Overcoming Perfectionism

Jun 08, 2015

In the last post, we discussed the nature of perfectionism and the problems associated with it. Specifically, we reviewed how perfectionism is problematic and how perfectionism leads to poor coping with chronic pain. In this post, let’s review some basic ways to begin to overcome perfectionism.

Accepting the problematic nature of perfectionism

The most basic step to overcome perfectionism is to recognize and accept that perfectionism is a problem. Despite the kudos that perfectionists might receive for the excellent quality of work that they do, perfectionism comes at a price. The perfectionist, as we saw in the previous post, lives with low-level emotional distress:

  • Nervousness (i.e., can’t sit still)
  • A persistent lack of satisfaction (i.e., things are never quite good enough)
  • Time pressure (i.e., there’s always more to do)
  • A persistent sense of self-criticism (i.e., the perfectionist rarely feels good enough)

Technically, what we are talking about is anxiety and the compulsive need to always do something just a little bit better. The compulsive behavior quiets the anxiety, but only temporarily. It lasts only until you see something else that needs to be done, which usually occurs not long after completing the previous task.

Moreover, none of these characteristics make for effective coping with chronic pain. In fact, they lend themselves to poor coping:

  • Failure to pace one’s activities
  • All-or-nothing approaches to life activities, which lead to persistent exacerbations of pain
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Problems in relationships

So, the first step in the process of overcoming perfectionism is to recognize that it is a problem.

This recognition and acceptance is difficult for some perfectionists. The degree of difficulty depends on the degree to which the perfectionist has skill sets that psychologists refer to as insightfulness and ego strength. These skill sets are important to understand because they have to be developed in order to overcome perfectionism (or most any other unwanted personality trait).

The prerequisite skill sets for learning and self-growth

The capacity for insight involves the ability to reflect on one’s own thoughts, feelings, intentions, or actions. People with insight can step outside of themselves and observe themselves. In so doing, they consider how they have been thinking, feeling, and behaving. This skill set is also sometimes called an ‘observing ego’ or an ‘observational self.’ Whatever we call it, it’s the ability to take yourself as your own object of observation, reflecting on your inner workings and outward behaviors.

The skill set of insightfulness allows you to self-correct and learn from feedback. Suppose someone doesn’t see the error of his ways. Others might point it out, but the person doesn’t see it and so doesn’t take heed. Instead, she continues to think that what she thinks or feels or does is right or accurate or warranted (whatever the case may be). What would allow her to see the error of her ways? It usually doesn’t help to get mad and yell at her, right? What helps in such situations is to help her to be able to step outside of herself and reflect on her thoughts, feeling or actions. We might help her to see that her perspective is but one of many perspectives. Moreover, we would help her to start weighing her perspective against other perspectives, coming to reflect on which ones are more true or accurate or warranted.

In so doing, she comes to the insight that what she thought wasn’t true or what she did wasn’t warranted. In short, she comes to the realization that she was making a mistake, but didn’t know it at the time, but now she does. In other words, she developed insight.

From here, we can see that the skill set of insightfulness goes hand in hand with another skill that we discussed in the previous post: ego strength. If you recall, ego strength is the ability to accept and learn from the feedback of others. To tolerate feedback from others, you have to be able to see that your thoughts and feelings are but one perspective among many and to reflect on how the perspectives of others may have more or less merit than your own. You subsequently come to see that how you had been thinking or feeling may or may not have been right in some way and as a result you learn and grow.

No one learns in a vacuum. Most of the time, in order to learn, we need others to point it out to us, to teach us, to show us. We thus need to be open to the feedback that others can provide.

So, in short, what we have been talking about are the pre-requisite skills for learning and self-growth. They are the following two abilities:

  • To be insightful
  • To accept feedback from others

They allow us to understand that not everything we think or feel is right (i.e., insightfulness) and be open to viewpoints that might differ from our own (i.e., ego strength).

The spectrum of skills

Like any other skills in life, the skill sets of insightfulness and ego strength vary across people. We can see them as occurring along a spectrum from those who aren’t very good at them to those who are really good at them.

The good news is that these skills can be learned, just as any other set of skills can be learned. Sometimes, it takes time and sensitivity, but they can be learned. Typically, people learn such skills in psychotherapy because it allows for learning in a safe and trusting environment in which sensitive issues can be discussed without criticism or judgment.

So, no matter how good you currently are at these skill sets, you can always learn to do them better.

Relationship of insightfulness and ego strength to perfectionism

The skill sets of insightfulness and ego strength lend themselves to personal growth across all facets of life, including learning to overcome perfectionism. They allow the perfectionist to step outside himself and reflect on whether his drive to do better or to do more is really necessary. Without this capacity to self-reflect, the perfectionist simply takes his perfectionistic drive as obviously warranted and persistently engages in excessive activities, attempting to attain some unattainable, perfectionistic standard. With self-reflectiveness and openness to feedback from others, the perfectionist can catch himself in such thoughts and behaviors, consider whether they are warranted, and make an intentional decision to do something different.

Let’s take an example. Suppose a perfectionist with chronic pain wakes up one day with relatively little pain. He’s pleased by the good fortune of a good pain day and thinks, “Oh good, I’m going to get this filthy house clean (or my taxes done or clean the garage).” Prior to this day, he had been beating himself up for having allowed the house to get so messy, even though others in the family might think that the state of the house is pretty clean, or at least clean enough. Nonetheless, as a result of his relatively low level of pain today, our perfectionist comes to clean the entire house and makes it look perfect. In so doing, he relieves himself of the low level of guilt he had been carrying around for the previously perceived lack of cleanliness of his house. For these positive outcomes, he pays the price of exacerbating his pain and being laid up for the next few days.

