How to Overcome Perfectionism
To Overcome Perfectionism, You Must First Understand It...
To overcome perfectionism, you must first understand it. It is actually a much more complex and systemic problem than most people realize.
To start with, there are most common perfectionist characteristics:
- Defining success narrowly and unrealistically. ("Only an A or A+ will do!")
- Overfocusing on product (over process).
- Over-reliance on external recognition and rewards (versus the intrinsic rewards of doing the work).
- Overidentification with the work. So when it goes well, you're on the top of the world, but when it goes badly (which a perfectionist think is always happening) you're down in the dumps. This is an exhausting cycle at best; at worst it can terrorize you away from your work. Also, seeing your work as a justification, vindication, legitimization, or other personal validation.
- Shortsightedness / impatience. ("This thing I'm doing right now has to be perfect, or else!" Or, "This project I'm working on now had better come out fantastic!")
- Grandiosity. Perfectionists think that things that are hard, or even impossible, for other people should be easy for them. This leads to all kind of antiproductive behaviors, including a lack of interest in planning, lack of willingness to consult mentors, and attempts to work without adequate resources.
- Negativity. Perfectionists undervalue themselves, their skills, and their achievements--also others' willingness to help.
- Distrust of Success. Perfectionists distrust success when it happens, thinking that the project was too easy or they somehow "got lucky." Closely linked to imposter syndrome.
- Rigidity. Perfectionists will try the same solutions over and over again, even when it's obvious they're not working.
More perfectionist behaviors: dichotomizing (seeing things in black and white, no grays, dividing the world into winners and losers, etc.); labeling ("I'm lazy."); hyperbole ("My work is garbage."); comparisons; competitiveness; boasting/false pride ("I haven't slept for three days!"); hoarding (refusing to show your work to anyone); fixations (areas about which you're hyper-critical of yourself).
What the above attitudes and behaviors all have in common is that they are deviations from accepted methods for learning and growth.
This unhappy perfectionist writer, who also happens to be under-resourced, is having trouble working. Illustration by Barry Deutsch from The 7 Secrets of the Prolific
Perfectionists' Three Big Mistakes
The three biggest mistakes perfectionists make are to:
1) Thinking that they are the problem: that they are lacking in something--e.g., talent, originality, motivation, or commitment--that they need to succeed. This not only misidentifies the problem--we're underproductive because of our training, context, and other outside factors--it also blocks our ability to solve problems. If you assume that you're the problem, you won't look elsewhere.
2) Tries to use punishment (negative labels, harsh self-talk, deprivation) as a motivator. Perfectionists live in fear and terror, and if you punish someone who is already terrorized, you're not likely to help, and likely to only make the situation worse.
3) Think perfectionism is "sometimes" good, or that "a little of it" is good. Perfectionism is never good. It is always antiproductive, and always leaves us more fearful of, disempowered around our work moving forward. At best, it is a short-term fix, but it is not the solution we're looking for, when the goal is to be more, and more joyfully productive. What we need, and should be looking for, is personal growth, evolution, re-empowerment, and best-practice-informed capacity and skills building.
Where Perfectionism Comes From
We get perfectionism from society, and especially from the media, which uses perfectionism to sell products. We also get it from our parents and teachers, who may be well-meaning but also grew up in a perfectionist society. And it’s almost always catalyzed by traumatic rejections, especially from teachers, publishing professionals, or other authority figures.
Situational perfectionism, a condition where something happens that suddenly increases your perfectionism, is also very common.
Solutions to Perfectionism
1. Journaling to Understand Your Perfectionism
Review the list of perfectionist characteristics, then take a few hours or days – however long you need – and write out how those characteristics show up in your life and work. Do this via free-writing, without paying attention to spelling, grammar, etc.: just get it all out in as much detail and depth and nuance as possible. Don’t leave anything out, even if it seems small (it probably isn’t) and especially don’t censor.
The good news is that often simply writing down a perfectionist idea or behavior is enough to defeat it. Perfectionism is fundamentally delusional, and when its delusions are exposed to the light of day they are easily discredited. However, other ideas or characteristics will be more ingrained and harder to overcome.
Also, journal about the roots of your perfectionism within a framework of forgiveness for yourself and others. We’re all affected by our society’s pervasive perfectionism.
2. Cultivate a Mindset of Self-Compassion
In other words, do all the opposite of the perfectionist behaviors and attitudes listed above:
- Define success broadly, realistically, and holistically. ("Okay I didn't get an A, but it was a really hard test. I'll figure out how I can do better next time, but in the meantime, I'll be satisfied with the grade I got.")
- Focus on process. Let the work unfold the way it wants to, don't try to force or hurry the outcome.
- Focus on the intrinsic rewards of doing the work. (The creative, intellectual, and other challenges.)
- Maintain a proper emotional distance from your work. So it is simply something you do, not reflective of who you are. You can still care about your work a lot without basing your self-esteem on it!
