Yes, I think too much

Short-circuiting Perfectionism

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When I was in college, I felt that perfectionism was a way of motivating myself to do the best I possibly could. If I set the bar incredibly high, I would try my best to leap up and grab it. If I set the bar lower, I wouldn’t try so hard. I thought that those who settled for less than “perfect” were just letting themselves off too easily and finding excuses to get by with substandard work.

With age comes wisdom, and that includes self-knowledge. If I truly believed that I required an impossibly high standard to keep myself motivated, then I both trusted myself too little and had far less insight into my character than I do now. I have always worked very hard at every task I have been give or set for myself. If I make mistakes, or do an incomplete job, it is because it is impossible to be “perfect” and that I am human. It has never been because I have slacked off or intentionally done less than the best job that I can do. And what I “can do” is dictated to by a variety of factors including my aptitude, environment, time, energy, and psychological issues.

As I mentioned in the previous post, it is my feeling that a lot of people, and women in particular, embrace perfectionism as a way of ensuring that they will fail. It isn’t that they desire failure, but rather than they have an unconscious need to find themselves inadequate. After you’ve established a constant inner dialog of self-denigration, you will find a way to keep it up because it becomes a part of your identity. I should note that my perfectionist tendencies were at their most profound when I was in college at the point at which I lost a serious amount of weight. They were always there, of course, but the bar was never higher for me than when I was at my “thinnest”. It is my feeling in retrospect that when I couldn’t practice the same self-hating inner mantra due to my body’s changes so I found other means by which I could carry on and find myself lacking. It’s also almost certain that I was recasting the denigrating chorus I had grown up with both from family and school in my own voice to fill the void. It may sound absurd that anyone would like to hate themselves or find reasons to dislike themselves, but humans act based on what they are used to far more than they realize, even when what they are “used to” is a bad thing.

I only started to diminish my expectations of myself and deal with my perfectionist tendencies after I married and found that my husband did not reinforce the idea that I “should” be perfect. In fact, he was constantly, in my opinion, “letting me off the hook”. The truth was that he was only offering me the acceptance and compassion that I was denying myself and had been denied to me from others for so very long. My perfectionism wasn’t driving me to do better. It was driving me to feel like I failed no matter how well I did.

I found myself in a loop of expecting too much from myself consistently, but hitting the mark often enough to feel that it wasn’t an “unrealistic” expectation. The smallest mistake or lack of utter and complete success was deflating though as I had so little experience with actual “failure” (i.e., not being “perfect”). It was an exhausting and unsustainable way to live because I was always going full tilt and working harder than anyone else in order to simply avoid the sting of falling short of the mark. In my junior year of college, this was so overwhelming that I would come home every day and just sleep for hours after classes and library study.

After years of expecting too much and beating myself up, I finally figured out that few people aside from the most irrational and unrealistic bosses (one of which I had) were going to care if I never made a mistake of any kind. I always operated from a sense that people would focus as intently on my flaws as I did. Most of them didn’t even notice. People are far more interested in the dialog in their own heads than they are in anything other people do.

To short-circuit my perfectionist tendencies, I started intentionally setting myself up to do things differently. When I started my first private blog, I planned from the start not to post everyday even if I had things to say. I figured that given my desire to be “perfect”, it was very likely that once I got a pattern of daily posting in place, I’d feel pressure to keep it up. I posted three days and then intentionally skipped one at the very start to make sure my “track record” was already “blemished”. By doing this intentionally, I felt in control in addition to putting any idea of “perfection” out of the picture from the start.

I also started to go out of my way to overtly and clearly forgive others for their mistakes when they apologized for them. I did this whether or not it really mattered. I’d always say, “don’t worry about it, we all make mistakes.” Forgiving them was practice for forgiving myself and the act of making this statement created a new mantra which reinforced the idea that being perfect isn’t important. Unless I was being completely insincere, I couldn’t deeply internalize the idea that mistakes should never be made if I said it was understandable if others made mistakes.

The trap for perfectionists is that they so quickly tell themselves that not striving for perfection dooms them to sloth, mediocrity, or sloppy efforts. They think that there is a slippery slope of where they can only stay perched on top of that hill if they remain rooted to one spot. As soon as they move from “trying to be perfect”, they’ll slip down to the bottom and “not try at all.” In my opinion, this is merely a justification to remain a perfectionist because it serves one psychologically on a certain level. Those reasons, of course, are highly personalized, but one of the biggest ones is almost certainly a lack of understanding and trust in oneself.


Written by yesithinktoomuch

September 16, 2010 at 6:40 am

One Response

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  1. As a fellow perfectionist, thank you for this interesting post.

    Fighting my perfectionist tendancies are a constant struggle. I agree with you that perfectionism is a particularly pernicious problem for women.


    September 16, 2010 at 2:32 pm

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