Green Mountain at Fox Run is pleased to once again feature a newsletter by Annette Colby, PhD, RD, LD, a nutrition counselor located in Dallas, Texas. Dr. Colby specializes in working with people with disordered eating, chronic dieting, compulsive overeating, binge eating and weight and body issues. She has dedicated her professional life to empowering individuals with new vision and innovative healing strategies.
Perfectionism can be a double-edged sword.
It has the capacity to provide either great joy and personal growth … or misery. Perfectionism can be a gift which offers with it a driving force, determination, and the ability to achieve success. Used as a gift, it has the capacity to motivate an individual to achieve dreams. However, if perfectionism is combined with a self-punishing attitude, it can drive a person into despair. This second type of perfectionism involves excessively high and unrealistic self-imposed rules. The inability to achieve these unattainable expectations results in negative self-talk and feelings of failure and sometimes worthlessness. A key to perfectionism is not to eliminate this gift, but to harness its energy as a positive force.
Positive Aspects of Perfectionism
Perfectionism can be a positive force that can provide the driving energy which leads to great achievement. Perfectionism is the compelling spirit behind an athlete who devotes hours each day to train to compete in the Olympics. It provides the commitment a great singer or composer would require to release the purity of sound playing in their imagination. Or the persistence of an artist to replicate an image from the mind’s eye to the canvas. Setting high standards can be a wonderful gift. Many scientists, researchers, artists, athletes, successful business people spend endless hours perfecting their knowledge, working harder than their colleagues, and pushing themselves beyond their own limitation.
Harmful Aspects of Perfectionism
Perfectionism combined with a self-condemning attitude can deaden the spirit, destroy the imagination, and paralyze performance. This type of perfectionism can backfire and prevent any sense of personal satisfaction. This perfectionism refers to a set of self-defeating thoughts and behaviors aimed at reaching excessively high and unrealistic goals. Ironically it can cause you to fail as much as people who have more realistic aims. This perfectionism is not the search for excellence — it is the search for the unobtainable.
Perfectionism sometimes originates from a common desire of many people — to be accepted. Perfectionists begin to believe that achievement and self-worth are one and the same. Instead of the gift of perfectionism being used for personal growth, it begins to consume every aspect of life. The perfectionist becomes so afraid of failing, being less than perfect, afraid of making mistakes, so afraid of disapproval that they literally become unable to move forward. Perfectionists tend to engage in “all or nothing” thinking. This can mean that if they trip up even once, they will feel a sense of being so terrible and not good enough – in a way that is out of proportion to the event.
Questions to ask yourself:
- Do you feel like what you accomplish is never quite good enough?
- Do you often put off handing in papers or projects, waiting to get them just right?
- Do you feel you must give more than 100% on everything you do or else you will be mediocre or even a failure?
Characteristics of Perfectionism
One problem with being a perfectionist occurs when you measure your self-worth by your performance. Instead of knowing that you are intrinsically valuable as a human being regardless of your performance, you believe that your actions determine your worth as a human being.
Typically, perfectionists are driven by fear. This includes the fear of failure and the fear of not living up to high expectations. Perfectionism is intense competition with oneself.
Procrastination can include not doing new things because of a fear of not being able to do them perfectly — the first time. “It’s completely irrational, impractical, not workable– and yet, it’s how most people run their lives.” John-Roger and Peter McWilliams (Do It! Let’s Get Off our Buts)
Inactivity can result from perfectionism when a person knows he or she will never measure up one hundred percent. It may seem better to delay taking action, or take none at all, rather than risk failure. Perfect people don’t make mistakes — ever. That’s because they also don’t take risks, they don’t move outside of their comfort circles, and they don’t attempt to do new things. They don’t enjoy many new experiences — choosing instead to life safe, sheltered, and unimaginative lives.
The sad part of striving for perfection is that often perfection-orientated people will be fearful of trying new things or taking chances because they might not do it perfectly. It is a viscous circle, as whenever we start something new, we have to do it poorly first. In the end, many people become stuck in a cycle of fear and perfection and fear of not having perfection, which is impossible anyway.
2. Fear of Failure
Perfectionists often equate failure to achieve their goals with a lack of personal value. In orienting their lives around avoiding mistakes, perfectionists miss opportunities to learn and grow. Failure is a teacher and can be the source of much personal growth. Experiencing failure — and learning to judge your own capabilities — demonstrates that you have the strength to accept life’s challenges. Never condemn yourself for not succeeding. Instead, learn to see failure for what it really is: an opportunity to discover that future success lies in another strategy or direction. Learning from your past mistakes is how you will eventually achieve your goal.
