’re filling out a form, good enough will do.
Doing away with a perfection/failure dichotomy is necessary. The alternative is misery. That painful self-loathing, self-approbation, self-flagellation leads nowhere but misery. It certainly doesn’t inspire motivation or excellence. It demands surrender and pain.
The fancy spectrum of success above is one way to approach escaping the perfection/failure dichotomy. It allows you to reframe your efforts and experience into something that can inspire motivation or just let you off the hook for the little things that aren’t very important to you anyway.
EMOTIONALLY AND PHYSICALLY
It sucks to feel like a failure. It can also be terrifying to succeed. Folks clapping for you, looking at you, smiling, congratulating you, complimenting you. Or diminishing your success by saying they can do better, by making fun of you, by attacking anything short of perfection. It can feel very vulnerable to stand out. It takes courage and self-respect to make your best effort. Fear of failure, fear of success, what’s a person to do? It all seems so risky!
Those fears showed up for the first time once. In the distant past you were forming your expectations for yourself and others were sharing their expectations for you. You made some conscious and unconscious decisions back then about what was acceptable and what was unacceptable. You tied those expectations to your sense of self-worth and value. Falling short of those expectations can feel achingly terrible. Like you’re not worthy of your own compassion and kindness.
When those unpleasant feelings arise, you can bet you’re in a perfection/failure dichotomy again. Can you identify those feelings in your body? Aching stomach? Headache? Tense muscles? Throat tightening? Notice that. Breathe directly into those sensations. Experience them without turning away and without drawing errant cognitive conclusions. Breathe some more. Tolerate them.
What you’re observing is likely an activation of survival responses in your autonomic nervous system. It’s there to help you when your life is threatened. Fight, flight, freeze. Turns out it can get activated by our own feelings and fears of rejection or shame. Sounds familiar, I’m sure. Your prefrontal cortex goes offline when this happens. That means you don’t have access to your executive functioning capabilities. Problem solving? Shot. Nuanced thinking? Nope.
When you breathe into those feelings rather than reacting to them, you can calm the survival response and instead activate the parts of your system responsible for calm, reason, and well-being. That dimension of the parasympathetic nervous system can restore your ability to think things through, to come out of the maladaptive perfectionism/failure dichotomy and back into clarity.
What is it you want out of life? Purpose, meaning, love, friendship, fulfillment? Whatever your goals, no amount of self-loathing will get you there.
When you practice a different way of assessing your efforts, you’ll inevitably get better at that finding that perspective. We get better at whatever we practice. Not perfect, mind you, but quite possibly excellent. And, most of the time, good enough is good enough.
PERFECTIONISM IS AWESOME. DOWN WITH PERFECTIONISM!
Your ability to imagine the perfect work of art, declaration of love, tumbling routine, professional presentation, grocery store run, clean house, etc. is amazing. Your imagination is powerful.
Your imagination teams up with your strategic thinking abilities to plan your day, organize your time, orchestrate your interactions, maximize your efficiency, etc. What an incredible combination.
Your knowledge and experience undergird everything, and they supply your imagination and strategic thinking abilities with the parameters of known reality. It’s a symphony that coexists with your immediate, present-moment experience, and we call it consciousness. It’s inexpressibly beautiful.
Applied judiciously and intentionally, your perfectionistic visions can produce excellence in your life again and again. Applied unthinkingly and masochistically, your perfectionism can turn life into a nightmare of endless failures.
The good news is that you get to decide!