While initially it may seem like a virtue, taken to extremes it is a vice. If you find yourself in the snares of perfectionism you judge your work with one of two grades: Perfect or Pitiful! Studio 5 Clinical Psychologist, Dr. Liz Hale shares more about getting out of the punishing pursuit of perfection.
I think we all face perfectionism tendencies. I’m still in recovery. Perfectionism is not about doing a job to the best of your abilities. It is about trying to do the impossible. Here’s what happens: the instant I reach what I think might be perfection, I immediately begin to think of improvements that need to be made there. That level of perfection now becomes the status quo while a new level of perfection is set in motion. I reach for that goal, obtain it, but it isn’t good enough so I make additional adjustments, and so the cycle goes. It leaves me feeling helpless, hopeless, tired, and out of time!
Perfectionist behavior driven by deep interpersonal needs – the need to be accepted, the need to be cared for, the need to feel worthy, and the need to feel loveable. Perfectionism is also a risk-factor for psychological struggles, such as, eating disorders, depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, divorce, and even suicide. It can destroy peace, happiness, and relationships. We marry imperfect beings; we give birth to imperfect beings; we are raised by imperfect beings; we are all imperfect beings. If we can learn to accept the flaws in ourselves and others, it is not the path to mediocrity; it’s the high road to a more loving and satisfying life!
Today, why not take a REST from our perfectionism?! R stands for resign:
R = Resign
Let’s just give one area of perfection in our lives a rest! We need to resign ourselves to the inevitable – our imperfections. One of the characteristics of perfectionism is rigidity. Too often we refuse to let go of a fixed mindset in the face of obvious consequences. There is a great fable that illustrates this in Robert Pirsig’s well-known work, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.”
The “South Indian Monkey Trap” was developed by villagers to catch the numerous small monkeys in that part of the world. It involves a hollowed-out coconut chained to a stake. The coconut has some rice inside which can be seen through a small hole. The hole is just big enough so that the monkey can put his hand in, but too small for his fist to come out after he grabbed the rice. The monkey becomes trapped but it is his own fist that traps him. He rigidly holds on to the rice. We get stuck the same way. We fail to see that the trap we’ve become ensnared by is of our own doing. Ask yourself what you’re rigidly hanging onto. The cost to yourself and your relationships is simply not worth it. Let go of your grip!
The E stands for Evaluate. I suggest we evaluate not only how we talk to ourselves but how we talk to our kids, as well.
E = Evaluate
Parents can be instrumental in modeling for their children a willingness to make and admit mistakes and to learn from them. Some of the most powerful words that teens in my office ever hear from their parent’s lips are, “I am sorry,” I was wrong on that,” “Please forgive me.” When children see their parents learn from their mistakes, it makes it easier for them to own mistakes and failures as lessons to be learned from, and not badges of shame and incompetence.
Evaluate how you respond to a child’s grades, as well. Reward the effort not the end-result. When a child gets a great grade on a paper resist the urge to say, “You’re brilliant!” Instead say, “You’re a really good thinker. Nice job on connecting X to Y.” Children praised for effort get energized in the face of difficulty.
Evaluate how you respond when a child doesn’t do well. Criticism implying that your affection or approval is conditional on good performance is lethal. I have a colleague that frequently says that “being disappointed” is a unique form of middle-class child abuse. Capitalize on your child’s disappointment, not your own. Say, ” “How do you feel about the grade?” “You don’t seem happy with the way things turned out; are you?” “What can you do next time to make it come out in a way that you’ll be more satisfied with.
I’ll never forget taking my driver’s ed test. I was in some little booth taking the written part and my mother was waiting for me. At the end of the test you immediately get your results. I had missed one. I was feeling O.K. about that. As I walked by mo dear mom I mouthed, “I missed 1!” And her response was “Oh, no!” And instantly I thought, “Oh, you’re right. That is not good, is it? I could have had 100%!” Silly, innocentexample but one of these “disappointments” on top of another on top of yet another can direct the perfection.
The S stands for the importuning of showing up.
S = Show-Up
I heard a professional athlete once say that ninety percent of staying in shape is getting to the gym. This is how it is across the board in every human enterprise. Successful musicians show up day after day to practice their instruments. Successful salesmen show up for their customers. Successful writers show up at the blank page. What makes someone excel in their field is not perfection but the sheer repetition of showing up.
So, to, is it in our intimate relationships. When you look at the word intimacy….it’s basically spelled out as in-to-me-see.
Intimacy = In-To-Me-See
As I tell many of my clients, which I hope isn’t too crass for television, is that any two people can have sex. But few allow themselves the experiences of true intimacy. Being known by and fully knowing another. Our greatest fear is that we’re either too much or not enough for another person. So we either play down or play up who and what we really are. I worked with a couple once who was “an accident waiting to happen.” I begged them to watch their boundaries with other people. They were rolling their wagon wheel a little too close to the edge when it came to flirting with individuals outside the marriage. As I feared, he was in my office recently enraged over his wife’s affair. It took me two hours before he was willing to go a bit deeper and look at some of his own behaviors that didn’t cause his wife’s affair but nonetheless pushed her in that direction. (She, of course) took the final step!) With tears of fear he began to talk about his anger problem. His intermittent explosive anger had pushed his wife. And it was the thing that he feared had made him an unlovable, undeserving monster. No wonder we try so hard ourselves from really being known: it can feel deadly. The irony: our relationships become closer as the personas give way.
Our final letter in the aronym REST is T standing for Tolerate.
T = Tolerate
Tolerate doing a job to a 6 or 7 instead of a 10. Let your children hear you say, “That’s a 5….good enough for today.” We must not just accept imperfection but seek it. Just for fun, be willing to do something imperfectly. Paint, sing, run, bowl, play pool, etc. But be willing to do it terribly. Ugh! I know I’m asking a lot but go for it. People love when we’re openly imperfect. It has an endearing quality that unites us; attempts for perfectionism separate us.
We need to learn to better tolerate our physical flaws, as well. Going back to marital intimacy: the fear of our physical imperfections keep us apart more than anything else. Just yesterday a wife told her husband how uncomfortable she felt about her saddle bags in regards to sexual intimacy. That particular soft, sensual body part was what her husband happened to love best! Take a deep breath, enjoy your age and body today. All of us are only going one direction. Take advantage of the here and now.
It is imperative for all of us to better tolerate our flaws and the flaws of others. The most painful reality of a perfectionist is the belief that they will be unloved if they are imperfect. Here’s the most painful reality of the punishing pursuit of perfection: Since being truly perfect isn’t possible, they will never feel truly convinced that they are loved in spite of their imperfections. That is what’s devastating about perfectionism.
Dr. Liz Hale is a licensed clinical psychologist and a regular Studio 5 Contributor. Your comments and questions are welcomed! Please visit www.drlizhale.com to add your thoughts to today’s discussion or learn more about her private practice.