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Dropping old habits is like trying to liquefy cement that has set long ago. One of my habits, a habit I see reflected in the people I interact with everyday, is the habit of perfectionism and it’s mirror image self-criticism. These lousy, influential inner terrorists are to joy, flexibility and intimacy what cement is to a rose garden.
Nature gets it perfect!
“Perfectionism is self-abuse of the highest order.” Anne Wilson Schaef
Perfectionism is pervasive in our culture and seems to have at it’s roots good old fashioned life sucking, energy draining fear. Perfectionism is the camouflage for fear of being ridiculed, abandoned, suffering, pain, confusion, isolation. These are real universal human fears. (Or at least they are universal in North America!)
Have you noticed that the thing you are a perfectionist about is not the same thing that someone else is? And it aggravates you that they aren’t worked up and upset about the thing you are – tidiness for example or punctuality. I’m not a perfectionist about being tidy or about lining the cans up in the pantry with all the labels facing forward. I am not a perfectionist about my car, my nails or my bed being made, but I am a perfectionist about how I come across to others socially. And it turns out that almost everyone I know has a version of this: “What will people think if I (fill in the blank).” It seems to me that most of us are guarding heavily against our vulnerable ‘slip showing’ when it comes to what people think of us. It feels like there is something in the water that makes many of us feel that we are somehow unworthy or unsafe and that perfecting ourselves or something will keep danger at bay. You can see perfectionism showing up in our belief systems, in the way we dress, the cars we drive, the foods we eat -or don’t eat- in the way we try to get our kids to behave, etc., etc. We each and collectively need to over-throw perfectionism if we are going to be adaptive, loving, inter-dependent people free of anxiety, depression and…procrastination!
So what do we do about this? How do we free ourselves from the tenacious and oppressive grip of needing to get things perfect?
- Because perfectionism is fear based be respectful of yourself. Take it easy, be patient with the process of changing your tune – easier said than done I know!
- Practice becoming ‘mindful’ (aware) of when you are being a perfectionist. Notice when you have a flare up, what makes it better, what makes it more intense.
- Perfectionism camouflages fear. When you’ve noticed you’ve become uptight about something not being ‘perfect’ or when you’ve noticed that you have the urge to be perfect, check under your hood. Beneath the quest for perfection you will very likely find feelings of uncertainty and insecurity. Address those directly with kindness, curiosity and reassurance.
- Positive self-talk. What you say to yourself about anything is central to how you feel and what you do. When you talk encouragingly to yourself, like you would to your best friend, you will feel more grounded even of a fleeting moment at first, progress is being made.
- Ask someone close to talk it through with you if can. Other people can bring perspective that is refreshing – if you allow it.
- Once you are in the habit of changing your impulse to be perfect it will come quite easily to simply ‘let go’ but that won’t happen right away.
- Challenging our beliefs that unless things are done ‘just so’ the heavens will not in fact collapse takes practice and more practice, coming at it again and again to loosen the grip of fear with self-compassion, honesty and bravery.
- And, if all else fails, seek professional help from someone like me trained in taming the scared inner the lion and it’s choke chain, perfectionism.
“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft.” Anne Lamott
(PS: Did I miss any type-o’s?)
‘The first duty of love is to listen.’ Paul Tillich
One of my all-time favourite relationships: My mom and I in Holland, Spring 2014.
By Johanna Abraham, MSW RSW johannaabraham.com firstname.lastname@example.org
Relationships – those indispensible but often tricky features of our daily lives – provide more material to wonder, learn and write about than pretty much any other subject in the field of human behaviour. The most frequent problem people seem to run into in their relationships is caused by reactivity. You have likely heard of this before and probably have experienced it first hand. Reactivity is the ramming rod of relationships. And that includes relationships with our partners, spouse, children, co-workers and friends. It is the acid on the delicate flower that grows between you and those you care about.
(Scroll down to “Read on for the details” if you would like to start off where you left off from the newsletter introduction.)
There have been years of research, thousands of books written, and hundreds upon hundreds of intensive courses taught on just this one subject. What I am giving you is a ‘pamphlet version’ of the basics but a worthy summary nonetheless.
What does reactivity look like?
Reactivity looks something like this: He or she (insert person you are struggling with at the moment) says something that upsets you or that you don’t agree with. You respond angrily or defensively either by saying something with hostility or saying nothing with hostility. The other person, now feeling more defensive or upset, lashes back and now it’s your turn to respond in kind. This is what I call ‘building the bonfire’, a classic relationship dynamic where nobody gets heard and everybody gets burned! Left unresolved the coals are always smoldering, and ready to catch fire quickly again. Do you recognize this dynamic?!
