Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Beyond Perfectionism

What's the difference between high standards and unhealthy perfectionism? We all get messages every day that it's an ideal worth working for. Perfect attendance in school! You'll get an award. Get a bikini body! Men will fall at your feet. Have a living room that gets into Architectural Digest, and you have made it. After years of struggling with perfectionism, life has taught me that achieving it is not only impossible, it actually gets in the way of meeting high standards.

You stay in your comfort zone. When articulating their beliefs, perfectionists frequently say that if they can't be the best at something, they don't see a point in doing it at all. This fear of failure--by which a perfectionist means making a mistake of any sort--keeps them from becoming good at much of anything, which one can only do when one accepts that failure makes the best teacher and that what matters is how you get back up.

Nothing gets done. I work in business development for lawyers, and they have been trained to believe mistakes are lethal. Which, if they are writing a contract or trying a case, is true. But if they overthink a webinar presentation or a client alert, the latest issue of importance gets addressed by the competition. Many of us end up paralyzed on day-to-day decisions for fear we'll make a mistake. Not doing anything is in fact a decision. Ask the IRS.

Perfectionism is the enemy of self-discipline. I haven't been to the gym in three days, I've blown the week, so I won't go today, either. I'm not posting more than twice a week, so I'm just going to quit blogging. Even though we might say we're giving up because we aren't doing something well, it's important to ask ourselves if it's really that, or if it's just easier to quit.

You hate yourself. So, telling yourself you are fat and lazy might get you out of bed and to the gym, but only for a little while. Using this tactic only makes you feel rotten, which makes people around you feel rotten, which makes them relate unfavorably to you. That makes you feel even worse. Which makes you not want to get out of bed and get on that treadmill. It's just not a sustainable strategy.

Perfectionism is seductive because we think it makes us more attractive to other people. But in fact it makes them like us less. I once took a personality quiz that told me, "Even your best friends sometimes would like to see you trip and fall or wear the wrong thing to a party." Really I was just trying to quiet that critical voice in my head, which is much harder on me than any external influence, but I see now I probably had that effect on people.

Then my life felt like it was blowing apart and I had wonderful friends who were there for me when I was a complete mess. And I realized they didn't care how clean I kept my kitchen or whether or not I remembered to wear lipstick. They told me I had resilience and sense of humor. When my critical voice gets loud now, I call a friend and ask them how they are doing. Because the best way out of perfectionism is to remember it's not all about me.

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