Perfect vs Productive: You Can’t Have Both Ways if You Want to Stay Sane

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.

IMG_3005 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?)


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2 Responses to Perfect vs Productive: You Can’t Have Both Ways if You Want to Stay Sane

  1. Pingback: Perfect vs Productive: You Can’t Have Both Ways if You Want to Stay Sane | Johanna Abraham MSW, RSW

  2. Vanessa says:

    beautifully written with a caring heart Johanna – good reminders of mindful practice – thank you.

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