When is good enough good enough? Most of us don't struggle with that question. It's not that we're sloppy or not conscientious, it just means that we have a realistic perspective on quality. But people who are perfectionistic struggle with this and as a result are likely to be highly anxious and fearful about not being good enough, often suffering from low self-esteem and lack of self-confidence. Perfectionism is a major cause of anxiety.
So let's look briefly at what some of the traits of perfectionism are and their causes as well as the downsides and risks.
* Excessive need for approval from others.
* A tendency to have inflexible and unrealistically high expectations of themselves and others.
* Being overly concerned with small flaws and mistakes in themselves or accomplishments.By focusing on what's wrong, we discount and ignore what's right. Here's a Yogi Berra story: When Yogi was coaching the Yankees he came into the locker room several hours before a game and ran into one of his players who was looking at game films of himself at bat. Yogi asked him what he was doing and the guy replied that he was in a slump and trying to figure out what he was doing wrong and not hitting the ball. Yogi said not to look at those films but look at films of himself when he was hitting the ball. It's the same idea. Focus on what is working.
Perfectionism very often has its origins in early childhood experiences. Its traits may be acquired from parents who are high-achievers or perfectionists themselves. Being frequently criticized or reprimanded by parents can result in never feeling good enough and striving to do everything perfectly, constantly seeking reassurance and approval. You come home with four A's and a B on your report card and catch hell for the B. And some people are just perfectionistic for no specific reason at all.
Not surprisingly, perfectionism is a cause of low self-esteem. It can drive us to chronic stress, exhaustion and burnout. The greater the perfectionism, the greater the anxiety. Perfectionists are typically fearful of attempting challenges or taking risks for fear of failing. Life becomes very limited and threatening. Perfectionists also exhibit high levels of chronic illnesses and have higher suicide rates.
Besides its impact on physical and emotional health, perfectionism destroys creativity, risk- taking and experimentation. Creativity and innovation demand the willingness to occasionally fail and the ability to distinguish between what's important and what's not. Always seeking perfection is also counter-productive as time is wasted trying to write one perfect story (an impossibility) when three excellent ones can be created in the same time spent.
Maybe most importantly is its harmful effect on children. If kids are never allowed to cope with failure they may avoid daunting challenges as adults (more on this in a future post). Learning to overcome obstacles, persevere and search for ways to succeed is essential to succeeding in life.
So overcoming perfectionism requires a shift in thinking and beliefs. Here are a few:
* Let go the idea that your worth is determined by achievements and accomplishments. You are lovable and acceptable as you are, apart from your outer accomplishments (they're only the tip of the iceberg).
* Recognize and challenge perfectionistic thinking in the way you talk to yourself. Watch out for "all-or-nothing", over-generalization and "should/must" thinking. As they say in AA, "Don't should on yourself."
* Don't blow small errors out of proportion. We learn from our mistakes and setbacks. Setbacks are temporary interruptions in progress. You can't have a setback if there hasn't been progress.
* Focus on the positives, what we've accomplished rather than what we haven't.
* Set realistic goals and be willing to adjust them if necessary.
* Cultivate more pleasure and recreation in life. Perfectionism makes us rigid and self-denying of our own needs. Take time every day to do at least one thing you enjoy. The Sioux Indians have a saying: "The first thing people say after their death is 'Why was I so serious?'"
If we put more emphasis and value on the process of doing things rather than just the product or accomplishment, life is far more enjoyable. Remember, life is more to be enjoyed than won.
Next Time: PLAYING WITH THEFEARMONSTER