Mistakes are opportunities in disguise. They offer you the opportunity to look at situation from a different perspective. Many inventions and discoveries have been the result of a mistake. The scientist who invented ‘Post Its’ notes was really trying to invent a type of glue that had incredible staying power. Columbus discovered America while searching for the West Indies; he simply got lost! If you are not making mistakes you are not learning and growing. Mistakes are the way we find out how something shouldn’t be done. It is how we discover how to do it better.
3. All or Nothing Mindset
Perfectionists frequently believe that they are worthless if their accomplishments are not perfect. Perfectionists have difficulty seeing situations in perspective. For example, overeating one meal might lead a person to believe, “I am a total failure.”
4. Fear of Disapproval
Perfectionism has it’s roots in the desire and need to be accepted. A perfectionist wears a mask to appear nice, polite, likable, friendly, perfect. Often emotions are hidden inside. If others saw their flaws, perfectionists often fear that they will no longer be accepted. Trying to be perfect is a way of trying to protect from criticism, rejection, and disapproval.
5. Rigid Self Imposed Rules
A perfectionist often feels a constant pressure to do things exactly as they “should” be done every single time. There is an overemphasis on “should’s.” There are often many food rules that “should” be abided by everyday. If these rules are not obeyed, then all or nothing thinking comes into play. Once you’ve blown it, there is a perception that failure has already occurred, so why continue to bother? These “should’s” provide a structure and endless list of rigid rules of how to live life. With such an overemphasis on should’s, perfectionists rarely take into account their own wants and desires.
Easing Up on Yourself
Since most of the pressure of perfectionism comes from the inside, it would be good to learn the art of “letting go”! Although it may be uncomfortable at first, you can learn to relax, embrace the successes of your day, and breathe. Letting go is an important skill. When you let go, stress flows away and you feel better.
Perfectionists often do not know their needs or how to meet them. When you stop and take time for yourself, your deeper needs will begin to rise into your awareness. To carry out those deeper needs, you must fight the learned mental tape recordings that you unconsciously say to yourself such as, “Do more, be better, work harder, never stop, and be perfect”. Take time to feel good about what you have accomplished instead of what still needs to be done. Say to yourself the opposite of those messages, for example, “I am good enough. I can rest now. I do not need to be perfect in everything I do. I deserve to do something just for myself.”
- Appreciate Your Gift. There are both useful parts and less helpful parts to perfectionism. Understand that you have choices about how you use it. Perfectionism can serve a useful purpose. It carries with it a power that can be the driving force to achieving your dreams. Or it can paralyze you with fear. Recognize your ideals, your dreams, and your desires. Believe in your ability to achieve them. Failing to achieve your Ideals and high standards are good, even if it hurts when one can’t always reach them.
- Work with a Therapist. Work with a professional who can help you find your inherent self worth. Self-worth based solely on external achievements feels hollow, empty, and filled with despair.
- Set Priorities. Decide where in life your perfectionistic tendencies will enrich your life. Discover what it really important to you. Perhaps you can funnel your gift into a successful business, organization skills, cultivating a passion, being the kind of person you always wanted to be. Realize no one can have it all or be good at everything. Allow yourself to be perfectionistic in activities that really matter to you.
- Challenge Your Concepts of Failure. I remind myself daily of a quote by Charles Kettering, “Failures, repeated failures, are finger posts on the road to achievement. One fails forward towards success.” Accept failure as a part of the learning process. Keep striving to achieve your goals even when your initial attempts are unsuccessful. Perfectionists typically view success as an “avoidance of failure.” This thought process will keep you from gaining satisfaction in your achievements.
- Don’t Punish Yourself For Failing. Learn to cultivate the feeling of satisfaction. It will take some doing, but it can be learned. Generously incorporate the use of self-rewards, positive language, praise, daily success logs, self-appreciation journals to begin retraining your thinking. Focus your energies on the courage you have for trying something new. Take time for reflection, including time to reflect on your accomplishments, and view mistakes as a necessary part of the learning experience. Set goals that are obtainable, measurable, realistic.
- Life is a Journey. Accept your life as a journey, and find ways to enjoy the journey. Focus on the journey not the outcome. Life is too short not to work though your fear. Learn to enjoy the ride!
I am letting go of perfection and striving for excellence instead!