What you can do to stop this chain of reactivity:
The plain truth is that you are 100% responsible for your reaction to any and everything. That’s the bad news – there is no one to blame but yourself (and actually you are not to blame either. When you know better, you do better.) The good news, however, is that you can learn to control your reaction, by putting something helpful, productive and useful out there that you can feel good about. Remember that there is almost always at least one more relevant and equally good but different perspective from your own. And, know that your perspective stands a much better chance of being heard and respected if you seek to hear and respect the other’s perspective first.
The hardest part of this process is that you must make a commitment to stick with this process every time regardless of how the other person responds: don’t give up after the first time you tried it and didn’t get the response you were hoping for because sooner or later you will. When you manage your reactivity not only do you feel better about yourself, you are on the only proven path to civilizing your relationships and, in some small but important way, you are contributing to world peace!
Read on for the details:
Someone has said or done something that has got you going, and you are upset or angry or both:
‘Seek to first understand, then to be understood’. Steven Covey
In order to avoid something regrettable from coming out of your mouth as a result of unfettered reactivity, for a moment pay attention to yourself rather than the other person. Notice what’s going on with your emotions and your body: that familiar pit in your stomach, tension mounting in your body, your face and neck heating up, the urge to ‘destroy’ what’s in front of you, a feeling of defensiveness, hurt feelings, maybe hopeless, a desire to flee. Whatever the signs are, even just the action of recognizing them puts a little separation between you and your reaction. This space gives you the vantage point from which to make some decisions about your next move.
Now continue to put on your internal brakes, stopping yourself from reacting further: take a ‘time out’*, count to ten, breathe deeply, bite your tongue, ‘rub over your heart’ (as my grandmother would say), remember how you want to feel when this is over ie: proud of yourself**.
NOTE: While these steps may sound awkward at first, because the net results are so good you learn to use them every time and they start to feel natural.
This is the most important part of this whole process: Instead of indulging your impulse to raise your shield in response to the other person start to listen, really listen for what’s been said to you by the other. Listen without busying yourself with getting your defenses ready. Listen for the perspective of the other. If you are having trouble hearing what’s been said because of the all the emotions that are coming from inside of you, as well as from the other person, ask to take a moment to calm yourself down. (It is not advisable to ask the other person to calm down!!).
Now try listening again. Listen not only to the specifics of what you are being told but for the simultaneous underlying emotional message: ‘I am hurt, sad, frustrated, exhausted, feeling hopeless, misunderstood, left out, neglected, afraid…’ Is it possible that they are hurt and angry because they feel unheard while you have been so busy defending yourself?
Now that you’ve slowed down the action, put down your weapon and lowered your shield, ask the other for clarification about their perspective. This is the part where you will be practicing a version of the much lampooned ‘therapist speak’, “What I hear you saying is…” The point is that you want to see if what you are understanding about the other person is actually what the other person is trying to communicate to you. Your intention here is to let the other person know that you are sincere about your wish to understand them. You need to demonstrate this not just in your words, but in your tone as well. “What was it you were trying to say about…?”, “Can you tell me more about what you meant when you said…”, “I thought I heard you say… Is that true?”, “You mean when I do this it makes you feel this…?”
‘The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place!’ George Bernard Shaw
Now, if you are lucky it might be that the other person, feeling heard by you, reciprocates your generosity immediately and shows an open curiosity about your point of view but don’t count on it! It usually takes a while before the other person catches on, puts down their weapon and becomes willing to hear you out. So, if the other person does not respond in the way that you had hoped for right away you must continue to keep your cool and stick with your interest in the other person’s need or perspective.
This is the hardest part for humans to manage: to keep doing the right thing in spite of how the other person reacts. For now, you will need to quiet the hurt, indignant or frustrated voice in your head that says ‘well I tried and it didn’t work, the other person clearly doesn’t care,’ etc. (Note: This is where a qualified therapist can help get you through this impasse and the many questions that come up around your feelings.)
When it looks like the opportunity has arrived to state your case how you do so – your tone of voice, expression, choice of words – is critical if you truly want to stop the combat or douse the flames of the bonfire. Some guidelines are: Don’t use accusatory or blaming language, this will be inflammatory. Show your true feelings – not the angry overture but the hurt or concerned or sad underneath feelings. BE HONEST about how you feel not about how you think the other should behave or feel. And, in the midst of expressing how you feel if you have an insight into the other’s perspective, be sure to say something. Weaving in the other with a non-aggressive tone, will help bring them closer to seeing your point of view.
