From the flawed system of meritocracy to the $200 jeans your parents didn’t buy you, much of what’s telegraphed during childhood is the idea that performance equals acceptance. Flubbing a test costs you a grade; wearing knockoff jeans drops your social standing. After failing one too many times, a budding perfectionist might stop exerting effort. Trying, it seems, does little more than reveal your inadequacies, a revelation you imagine is publicly broadcast. Perhaps you’ll try again later, but for now you decide you’ll wait, and wait some more, and then put it off just a little longer. Before you know it, you’re a certified procrastinator.
When you don’t try because you fear being exposed for not measuring up, you surrender to an idea about yourself you imagine other people have, and you give in to a premise so mired in subjectivity, you can’t step outside of it. The fear isn’t that you won’t reach the unattainable standards other people have for you—that you are denying them the person they hoped you’d be—but that they’ll see what sort of person you really are: one with a pile of human flaws.
Conversely, when you’re consistently at the top of your game, at the pinnacle of the social pyramid, you’ve accepted, and count as reasonable, that your enviable status is an accurate appraisal of your worth by external sources, and you strive to replicate each achievement before your price drops.
These are just some of the myriad messages we receive in our youth. More often than not, we internalize these messages, dragging our childhood beliefs behind us into adulthood, forcing the world at large to assimilate and conform to old warped templates. Trying to achieve the unattainable through relentless pursuit, or fearing that your best won’t be good enough so why even try, is a trap door disguised as a belief, known as perfectionism.
We all know there is no such thing as being perfect, yet despite our continuous procrastination, or incessant striving, the motivation behind both behaviors is the same: to be right. Somewhere along the way, this motivation morphs into purpose, and this purpose, like the sun bleaching a patch on the carpet, creates an asymmetry that cannot be balanced unless someone flips the carpet around. While the perfectionist’s modus operandi is often tied to the end result, we get trapped in the pursuit and our lives become stuck in our efforts. Much of this effort is tangled up in old fears, and sooner or later we see evidence of how those old fears hold us back. We notice the output from others, how much they’ve produced, how many credits they’ve accrued, while we haven’t moved at all and are in the same place we were five years ago. How do we push past this perfectionism?
It’s a matter of measuring our self-worth. When our metrics for evaluating our merits are set outside ourselves (as calculable forms of achievement), we are actually assessing external values rather than internal worth. Internal worth is based on a different kind of value-system. The first question to ask yourself is this: What are your values? What kind of friend do you want to be to others? What sort of partner, sibling or parent are you? Do you ask questions or just give answers? Make a list. Write it down. Are you empathic? Supportive? Patient? Are these personal beliefs aligned with your perfectionism? Probably not, because perfectionism isn’t really a core value; it’s an unattainable ideal that has been imposed upon you, reinforced, and now runs your life. But its origin is (most likely) not inside you. In other words, you may feel like you’re a perfectionist, but could you have been a four-day-old perfectionist? A ten-month-old perfectionist? Other people had to have taught you the precept.
People who never make mistakes don’t exist. But people who don’t share the mistakes they’ve made for fear of looking like failures do, and they are actually doing themselves and others a great disservice. It takes immense courage to admit you don’t know something, that you fear doing something, that you’ve done something wrong, because in that admission you are moving through one thing to reach another. When you are too afraid to admit what is as human about you as everyone else, you become stunted, never gaining momentum, never processing your fear. In areas of productivity, this allows other people to move ahead of you, and the cycle of self-loathing is perpetuated as the evidence of other peoples’ output speeds past you on the assembly line of life.
If you suffer from perfectionism, you suffer from a lack of perspective. Below are 11 ideas about how to get some perspective and overcome a fear that’s not worth your time.
1. Learn the value of making mistakes
There’s a difference between feeling disappointed in yourself for making a mistake and being so afraid to make a mistake you don’t attempt to achieve your goals. One is a process and advances change while the other just prevents progress.
2. Those voices in your head? They aren’t yours.
They’re borrowed and you need to give them back. Just as someone taught you how to speak, someone taught you how to be critical of yourself. What you did was adopt the voice as your own. But if you can trace at least one of these voices all the way back to its origin, you might just be able to set it free.
