Part 3: “Okay, Okay, Perfectionism is Dangerous- Now What Do I Do to Fix It?”
Hopefully by now you’ve read Parts 1 & 2 of our special on perfectionism. It probably felt great to diagnose yourself, get scared of the statistics, and then have to wait to see what you can do about it. Sorry about that!
Perfectionism is difficult to treat for a variety of reasons. First, it appears to “work” for you. And it can be scary to get rid of something that seems to work, even if it’s painful. Many perfectionists worry that changing their ways will suddenly leave them jobless and homeless, alone under a bridge. The good news is that re-tuning your meter from “perfect” to “great” or “good enough” will probably still put you light years ahead of mere mortals.
Second, perfectionism (like many coping skills) has become a friend, or a way to define yourself. It’s similar to staying in a bad relationship. While it doesn’t always feel good, it feels familiar, and easy. And working hard at a bad relationship seems easier than starting over in a new. You wonder who you’ll be without this pal by your side.
Finally, perfectionism is a habit. And when we’re busy, tired, or distracted, we fall back into old habits. It requires awareness and attention to challenge our habits.
The good news is that perfectionists aren’t afraid of a little hard work or persistence. Come on, prove to us that you can do it! (Will it help if I give you an award you can hang up in your office when you’re done?)
Reforming perfectionism is a practice like all others. Imagine the first time you took a yoga class. It felt totally unnatural to stand in a triangle with your face towards your feet. Everyone else seemed to know what “Happy baby” or “Savasana” meant. But after a few classes, it started to feel more natural and less scary. In fact, you may have started to enjoy it! Eliminating perfectionism is a similar process.
Step 1: Tune in to your thoughts.
Start with a journal, or even your calendar. Any time you feel a negative emotion related to your own performance, jot it down, along with the words you’re saying to yourself. You will soon notice a trend.
Column 1, Emotions: You may feel pressure, anxiety, anger, sadness, or stress.
Column 2, Thoughts: This is your self-talk related to the emotion. You may see a lot of “should's” or “must's”. “I should have finished this by now.” “I must do better than my coworkers.” “I’m not good enough.” “I can’t make a mistake.”
Step 2: Talk back to your thoughts.
Put a third column next to those emotions and thoughts- and challenge them in a way you imagine your nicest grandma would say to you. (Or if you don’t have a nice grandma, imagine Mrs. Doubtfire).
“I’ll never be good enough” becomes “You’re a hard worker and a good friend.”
”I can’t make a mistake” becomes “Everyone makes mistakes sometimes.”
”I don’t know what I’m doing” becomes “You have a lot of experience, just give it a try.”
”I look like a mess” becomes “You look like a happy mom”.
Step 3: Begin the process in real life.
Eventually this process will seem less clunky. Instead of walking around with three columns, you’ll begin to catch your negative self-talk and turn it around quicker.
For example, When you think, “I’m scared, I can’t give this speech!” your internal Mrs Doubtfire will say, “You know what you’re talking about. You’re prepared. Just give it a shot!”
No, a 3 step process will not immediately fix your life. But the difference between walking around with a judgemental headmistress in your head and a kind, understanding grandmother makes a huge difference in the way you feel about yourself and go about your world. At its heart, perfectionism is about feeling good enough. And as your internal voice becomes kinder and more realistic, your actions and your experiences will begin to change as well.
So give it a try! This week, begin to write down those three things:
My negative emotion
What negative things I am saying to myself
Challenge that negative thought by writing a kinder, more understanding response
“You have to know that you are good enough and worth it. Once you master that belief in yourself, no one else can steal it from you.” Alex Elle