“Perfectionism Is Just Fear In Really Great Shoes” Elizabeth Gilbert”
I knew at least fifteen years ago that I wanted to return to school to become a therapist. For the next ten years, I did what many of us do. I came up with so many reasons why it was simply not an option. The children were too young, it was too expensive, I was getting too old, it was Monday. You see, when you are a perfectionist you will actually stand in your own way of greatness out of fear of failing. How many of us do this with dieting and exercise? I will start tomorrow, or the next day that ends in Y. We just put it off because we may fail? Procrastination and perfectionism go hand in hand.
I have overcome huge hurdles in my life. My rational brain looks at that and says, “You can move mountains!” Then Hilda (that’s what I have named my irrational brain) speaks up and says, “What the hell are you talking about, we are SO busy with life right now and I am NOT failing, sit your ass down!” The inside of my brain is loud, and hilarious. 🙂
Myself, like thousands of others out there have a story. My childhood was not ideal and I did suffer trauma that no child should. For those reasons I developed defense mechanisms. One of those is perfectionism and it can be problematic.
Perfectionism may seem like a good thing on the outside. I have had people say things to me like “I wish I was as organized as you,” or “Your house is ALWAYS so clean.” In reality it is exhausting and mentally draining. You live in constant fear of your own emotional failures. If I don’t get these things finished, the baseboard gleaming, my client notes prepared, emails answered, be a loving wife, a present mother….WHATEVER is on your mental check list, you fail yourself and everyone in your life.
Perfectionism may be a socially acceptable form of fear, but it is still fear. Fear will narrow your field of vision. Fear will have you operating from a place of loss and protection rather than creativity, love and joy.
So, how do we deal with all of this?
In the end, real perfectionism is not about having high standards, it’s about having control. Many of us who had chaotic, or traumatic childhoods never established a solid foundation. Without that, we have never felt stable or in control. This can occur at any time in our life. Then, before we know it, we have an overwhelming, irrational and impossible need to control a world that is by and large, uncontrollable.
In complete honesty, a perfectionist outlook is not just exhausting, but it is bleak. We live in the future, and the present is a high-stakes situation where every mistake comes with such an enormous price. We are under perpetual threat, constantly scouting for worst-case scenarios and always dodging potential for error or criticism. When will the other shoe drop?
So, why do we live like this? Why don’t we just change?
It offers us comfort and does produce results. Oh I know “Hilda”, it is exhausting.
Regardless, we are still praised for our hard work, being detail oriented, and thorough. When you are noticed and rewarded for this type of behaviour your whole life, it doesn’t just become a habit, it becomes your identity.
Re Evaluate Your Standards
That’s a polite way of saying, “get confirmation that your expectations are completely out of whack.” Plain and simple: you need a reality check that includes results and the costs involved.
You need to find out what normal standards are. You want to get some accurate information to counter your very unrealistic beliefs and expectations — and prove to yourself just how irrational they are. A common problem perfectionists face is that they never relax their standards and so it’s impossible for them to see that their level of effort might be total overkill.
So if your perfectionism is primarily at work, look at (or ask) what other employees do. How long do they take on a project? How often are they staying late at the office? And are their lower standards getting them fired? Do they still accomplish good work?
Most perfectionists will struggle with this. “Of course everything I do is necessary.” Trust me, I am one of them who just recently stopped scrubbing that baseboard every time people are coming to visit.
So a good way to come at it is by looking at costs — not merely results. Perfectionists produce good results but they often act like time and driving other people crazy don’t matter. Is the extra hour you spend reviewing your work really worth finding that one grammatical error?
So, when all the factors are taken into consideration — time, stress, having a life, not making others fantasize about your demise — are your standards realistic?
If this exercise is difficult, get a friend to help you be more objective. And do not spend four hours making a spreadsheet to determine which friend would be optimal for the job. Just don’t. Do yourself a favour and pick the friend you know will be honest.
Alright, so you’ve probably established that your standards are out of control. Other people do not require that their kitchen be more sterile than the average hospital operating room, but now what?
Use “Hypothesis Testing”
I prefer the term “strategically half-assing it.” Try pressing “send” on that email without proofreading it. Try leaving the dishes overnight. Try buying pants online without reviewing every option available. And then wait…
Did the other shoe drop?
Even if the result was negative, was it as bad as you thought? And how much did you gain in terms of time, effort, and not driving yourself — or others — crazy? Could less actually be more?
It probably wasn’t as bad as you expected. But your brain was likely going crazy with worry because, hey, dropping your standard from 99.9999% error-free to 99.9% error-free is a big jump.
So how do you deal with those thoughts that shout you should go back to your old extremes of control?
Challenge Your Perfectionist Thoughts
That voice in your head starts going, “They’re not doing it right. They should do it correctly.” And we usually listen to that voice. Which, frankly, can cause a lot of problems because that voice is not divine truth but is often bad habits shouting from a neurological megaphone. Remember Hilda? 🙂
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy — the most scientifically validated form of therapy out there — says we need to identify and rationally challenge our thoughts in order to see why we’re getting so bothered. Because most of our problems with the world are caused by irrational thoughts.
So notice your perfectionist thoughts, generate some alternative thoughts, compare them, and choose a more realistic way to look at the situation. For instance, let’s say your friend is late to pick you up:
- Perfectionistic Thoughts: My friend should never be late. Clearly this is a plot to ruin my life and therefore I am perfectly justified in raining down judgment on them and making them feel bad.
- Alternative Thoughts: It’s unrealistic to assume people will never be late. This isn’t that important anyway. It’s not rational to think this is a plot because, frankly, people who are often late aren’t very good at organizing life ruining plots.
- Evaluating Perfectionistic Thoughts and Alternative Thoughts: My alternative thoughts are far more realistic. My perfectionistic thoughts get me stressed out and serve no good purpose.
- Choosing a More Realistic and Helpful Perspective: This isn’t that bad, and if it becomes a regular issue I can politely mention it to my friend without all the negativity.
- Replacing troublesome thoughts will help. You may still feel really uncomfortable in situations where your Inner Optimizer wants to cross every T and dot every I.
That fear of not having control can be powerful, leading to procrastination or altogether avoiding areas where doing things “properly” feels overwhelming.
There’s a way out of this trap…
Fear is the problem, right? So what if we treat it the same way we treat other phobias?
No, you don’t need to take your pants off. (Hilda and I are trying to keep things PG here.) 🙂
Facing your fears is a core part of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Expose yourself to what makes you uncomfortable frequently enough and it can become just as bland as watching the same movie a hundred times.
Leave the house a mess for a day. Get dressed without checking the mirror. Or let that person spout inaccurate statistics without correcting them, Laurie. 🙂
If it’s too stressful to do this “in vivo” — the psychological term that translates as “for realz” — you can simulate it in your mind until you can handle direct exposure.
Solid results will require some consistent dedicated practice. But you’re a perfectionist. That’s your specialty. Am I right or am I right? Stick with it because being an imperfect perfectionist makes life a lot more fun.
Much Love ❤