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Dealing with Some Negative Sides of Perfectionism

This lesson is a part of an audio course How to Overcome Perfectionism and Fear of Failure by Nar Mina

For the Perfectionist, achieving his goal is the only thing that matters. The process of getting there – the journey – is meaningless to him. He views the journey as simply a series of obstacles that have to be negotiated in order to reach his goal. That's why the Perfectionist's life is a kind of a rat race. She is unable to enjoy the here and now because she is completely engrossed in her obsession with the next promotion, the next prize, and the next milestone – which she believes will make her happy. The Perfectionist is aware that he cannot entirely get over the journey, so he treats it as a bothersome but necessary step in getting to where he wants to be, and he tries to make it as short and as painless as possible.

He fast-forwards through hard work and hard times but also through all the small daily pleasures of life.

It's kind of being sedated – to avoid the pain of an operation, but not for a few hours – for most of your life – so that you can avoid experiencing the journey, which you perceive as an impediment to your happiness. Perfectionists miss everything that matters because they are only focused on their ultimate goal. It's like sleeping through life.

You can choose to experience your life rather than fast-forward through it. Value the journey that takes you to your destination. Of course, there will be detours along the way – some pleasant and desirable, some not. You shouldn't be so obsessively focused on your goal so that the rest of your life ceases to matter. Life is mostly about what you do on your way to your destination, and you probably want to be fully awake as your own life unfolds.

The Perfectionist's universe is quite simple – things are right or wrong, good or bad, the best or the worst, a success or a failure. Of course, categories do exist; some things are good or bad. The problem with the Perfectionist's approach is that, as far as he is concerned, these are the only categories that exist. There are no gray areas, no nuances or complexities.

Either she wins the competition, or she is a total loser. Everything is about winning or losing, success or failure, right or wrong.

You won the tournament, or you lost it, you succeeded to attain your goals, or you failed – there are also countless points between the extremes that may in themselves be necessary and valuable.

You can find satisfaction and happiness in a less-than-perfect performance.

Because of their all-or-nothing approach, Perfectionists perceive every criticism as potentially catastrophic, a dangerous assault on their sense of self-worth. Criticism threatens to expose their flaws. Perfectionists often become extremely antagonistic when criticized. They are unable to assess whether there is any merit in the criticism and whether they can learn from it.

Perfectionist is unwilling to admit a shortcoming, flaw, or mistake – because her primary concern is actually to prove that she is right.

She wants to look good, and therefore she tries to appear flawless by dismissing the criticism. The picture that the Perfectionist has of herself – the only picture she (is willing to accept) – is of flawlessness, and she goes to great lengths to convince others that the way she views herself is indeed correct. She will defend her ego and her self-perception at all costs and will not allow criticism that could expose her as less than perfect.

But you can be open to suggestions. Recognize the value of feedback – in the form of failure or success. Naturally, most people do not enjoy being criticized or failing. Though you may not like it when your flaws are pointed out nevertheless, take the time to openly and honestly assess whether the criticism is valid and then ask yourself how you can learn and improve from it.

What are some of the auto-thoughts that cause you to stress? It can be hard to identify them because they are such an integrated part of the fabric of your mind that you take them as fact rather than distortions.

Start by looking at a problem and backing up to find its root. A good way to become aware of these problematic thoughts is to write them down. Whenever you feel stressed, unhappy, or dissatisfied, write down what you're thinking in your notebook. When you go back and look at your notes, you'll probably start to notice patterns. Pay extra-close attention to any thought that contains the absolutist words "must," "should," "shouldn't," "always," "never," "have to," and "ought," because they often play a part in distorted thinking.

Once you've identified a negative auto-thought, it's time to restructure it. To do this, examine the thought closely. Take from it any truth and push aside the distortions. Then, re-create the thought in a way that causes less stress. For example, you think, "I can't sleep if there are dirty dishes in the sink."

A good way to restructure this thought would be: "I prefer having the dishes done before I go to bed, but it's more important for me to sleep than to wash dishes." Restructuring that thought removes a lot of stress and expectations of perfection. It gives you the space to do what you like – to wash the dishes if you have time and if it's not interfering with other important tasks. But it also gives you the freedom to put your own needs first sometimes.

No matter how successful the perfectionist is, his shortcomings and imperfections eclipse all his accomplishments. Because he engages in both faultfinding and all-or-nothing thinking, he tends to see the glass as totally empty. Because he is under the illusion that a straight-line journey is possible and that failure can be entirely avoided, he is constantly on the lookout for imperfections and deviations from the ideal path. And seeking faults, he finds them, of course.

Less-than-stellar athletic or academic performance, for instance, will be perceived by the Perfectionist as a catastrophe and might lead him to avoid all further challenges.

Although you may be disappointed by your failures, you can consider them as learning opportunities; Rather than paralyzing you, failures may, in fact, stimulate extra effort. You can be the sort of person who makes lemonade out of lemons, who looks on the bright side of things.

Surely, not every negative event has a positive aspect, there are many wrongs in the world, and at times a negative reaction to events is very appropriate. A person who can never see the negative is just as unrealistic as a person who sees only the negative.

The Perfectionist can be extremely hard on herself, as well as on others. When she makes mistakes, when she fails, she is unforgiving. She believes that it is actually possible to go through life smoothly, without blunders. Errors are avoidable – they are in her power to avoid – and therefore, she regards being harsh on herself as a form of taking responsibility. To Perfectionists, the notion of taking responsibility is extremely unhealthy.

Taking responsibility for your mistakes means learning from your failures. Making mistakes and experiencing failure is unavoidable. You need to be more understanding when it comes to your failures; be much more forgiving of yourself.

Our behavior toward others is often a reflection of our treatment of ourselves.

Being kind and compassionate toward yourself usually translates to kind and compassionate behavior toward others. And harshness toward yourself often translates to harshness toward others.

So, the perfectionist's overwhelming concern is about avoiding failure, disapproval, and rejection. Healthy high achievers accept that they won't always get it right; instead, they learn from their mistakes and move on.

Perfectionism can be a definite obstacle to success, not just due to high levels of anxiety and chronic stress, but because of the time and energy spent on less important tasks. Perfectionists feel their work is never complete, never quite good enough. Because they fear disapproval and rejection more than anything, all activities tend to be equally important, whether it be a simple email or a major project, And this can lead to procrastination and indecision. In fact, perfectionists probably reach their potential less often than their peers.

Procrastination significantly increases stress levels. In the end, you have to do the task, but now you're under real pressure as the deadline fast approaches! Just because you put something off, it doesn't vanish – it stays with you in the background, like a cloud hanging over you. You carry it around, and this has an insidious negative effect on how you are feeling.

This is the end of lesson 5. Next, you'll learn about making the right decision.

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Nar Mina

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