There’s a growing trend of perfectionism amongst people as they are finding their place in this world. Here’s how to recognize it, and mold it into something that works for you.
Do you feel like you have perfectionist tendencies? The most important note to remember about perfectionism is that it’s usually a reactive – not proactive – behavior. This tidbit is especially important if you’re among the increasing number of people who struggle with perfectionism. Understanding the difference between reactive and proactive behavior is a crucial factor in turning perfectionism into your advantage.
So what exactly are proactive and reactive behaviors?
A proactive behavior is one that creates something new or causes something to happen. A reactive behavior is a response to something that has already occurred. For example, working hard on a project that excites and inspires you is a proactive behavior. The project is moving forward because of the initiative you decided to take. In an example of a reactive behavior, you might only work hard on that project because the assignment fills you with worry. You may fear that you won’t succeed, and therefore need to alleviate your anxiety by working as hard as you can. The same behavior – working on a project – can have two very different motivations.
Within the therapeutic community, perfectionism is typically framed as a negative. Perfectionism can tear people apart, and it can be brutal.
But it isn’t always.
Perfectionism is also a useful tool when wielded wisely. People like Steve Jobs and Martha Stewart are famous for it. Martha Stewart once described herself as a “maniacal perfectionist” and credited it with her success. What separates people like Martha Stewart from the rest of us? How did she ride her perfectionism to success and fortune when we struggle with nagging self-criticism?
Success in perfectionism depends on whether you make it a proactive behavior. Perfectionism is damaging when it is a reaction to distress. Following all of your “I’m not good enough” thoughts down a rabbit hole of obsessive worrying will leave you feeling like complete crap. If you’re able to apply your determined eye for detail to the valued activities that fill you with satisfaction, you’re suddenly in Martha Stewart territory. Here are 4 ways to handle perfectionism in a more constructive way.
1. Apply it to what you love.
Let go of needing to be perfect at every task you complete. You absolutely do not need to be the best cook in your family or the most flexible girl in pilates. This is doubly true if you don’t even like those activities. Most of us only have 1-3 activities of high importance in our lives. Whatever it is that you choose to do, allow it to motivate you to grow. Don’t waste your time perfecting skills you don’t enjoy, and choose what you’re passionate about.
2. Ignore the Self-Criticism
It’s difficult to experience perfectionism without ever hearing self-criticism, so it’s important to recognize when your criticism detracts from your enjoyment of a beloved activity. Countering perfectionistic self-criticism is about focusing on the present moment. Use your favorite mindfulness skills to ground you when hearing critical thoughts. And remind yourself why you care so much about this activity to begin with. Describe how it makes you feel, and what you love about it. It’s a lot harder to ruminate on self-criticism when you’re actively describing what you love.
3. Ask for Help
One of the ways perfectionism gets us into trouble is when we feel too ashamed to admit when we aren’t hitting the bar we set for ourselves. Listening to your shame is the fastest route to misery. Take a breath, remind yourself that no one can accomplish anything alone, and ask for help. Whether that’s asking your boss for an extension or getting your yoga teacher to demonstrate a modification, promptly asking for help when needed can keep shame spirals at bay and you feeling good!
4. Take Your Expectations Down a Notch
Speaking of setting too high of a bar, perfectionists are notorious for having unrealistic expectations for themselves. There are two ways to approach setting a high bar:
- Set it and expect yourself to meet it at all costs.
- Set it as a dream goal you’ll strive for but with a more reasonable backup.
That first one is obviously a trap. Stay away from it! However, the second one is useful because it allows you to use your perfectionistic vision to dream up an incredible future. And dream it with the knowledge that your brain tends to work in an extravagant way, meaning your full vision may not be realistic. Continue to focus on taking those small steps toward your original vision, without pressure.
When you apply your perfectionism to what you love, ignore your self-criticism, ask for help when needed, and set realistic goals, perfectionism can be an incredible advantage.
Focus on the aspects of your mindset that help you grow, not hold you back.
Adapted from the original article.
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Kelsey Fyffe, MA, LPC is a clinically-trained therapist based in Houston specializing in anxiety and eating disorders. By helping individuals recognize that their anxiety, worries, and obsessions do not have to hold them back from living the life they want, Kelsey helps them learn the skills and strategies needed to calm their mind and feel at ease. Learn more about Kelsey at Live Mindfully Psychotherapy.