Thought for the week: Perfectionism  (July 20, 2015)

One of my favorite quotes was on a t-shirt worn by the presenter of a seminar regarding approaches to the discipline of children. The front of the t-shirt said, “Don’t SHOULD on me” and the back of the t-shirt said, “and I won’t SHOULD on you”. We live in a world of “ shoulds” – those we hear from others and those in our own heads – we (or, they) “should” have thought ahead, “should” have done better, “should have known”. “Shoulding” ourselves or others is an ineffective approach to motivating positive behavioral changes and most often results in inaction and/or lower self esteem. “Shoulding” is also a characteristic of perfectionism.

High standards are often valued but they are very different from the unrealistic goals that accompany perfectionism. Other signs of being a perfectionist include an all-or-nothing (black or white) approach; being highly conscious and highly critical of outcomes; hyper critical of mistakes; a fear of failure and an unrealistic definition of failure; feeling depressed, anxious, angry or impatient while trying to meet goals or with the performance of others; becoming paralyzed, possibly to the point of inaction for fear of performing imperfectly.

Does this describe you and/or someone you know? Most people I work with that struggle with perfectionism have little difficulty identifying themselves as a perfectionist or are not surprised when I mention the concept to them. Not all characteristics above must be met to suffer the effects of perfectionism. Many of those who struggle with perfectionism, struggle with it regarding a particular part of their life, not necessarily every part. For example, you might have a perfectionistic approach to your career, weight, or academic goal but not necessarily to all three.

As you can imagine from reading the characteristics above, perfectionism can wreak havoc on your life, relationships and self esteem. It is possible to lessen the tendencies towards perfectionism if one is motivated to do so. The first step is to catch perfectionistic thinking and replace it with realistic thoughts. For example, “I should have made a different decision” becomes “I did the best I could with the information I had at the time” or “I’m a lousy parent” becomes “There are many things I do well and other things I’m still learning”. “I will make sure everyone is happy and everyone likes me” becomes “I am human, everyone makes mistakes and no one is liked by everyone”. Also known as negative self-talk, the messages we allow to wreak havoc in our brains can be transformed into positive with routine focused efforts.

Another favorite quote on this subject is, “When you change the way you see things, the things you see will change”. If you keep this in mind, you might be more willing to compromise on the unrealistic standards, more willing to step back and allow facts from the bigger picture to influence and shift your thinking. A shift in thinking can help shift behaviors and you are then well on your way to a more positive outcome overall.