- Longsighted. Sees the big picture, has perspective and proportion. (A.k.a., "wisdom.") Sees the current project or work session, regardless of its size or importance, as simply one stop among many on the journey of your life and work.
- Grounded / Humble. Do extra planning, seek out extra mentorship, etc. Not self-effacing or falsely modest, able to take proper pride in one's accomplishments. ("Humble" comes from the same root as "humus," i.e., the soil. Humility is being grounded.)
- Objectivity / Positivity. Perfectionists value themselves, their skills, and their achievements objectively or even a little positively. Ditto for others' willingness to help!
- Trusts Success. Able to identify and appreciate and feel proud of their successes. No imposter syndrome!
- Flexible. If a solution isn't working, they'll try another!
Self-compassionate people also cultivate nuance (no dichotomies!), and they avoid labeling, hyperbole, comparisons, excessive competition, fixations, and false pride.
There’s no magic to “switching” your mindset from perfectionism to self-compassion: you just catch yourself thinking like a perfectionist and GENTLY interrupt and correct yourself:
Instead of: “I can’t believe I’m behind on submitting my chapter to my editor. What made me think I could write? I’m just a fraud. I haven’t written anything in two months – and what I wrote before that is crap. And look at Mary – she’s a real writer. She’s already submitted five chapters, and hers are all great. I’m just lazy, that’s all.”
The compassionate person thinks: “Okay, let’s calm down. I actually have done some writing in the last two months. It wasn’t very much, and honestly it wasn’t very good, but there’s a big difference between that and not writing anything. The big problem is that I’ve been stuck on the plot…I guess I’ll submit what I have to my editor so he at least knows I’m working. And I’ll talk to him and my critique partner about the plot. As for Mary, well, her partner supports the household, so she doesn’t need a job: she gets to stay home and write all day. I do have a job – and so if I can get a couple of hours in of writing a day, I’m lucky. I guess I’ll talk to my partner to see if I can cut down on my hours for a while, and also to see if he’ll do more of the housework.”
Note how, in the compassionate response, the person isn’t letting herself off the hook: she admits that her writing hasn’t been very good. It is possible to acknowledge mistakes without taking on a mantle of shame – and you must absolutely learn to do so. Notice, also, how a shame-free examination of the causes of her underproductivity enables her to easily problem-solve.
At first, these self-corrections may feel awkward and even contrived, but keep practicing and eventually self-compassion will replace perfectionism as your reflex response to underperformance. Just don’t try to immediately correct every tiny instance of perfectionism, or berate yourself harshly when you slip – that’s perfectionism! Just focus on building the new habit gradually.
Some have described the compassionate voice as that of the “good grandparent” or “wise teacher.” These adult metaphors are no accident: compassion, unlike terrified and regressed perfectionism, is a mature viewpoint. The more you replace perfectionist thoughts and feelings with compassionately objective ones, the less fear, and the more confidence, you will feel around your writing and other work.
Don’t confuse self-compassion with “permissiveness,” “self-indulgence,” “being a Pollyanna,” “letting yourself off the hook,” or “giving yourself a pass.” It isn’t any of those things. Self-compassion calls it as it sees it – and with much more accuracy than perfectionism. Self-compassionate people forgo unproductive blame and shame, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t take responsibility.
A compassionate writer who has overcome her perfectionism and is now having a great time writing prolifically. (Illustration by Barry Deutsch, from The 7 Secrets of the Prolific.)
3. Dialogue With Your Inner Critic
Dialoguing, via journaling, with your inner critic (a.k.a., inner bully, a.k.a. inner perfectionist) is a powerful anti-perfectionism technique, and very healing.
You have to do it right, though. You must:
(a) Dialogue in the role of the compassionately objective adult.
(b) Give your inner bully abundant time and space to express his (or her) thoughts, frustrations, and needs. In other words, don’t censor him, don’t try to shut him up, don’t rush him when he has things to say. You’ve probably been trying to squelch him for years or decades, and it hasn’t helped. It just enrages him.
The thing about inner critics is that their goals are often valid: you do want to do excellent work, and get more work done. It’s just their methods (bullying, setting unreasonable goals, grandiosity, shortsightedness, negativity, etc.) that are problematic. Which brings us to:
(c) Do not let the inner critic bully you. The inner critic exists in a state of constant perfectionist terror, which means he’s regressed and acts younger and less competent than his chronological age (meaning your chronological age!). Do not let him abuse you or throw tantrums! You’re the adult, you set limits and boundaries.
In practical terms, this means no endless journaling of: “I suck. What’s wrong with me? Why am I such a loser?” (I did that for twenty years, and believe me, it didn’t help!) Instead, have an honest discussion with the critic, and listen to and respond honestly to his viewpoints. Doing that, you can actually defuse his anger and desperation. Here’s an example showing how it works:
Inner Critic (in disgust, but also terror): That paragraph you just wrote sucks. I can’t believe you think you’re a writer. Everyone will laugh at you.
Self-Compassionate Adult (keeping his cool, and with honest curiosity): Oh, so you don’t like it? Why is that?
