Ever since the first meeting with my coach when he told me he thought I suffered from perfectionism, a whole dimension of me has opened up. Why do I react the I react? Why do I think the way that I think? Why do I struggle with things that most people find a non-issue. I know I’m not your typical girl. I would say I’m restless. Like a frantic fly trying to get out of a window and no matter what I try I keep running into it. I know there is an open door somewhere, but where?
So now that I know about perfectionism a bit more, I’m surprised to see how it shows up. The nuances, the variety, the situations. It’s all over the place, but it is subtle…
For those new to perfectionism, I’ll give you a quick rundown. It isn’t so much about being perfect as it is about all or nothing thinking. I want to be “there” and since I’m not “there,” here is all wrong. I can’t mess up, because if I mess up once, it’s all over. I have a stack of 10 books to read and I don’t know which to start because I can only start one and it has to be the “right” one. I don’t know what to do next because I don’t want to make a mistake and choose the wrong thing (because there is only one right next step.)
When you are a perfectionist, you polarize your world. There is no middle ground. And if you find yourself in a situation where you are in the middle, you shut it down straight away by jumping to one side or the other. Take a conversation for example. You get to a moment of awkward silence and you aren’t sure if the conversation is over or not so you keep talking or you rush and say goodbye. Or if you are in a new relationship and you aren’t sure if the relationship is taking off or not. You try to force it to be on one side or the other. Or you buy a beautiful journal and you start writing and you don’t like what you write, so you get a new journal (I have so many stinking journals…) In or out, left or right, black or white, all in or nothing at all.
Today I was sitting on the tale gate of Patrick’s truck after we let the dogs run amuck at the river. I had a crisis of purpose these past two weeks for reasons I’ll write about later… And Patrick said to me, you want to help people, but for you it has to be in this bigger than life, Oprah magnitude way or you get demotivated. Yep. He nailed it. My funk was caused by more perfectionism thinking. All or nothing.
I am still working through this and it will take a while, but here is what I have learned about being a perfectionist and managing myself.
- Perfectionism is a way of managing uncertainty, which causes fear. If you can control a situation, or have a false sense of control, you can stay out of the messy undefined middle, then you will be safe. With control, you won’t die. This strategy kinda makes sense on some baby logic level, but the truth is you are trying really hard to avoid reality. And the reality is, the world is uncertain and you need to accept it. Live in the gray, the middle, the I don’t know what’s going to happen, less than Oprah magnitude, and get comfortable there…
- Perfectionists lack trust. Why trust when you can just dictate and control? Certainty above all else! But again, there is no certainty. So part of living in the gray is to trust you will be alright. Trust that everything is as it should be. Trust that your closest friends are there for you. Trust that you will figure it out. Trust that you can take care of you. Trust that the universe is good.
- Find your authenticity. It is just a guess but I am wondering if most perfectionists are externally motivated. You can’t control external stuff. This is a recipe for disaster with a perfectionist because they will try to be the CEO/COO of the universe. If you can find what it is that floats your boat for you and just you, then you have something to hold on to. I recently discovered a question that would helps me remember my authenticity. In a short time, it has made a world of difference.
- Focus on helping others and meeting them where they are at. No need to change anyone. Just bring your best self to a situation where you can be of service. Get outside of your head where you like to ruminate and move that energy into doing good. Then let that be enough. As Patrick said to me, a little good goes a long way. Stop needing to be as impactful as Oprah before you get started… just get started.
I’m coming to see that perfectionism isn’t a cute box created by psychologists to make it easy to label people. It is a real thing. And I truly struggle with it. But at the end of the day, perfectionism is just a bunch of thinking habits that can be modified with some practice. It’s whack a mole because perfectionism rears its head in so many different ways, but the more practice you have to over come it…
Embrace the gray, choose to trust, and let what you authentically decide to do, be enough.