Welcome back to another episode of the Women in Medicine Badass Radioshow with me, Dr. Sharon Grossman and today we are going to talk about perfectionism. In particular, we’re going to talk about how to avoid the trap of perfectionism.
Now I’d like to start first by talking about what perfectionism is. As I like to do I typically break things down into thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. And so when you think about perfectionism, it is really a behavior — something we do when we’re trying to have order and organization in our lives. But perfectionism is kind of like we’ve taken it a little bit too far. And when we have a behavior, we also want to look at what is the emotion that is fueling that behavior and also what is the result of that behavior because those are the layers before and after what we’re seeing. So what we see is typically what comes after the perfectionism and that’s usually irritability, tension, and frustration, things of that nature. But what fuels the perfectionism in the first place tends to be fear. And so I’m going to share with you a little bit about what the underlying mechanism is for perfectionism — whether it’s that emotion or something that comes even before that and we’re going to talk about how you can really turn this on its head if you understand some of the mechanisms that are driving it. And we’re also going to talk about what you can do to cultivate a different mindset around your work and your tasks.
As I just mentioned, behaviors stem from emotions and so in the case of perfectionism we’re looking at a specific fear and it is the fear of not having your work be good enough and so that behavior of perfectionism is, in a sense, an overcompensation. And if you think about why we have these kinds of fears it’s usually because we have a certain thought process or a belief and more often than not it’s that we believe that we are not good enough and whenever we feel that then everything we do would therefore not be good enough because it’s a product of us. This make sense.
Our beliefs then contribute to our thinking process and so if we are in that mindset of having to do everything perfectly, here’s what happens in the way that we think about things that are happening right now. Perfectionists tend to have black and white way of thinking about things in the world. They are either right or wrong they are black and white they are perfect or don’t even bother doing them. And because they’re so rigid in their thinking it creates some judgment not just about their own work but about other people and if they have those high expectations for themselves too often they also have it of other people. Now other people are around that may not be perfectionists and so they don’t have those same expectations of themselves. And so when a perfectionist is around people who aren’t living up to their expectations, they typically feel really frustrated with other people and they feel like they need to compensate for other people’s laziness or their lack of excellence.
In addition to black and white thinking there are two other really important thinking traps that you need to be aware of that are related to perfectionism. As I said just a minute ago, one of them is being judgmental. So it might sound something like “I need to be more organized” which sounds kind of benign really but in essence what you’re saying when you say things like “I need to” is that you’re really not more organized and so you’re kind of judging yourself for not meeting your standard. And thirdly the other thinking trap is what we call our “shoulds and musts” and that’s where you tell yourself how things should be different or other people should be different. This is how things should be done. And one of the things that I like to teach is that anytime we have the word should in a statement, it can only lead to either frustration — usually when it has to do with other people, or disappointment — when it has to do with ourselves. And so notice how these high standards are really getting you trapped in all of these negative emotions and it’s not serving you.
When we approach life from this place of “everything needs to be my way, everything needs to be perfect” it creates this rigidity, especially when we have to deal with change or things that are outside of our control. And so you might notice if you are a perfectionist that you often struggle with a lot of anxiety, especially when you’re around other people or in circumstances where you don’t have control. You might also have a lot of fear of making mistakes because in your mind you equate perfection with the avoidance of those mistakes and then that’s your way of playing it safe in the world. And if you make a mistake you might catastrophize in your mind what it might mean. You might tell yourself “If I make one mistake then I’m going to lose my job” you know — things of that nature which are really kind of extreme if you take a moment to think about then.
There’s also a huge fear of being judged by other people and I think one thing to consider here is that too often we are projecting our own stuff onto other people.Sso if you are the kind of person who tends to judge others for not being perfect, then it makes sense that you would expect them to be judging you as well. And so notice that. They may not be judging you in actuality but your expectation is that the would be simply because you’re the one judging them and judging yourself.
Socially when we are perfectionists and we have this kind of tendency and expectation, then we become less approachable. And this isn’t just in terms of how we show up for our work but it’s in terms of how we show up — let’s say in talking about ourselves, in revealing things about ourselves, and being vulnerable.
So I just talked to one of my clients about this because she tends to be very afraid of people’s criticisms and so she doesn’t open herself up. She tends to isolate a lot and she has this idea that if she’s vulnerable with other people, it is a sign of weakness and it’s not a good thing. So she avoids it. And interesting, when she thinks about other people being vulnerable, she finds that she is really attracted to them. There’s something about that that is super attractive. And so one of the things we talked about is that when you show up as the person who’s got it all figured out, then you are less approachable to other people. And even though we often mistakenly think of being vulnerable as a sign of weakness, typically what we find is that we actually are more attractive to other people in the same way that we find others who are being vulnerable attractive to us.
Ultimately the antithesis to perfectionism, as far as I’m concerned, is self-compassion. If you think about what this terminology actually means, it’s about your relationship with yourself. So when you are a perfectionist, we said you tend to judge yourself, and so you have a lot of very self-critical self-talk. Somebody who is compassionate is going to be kind, is not going to be so rigid, is going to allow for mistakes, is going to allow for imperfection, and is going to be accepting of flaws. And I think that sometimes we become afraid of this because we worry that if we let ourselves off the hook for not being perfect then we’ll become lazy. We will allow ourselves to become sloppy. And I think, again, this is an example of that black and white thinking where it’s either going to be absolutely perfect and we got to be so hard on ourselves or we are such slackers and we’re doing everything kind of half-ass. So again, I want you to revisit this idea that it doesn’t have to be extreme and that there is that happy medium and your job is to find that happy medium because not only will you feel better, you won’t have as much anxiety and you’ll spend a lot less time on the tasks that you’re working on, but you’ll also be more socially approachable. You’ll feel like you can connect to other people, that you can just be yourself and not have to pretend to be all put together.
I want you to consider where in your life you can breathe a little bit more. You can have more flexibility. You can be more compassionate with yourself and with others in terms of your expectations and your self-talk.
Now I know that a lot of us were raised with perfectionistic parents or parents that were very high demanding or that maybe we grew up in a family where there was a lot of chaos and we developed perfectionism as a compensation, as a way of feeling like we have some control over our lives. I get that, but it’s time for you to take a look at your life and ask yourself, “Is this working for me?” If the answer to that is “no” then I invite you to do some work on yourself. And a great place to start is by tuning in to your self-talk.
If you would like some support in doing this, I invite you to go to my website DrSharonGrossman.com and look at some of the free resources I have there they can help you have a jump start to change the relationship that you have with yourself. Until next time, have a wonderful, wonderful week ahead. Take care.