3. Learn to live with discomfort
Much of perfectionism has to do with dodging discomfort. When we get caught up in our own criticism, it’s at the expense of tackling some real issues. Instead of recycling avoidance techniques, we need to train ourselves to sit with our discomfort and learn the difference between what we fear and what we feel. When you allow yourself to sink into the icky instances of feeling inadequate, jealous, envious, angry or any other undesirable emotion, you become familiar with the terrain, and just like any trail, when you’ve completed it once, the time it takes to complete it a second time seems to shorten. You discover the difference between what you fear that you will feel and what you actually feel.
4. Feelings are not facts, but facts are Republicans
Organized religions are social structures relying on set principals to explain the origins of existence. At the center of many religions is a superhuman deity to whom all power, morality and importance have been ascribed. People with more metaphysical leanings might believe in something not as concrete, something less to do with “God” and more to do with “energy.” Let’s call those who believe in “energy,” spiritual, and those who believe in a superhuman omnipotent God, Republicans. Imagine your feelings are spiritual and your facts are Republicans. Just because you believe something related to religion doesn’t make you a Republican. Which is to say that your feelings may feel real, but that doesn’t mean they’re the truth. The truth isn’t that you are an idiot, but that you feel like an idiot.
5. The ideal doesn’t exist
Just as the ideal person doesn’t exist, neither does doing something “perfectly.” Yes, we read all the time in critical reviews of books and movies that something “wasn’t perfect” or “had flaws,” which suggests to audiences and makers of art that one should not only reach for a state of flawlessness but that such a state can be achieved. This is lazy criticism. To say something is “flawed” or “not perfect” is essentially to say, This was not what I wanted it to be, and while that’s a fair thing to pout about, it’s not a criticism of a piece, it’s a criticism the reviewer doesn’t realize she has of herself. After all, to claim something is perfect is to claim everyone on earth has your exact taste. Pretty big claims for a critic. One person’s flaw is another person’s talent.
6. Stop anticipating
Quit expecting the outcome and enjoy the discovery. When you drive to the country to look at fall leaves, are you so focused on what you’ll find when you arrive that you ignore the scenery on the way there? While playing with your dog, do you only focus on how sad you’ll be when she’s dead? When talking to your child, do you spend time wondering what he’ll look like when he’s older at the expense of seeing who he is now? This is another way of saying be present, or appreciate what you have, or better yet, want what you have.
7. What are your standards for other people?
Are they reasonable? Are they different from the standards you have for yourself? What happens when someone doesn’t meet your standards? Do you feel they’re less valuable now?
8. Fast forward
You’re at the end of your life. Project yourself back to this moment, and ask yourself whether in the grand scheme, getting this specific thing done matters. Did you waste valuable time you could have used in a more productive way? It’s likely you’ll feel that whatever pressing thing you need to get done right now isn’t so important, and the fear you may feel about not getting it done isn’t worth succumbing to. Try looking at your problems through the eyes of your 85-year-old self.
9. Subject yourself to your fears
Expose yourself to your fear a little bit at a time. When you live through the fear, step by step, and discover that you didn’t lose your life, your friends, or your value in the eyes of other people, you’ll become more familiar with realistic expectations. You’ll also realize that anxiety is a net many people are trapped in, and they’re much more forgiving than your own perfectionist self.
10. Know thy perfectionism
Perfectionism is a rejection of rejection—a preemptive strike against being seen as anything other than how you want to be seen. It’s an exhausting way to live, considering no one ever truly knows how they’re seen. Perfectionism involves a lot of skirting, dodging, hiding, avoiding and running from things—even as the perfectionist does a lot and seems very busy. Ultimately, the perfectionist is running from being anything less than ideal. Kind of like God. We cannot control our environment. Only central air-conditioning can do that. And not always that well.
11. Reward yourself…
…for the mistakes you feel you’ve made. They’re important. They’re vital to your development and they make you part of the human race. And if you feel you don’t deserve the reward you’re giving yourself—send it to me. I like free stuff.
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