Notice in our example that our friend never stops to consider whether his perceptions of the house as ‘filthy’ are accurate. He doesn’t reflect on whether making an already fairly clean house into a perfectly clean house is truly warranted. So too, he fails to consider the predictable consequences of his all-or-nothing approach to house cleaning – i.e., cleaning the entire house in one day.

I once worked with an individual who had never considered the fact that most people don’t vacuum their carpets every day. When he finally came to believe me, the conclusion he came to was that most people must be slobs. In the course of the discussion, it didn’t ever occur to him that he was the outlier.

How do you intervene in the face of such perfectionism? Unfortunately, what often happens is that family and friends become frustrated and throw up their hands. Worse yet, some might even get angry and chastise our friend for doing too much and exacerbating his pain. Such reactions only serve to isolate the perfectionist as we saw in the previous post.

What happens, though, if we approached our friend with sensitivity to help him entertain the idea that his house is already clean enough. Remember, it was the perception of others in his family and, because we know our friend well, we know that his perceptions of what is clean or not are usually the outlier and that his family’s perceptions tend to be more accurate. So, in other words, what if we help him to see that his perfectionistic standards color his perceptions. In so doing, he comes to see that there are other legitimate ways to see things. From here, he might progress to the point of doing it on his own: that he can begin to weigh different perspectives against each other and subsequently come to see that he tends to be an outlier in how he sees the world. Still later, he might come to see that the standards of the majority are most often right – that good can truly be good enough. At this point in the process of overcoming perfectionism, he’s ready to practice this insight over and over again.

Practice

Learning any skill requires practice. Typically, you don’t try something once and then have it down pat for the rest of your life. No, to learn something and become proficient at it, you have to practice. So too it is with catching yourself in your perfectionistic tendencies and changing them.

You use the skill sets of insightfulness and ego strength to catch yourself. You literally practice being self-reflective and being open to feedback from others.

It’s actually a very difficult thing to do. Our thoughts, feelings, decisions, and subsequent behaviors fly by almost instantaneously without a moment’s notice. It’s this lack of noticing that makes everything that happens between the ears seem to fly by. We are, of course, the pilots of our own planes, but more often than not we are on autopilot. As such, we simply and automatically react to the events of life as they happen without ever making any intentional decisions to react in the ways we do. That is to say, we typically don’t pay attention to our thoughts and feelings and make an intentional choice as to how to respond to the events of our daily life. However, if we set out to practice remaining aware of our thoughts and feelings and reactions, we can subsequently become more intentional about our actions. It is here where you can begin to break the habits of acting out perfectionistic tendencies. However, this degree of self-awareness and intentionality is difficult for at least two reasons:

  • It’s difficult to remember to pay attention and maintain a degree of self-observation.
  • It’s difficult to gain intentional control over compulsive behaviors, such as acting on perfectionistic needs to do more or do something better.

Oftentimes, when setting out to make personal changes, it’s easy to forget to continue making the change almost as soon as you start. It might be a day or two or even a week before you realize that you haven’t been doing it and in fact had forgotten all about it.

There are a number of ways that you might try to remember to practice your self-awareness. You might, for instance, take some sticky notes and write the phrase ‘self-observation’ on them and then place them strategically around the house. You’ll run into them as you go about your daily life and they can serve as a reminder. You might also place a smooth stone in your front pocket and every time you accidentally touch it, it will serve to remind you to check in with yourself about what it is you are thinking, feeling and doing. If you are religious and have a prayer routine, you could add your intentions to practice self-awareness to your list of prayers. Maybe also you ask some trusted loved ones to help remind you to check in with yourself, especially if they see you engaging in perfectionistic thinking or behavior. When asking others for such help, it’s usually best to agree on some non-critical phrase that they will use when reminding you, such as, “I’m thinking it might be a good time to check in with yourself.” In any of these ways, you get reminders to practice self-observation.

Once you are practicing this kind of self-observation, you might notice that you can sometimes be aware of your perfectionistic tendencies, but be unable to stop yourself from acting on them. Old habits die hard, as the saying goes. This experience is a normal stage in the process of change. Try not to be critical with yourself. Keep trying to catch yourself in the moment and make an intentional decision as to what you are doing. You will get better at it with practice.

Remember that in the course of practicing any new skill there is a stage in which it is uncomfortable. When you first learn to play a musical instrument or a sport, there’s a time in which you aren’t very good at it and it’s sort of an unpleasant experience. Your jobs at that point are to simply tolerate this discomfort and continue to practice. With time and patience, you will get better and it is will become easier and more pleasant.

It helps to foster a sense of curiosity and humor with yourself. It oftentimes seems that those who make personal changes easiest are those who become pleased or excited when making connections between some insight they had and their own behavior. When catching themselves in some behavior that they want to change, they exclaim, “Oh there I go again!” but do so with a light-hearted curiosity or even some humor. In the right spirit, insightfulness can oftentimes be funny. It can also foster a certain sense of appreciation or fascination for how complicated we are as humans.

Conclusion

In summary, what you are practicing is the following:

  • Remaining observant of your thoughts, feelings, intentions (or lack thereof) and behaviors
  • Come to recognize that your perfectionism clouds your perceptions and that your perceptions can tend to be outliers when compared with those of others (i.e., you might tend to see something as not good enough when in fact most others would see that it is good enough)
  • Make an intentional decision to do something different than your usual attempts to make something better when it's already good enough (i.e., you practice being satisfied)

The ultimate goal is to become satisfied when things are good enough. When you can do that, you’ll have a handle on your perfectionism.

Date of last modification: June 8, 2015

Author: Murray J. McAllister, PsyD 

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