Things to consider:
*Take a ‘time out’ if you have to. Leave the room. Ask for a minute to collect your thoughts. If you need to actually leave the conversation to pull your self together be sure to let the person know what you are doing and when you will be back to continue the conversation. If you neglect to state your intension to come back to the conversation in a given amount of time the reactivity in the other person will escalate further (you have probably ‘been there, done that’ yourself!).
** If you can do nothing else, fake it if you need too. It is easier to change behaviours than it is to change feelings or thoughts,
As with everything in life there are exceptions to this process of calming reactivity. If on the rare occasion you allow yourself to react fully and let your unfiltered feelings be known this can sometimes be effective communicating unmistakably how you feel. But again, do this as infrequently as possible.
Most of us ramp up the intensity of our opinion or our feelings when we feel backed into a corner or feel unheard. In contrast, when heard, we tend to be less black and white, more flexible about our point of view.
If you catch yourself saying “This is what I hear you saying but I feel/think/believe…” When you stick a ‘but’ in mid-sentence you are essentially disqualifying everything that came before it. Stifle the urge to throw in your point of view when summarizing what you believe to be the other’s perspective. Again, this is where a skilled therapist can help you make your way through the tricky parts.
‘Be the change you wish to see in the world.’ Mahatma Gandhi
If you would like some assistance in putting this process into practice I would be happy to help you. You can come with your partner, spouse, child, mother-in-law etc. but you don’t need the other person in attendance to make things change for the better.
Please feel free to contact me at email@example.com
Check out my website at http://www.johannaabraham.com
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You know how an idea or realization or a theme comes into your head and then all of a sudden it seems that it shows up everywhere – in conversations, in books, magazines, sign posts??? So it has been with me recently and the idea of accepting and welcoming every single last aspect of myself/oneself: the bits I’m proud of, the bits I’m not so proud of, insecurities, bad habits – the whole shi-bang. Who else is there to be but me? And after all these years, it’s not like the real me has ever gone away.
The other night at a memorable dinner party with a few close girlfriends somebody other than me brought this subject up. Apparently, all four of us were enamoured with and practicing (which is the key part) the concept of accepting every last bit ourselves. An unintended consequence we noticed is that we all felt more free to express ourselves whatever that might mean and that is really fun! I think this may be in part because we were all in our fifties (jees it is weird to say that!) and that kind of clarity about oneself is one of the great upsides of our age/stage. But it is a message that is coming through in the media, pop culture, etc. (I know, I know there are lots of things that counteract it as well in our culture). Being your ‘authentic’ self is pretty much hip at the moment in pop-psychology ie: ‘ vulnerable is the new strong’ – think Brene Brown, Gretchen Rubin and many others. This theme of accepting oneself no matter what your stripe, bent, kink, or type, is one of the messages we as a society are trying to make widespread in our schools – accepting others too no matter what their stripe, bent, kink or type (so long as it doesn’t involve non-consenting participants).
Ellen DeGeneres recently spoke on her passion about living out who you actually are. Russell Brant did a gorgeous mini rant of the subject (see my FB page June 15). The meditation book I am reading is all about this (rather than sitting stiffly and putting up with aches and pains). And just today in my practice, I found myself quoting some Shakespeare to a client: “And this above all, to thine own self be true!” Being true to yourself means not only being honest with yourself and with others it means that you’ve got your own back, don’t s..t on yourself, or beat yourself up for anything. You even don’t beat yourself up for beating yourself up! Try it sometime. It feels really, really good! It’s being your own best friend and that is the number one job of for each of us!
Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good’.
Voltaire wrote this bit of brilliance. I use everyday lately, throughout the day, to remind myself to not get hung up on things I’ve judge to be ‘imperfect’: moments that didn’t go as planned, things I say or do that I am embarrassed about, mistakes I make while playing my guitar and singing. When I get ‘Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good’ up on my negative judgements about myself, the lovely process I was engaged in comes to a grinding halt. Equally bad is when I have let ‘the perfect become the enemy of the good’ when it comes to my kids. When that happens I invariably say or do something I regret to my gorgeous boys. Perfectionism hurts everyone.
You might think of taking D L T P B T E O F T G on a test drive yourself one day. You’ll find that not only are you more productive when this is your operating principal, you’ll feel more at ease with yourself (ah, such a wonderful feeling!) and find that all things have a more magical, alive quality to them.
PS: Perfectionism, procrastionasion and Anxiety are strongly linked 😦
Don’t worry, you haven’t missed anything, I’ll be posting soon!