“I have done my best. That is all the philosophy of living one needs.” ~Lin-yutang
Perfectionism—the word brings to mind images of order and organization, of effectiveness and efficiency. This is what society expects from a “perfectionist,” and this is what is projected as desirable and attainable. There is an aspirational value to being a “perfectionist.”
Many people believe that perfectionistic tendencies motivate people to do their best and achieve their goals.
However, I can vouch for the fact that it actually feels like being caught in a trap. There is a feeling of suffocation and dread at not being able to escape. The joy of living is sucked out leaving one feeling inadequate and incompetent all the time.
I don’t remember how or when I fell into the trap. All I know is that I have suffered the pain of trying to be the perfect daughter, the perfect student, the perfect sister, the perfect friend, so on and so forth.
And I remember the exact moment when I realized I was trapped.
It was when I was fifteen and in the tenth grade. In India, the tenth grade examinations are considered extremely important. These are the examinations that would decide whether or not I got into a college of my choice.
I always did well academically, and needless to say there were expectations from those around me to perform well in these exams. I had to live up to these expectations—or so I thought.
That thought was enough to drive me into what was unarguably the darkest period of my life. As a teenager I was already dealing with issues of body image, being bullied, and trying to make friends. Added to this mix, my desire to excel academically pushed me over the edge.
I cried myself to sleep. I had suicidal thoughts. I wanted to run away from home.
I rebelled against my parents. I magnified even the smallest of my mistakes and obsessed over imagined flaws in my personality. I simply wasn’t good enough.
I was constantly depressed and wouldn’t tell anyone why. This worried my parents, especially my mother. She took me to see a guru she trusted in the hope that maybe he could help me.
The guru, a kind and wise man, just asked me one question.
He said, “I don’t know what troubles you have and you need not tell me, but let me tell you that at your age life is relatively simple. Life is going to get more complicated and the roles you will have to play more demanding. If this is how you are now, how will you handle what is to come?”
That question opened the floodgates. I cried till I could cry no more—not through sadness, but because I had the realization that I had a problem and that only I could take charge and solve it.
I realized that I couldn’t go on beating myself up. It wouldn’t help me live my life fully and happily. I had to make a change and do it right away.
I started by voicing my concerns to my mother, who assured me that neither she nor my father would stop loving me if I didn’t do well in my exams. They loved me for who I am and not for what I did.
That in turn led to an exploration of who I was.
The more I got to know myself, my unique skills and talents, the more I could appreciate myself for who I was rather than looking outward for self-validation. I broke away from the expectations others had for me. I made my own rules.
Perfectionism is largely a function of living up to expectations, real or imagined. The key to overcoming it is to change those expectations.
To create my own realistic and achievable expectations—ones that allow me to experience the joy of achievement without the feelings of anxiety and inadequacy—I drew from my cultural background and knowledge of cognitive-behavioral therapies.
The methods that I use to overcome my perfectionistic tendencies are as below:
Focus on the action, not the results.
One thing that I have learned from experience is that focusing on results leads to needless anxiety and almost certainly guarantees failure. Focusing on the action helps us to give our best to it in a calm and peaceful manner.
In many ways this is similar to the concept of mindfulness. The key is to stay in the here and now and be attentive to the present moment. When we aren’t worrying about the future outcomes or past failures, we are automatically freed to give our best to the present task!
Change your language.
It was one of my college professors who pointed out to me that my language with regards to my mistakes was rather strong. I often used the word “failure” to describe even the smallest mistake.
The moment this was pointed out to me I made an attempt to change my language. Now I refer to my mistakes as “learning opportunities.” This reframing of the words in turn reframed the way I felt and behaved when I made an error. I am now more accepting of them.
I still feel bad, but not beat up. I am able to learn something from my mistakes and make sure that they do not recur. In this sense being more accepting of mistakes has increased my effectiveness.
This is just one example of how I’ve changed my language. Overall, I try to replace every negative word with a positive alternative.
As it is said, what you focus on expands. So when I focus on describing myself and my actions positively, it feeds back automatically into whatever I’m doing, bringing out the best in me in a non-stressful manner.
Enlist social support.
Escaping the perfectionism trap isn’t easy. I would often find myself obsessing over small details, worrying about how things will turn out, whether my work will be appreciated, and so on. Even now, after years of practice, I sometimes find myself slipping.
I don’t even realize when I am like this, which makes it impossible for me to take the necessary steps. Self-awareness is an essential precursor to self-control. To ensure that I know when I’m slipping, I have enlisted the support of trusted family members, friends, and co-workers.
These people who know me well let me know when they think I’m having difficulty letting go or when I seem to be thinking self-deprecatingly. Through external dialogue with them, I am able to refocus my internal dialogue.
There will always be expectations that others have from us. The difference between those caught in the trap of perfectionism and those who are not is the extent to which these expectations are internalized and prioritized.
The latter realize that even though others have expectations of us, hardly anyone expects perfection. Most often, others are willing to forgive us when we make a mistake. We just need to learn to be kind and forgiving to ourselves.
It is never too late to escape the perfectionism trap. Let us reclaim the joy of living while still giving our best to the world!
Photo by lupzdut