IC: Well, look at it! The prose is really banal, your observations are mundane, and your grammar stinks. This is hopeless.
SCA: Okay, listen: I really want to hear what you say and I will listen to you say it, and I promise to address it. But I really don’t want any more of this harshness and name-calling. OK?
IC: But, but, but…
SCA: I mean it. We can talk about everything you want to discuss, but it has to be done politely.
IC: (Sullenly.) Okay.
SCA: Great…so can you rephrase your criticisms so that they’re not so harsh and all-encompassing?
IC: (Hesitantly, because it’s not used to holding back.) Well, the first sentence is run-on, isn’t it?
SCA: (Non defensively.) Yeah, I think you’re right.
IC: And when you describe the landscape as “flat as a pancake” that’s a cliche, isn’t it?
SCA: You bet it is! I’ll fix that.
IC: And “indomitable” is misspelled.
SCA: I’ll correct that. Anything else?
IC: I guess I just wish the whole thing were better.
SCA: I do, too. But it’s only the first draft, and we’ve got a lot more drafts to go. Do you think we’ll be able to improve it over time?
IC: I guess so, but I’m pretty worried about the piece as a whole. The pacing’s off, and there’s no narrative tension.
SCA: No narrative tension at all? Really?
IC: Well, not much.
SCA: Point taken. So what can we do about that?
IC: Ask our writer’s group for help?
SCA: Great idea.
Note how the compassionately objective adult listened respectfully to the critic and acknowledged the validity of many of his points, but insisted on respect. And notice how it was relatively easy to get beyond unproductive harshness and recriminations to constructive problem solving.
4. Practice Self-Compassion While Working (Nonperfectionist Timed Work Intervals)
Having “exorcised” at least some of your fears through journaling and compassionate objectivity, it’s time to practice writing fearlessly. Get a timer and set it for 5 minutes.
To be clear: you are writing on your desired project but in a “free-writing” kind of way. Your goal is not for any specific result – and especially not to “write something good” – but to simply put in your time: write uninterruptedly without getting derailed by fear or distraction.
You work on the “low-hanging fruit” – the easiest or most accessible part of the project. It’s also okay to do some note taking, organizing, or outlining related to the project. No research, though: you need to be writing, not reading, during this time. And absolutely no self-abuse: no writing, “What’s wrong with me? This is easy! I’m so lazy, etc. etc.” Don’t make the mistake of thinking that perfectionist self-abuse has any corrective or redeeming quality, when it does nothing but hold you back.
When the timer rings, you stop, stand up for a good stretch, and give yourself rewards. (If you don’t make it through the entire five minutes, don’t bother berating yourself but simply try again later for two minutes.) A reward can be an actual physical reward – a cookie, bubble bath, or promise to yourself to buy that new DVD. But the most important part of the reward is a sustained feeling of honest pride and self-satisfaction, two emotions that don’t come naturally to perfectionists. So open yourself up to those feelings and savor them for at least a few seconds every time you reach your goal.
The perfectionist in you will probably protest: “Five minutes! That’s trivial. And you think you deserve a reward? Give me a break. How are you ever going to finish writing five minutes a day! And what you wrote was crap!” Etc. etc. That is the voice of your fears, and it’s telling you these things in a desperate effort to get you to stop writing.
Never listen to that voice. (And the desperation, by the way, is a sign you’re making progress – so congratulations!) If you want, you can dialogue with it compassionately via journaling, reassuring the frightened part of yourself that it will all be okay. Eventually, as you learn to stop burdening your work with unreasonable expectations, the voice will go away.
Only when you are completely rested and relaxed should you reset the timer and start over. In fact, you may want to wait for tomorrow. Never push your productivity, because doing so will only increase the pressure and consequent fear, which is obviously counterproductive. Remember: the thing you’re writing about may be intellectually or emotionally challenging, but the act of putting words down should never in itself be difficult.
After you can securely handle five minutes of non-fearful, non-judgmental writing, you can increase the timer to eight or ten minutes. And then fifteen, twenty, thirty, an hour, three hours, and more if you wish. As you progress, watch out for, and learn to accept, the inevitable plateaus and backsliding. If you find yourself struggling, set the timer for fewer minutes.
5. Take Your Anti-Perfectionism Work to the Limit!
Many people have trouble giving up old habits of unreasonable goals, harshness, grandiosity, etc. They see that self-compassion is working for them, but are afraid that if they let go of their perfectionism entirely they will “fall apart” and lose whatever willpower or discipline they have.
In my experience, however, it’s when people finally internalize and act on the truth that perfectionism serves no purpose at all, and commit themselves to expunging every trace of it in their behavior and thinking, that they start to make rapid progress.
So take your your anti-perfectionism work to the limit and don’t tolerate even a bit of perfectionism. Of course, do that in baby steps (i.e., non-perfectionistically!) and never get harsh with yourself.
Stay the course, and the rewards — in terms of more productivity, better work, and increased joy in your work — will probably be better than you can even imagine.
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