What do you think about when you think about perfectionism?
Is it a force for good, or not so much?
One of the great perks of perfectionistic thinking is that it’s aimed at creating a better world somehow.
However, having a vision of something beautiful can also open up a huge abyss: an abyss between the world right now and the promised land out far in the distance. The sense of that distance can feel really anxious.
Anxiety can be about a lot of things. Yet, when you know you’re (somewhat of) a perfectionist, it’s worth considering to what extent any anxiety you have might be caused by a reality gap like this:
- A gap between where you are versus where you think you should be
- A gap between how things pan out versus how you imagined they would go.
- A gap between what you can do versus what people expect from you
- A gap between how you show up versus what you see on tv (Like those sitcoms where people always have a snappy comeback -because the show has a script- or the policewoman with perfect hair who chases the violent serial killer down the street – on heels, while she’s flirting with the tech guy over the phone, as she’s running)
These scenarios can get pretty ridiculous.
Dealing with the Impossibility of Ultimate Perfection
We know that nobody is perfect and that the perfect anything doesn’t really exist. Or at least, we think we know. Yet, even when we know better, our brain may still sneak us into LaLa Nirvana with Perfect Weather Land.
It’s one thing to aim for nirvana, it’s something else to feel miserable because you’re not there yet, or be anxious because you believe you ” should have been there by now”
Perfectionism can put you on a beautiful change-maker journey but along the way, your brain may tell you that you should have reached nirvana already, even if it’s practically impossible.
There are lots of easy to overlook ways this can happen. When you’re caught up in how you feel about where you’re at, it’s easy to skip the possibility math.
- The possibility math might be about adding up your daily todo list to see if it actually fits into 24 hours at all (…+…+…+…= 72 hours. oops).
- It might be about factoring in that you’re not always super motivated and can get trouble getting started.
- It might be about remembering to cut yourself some slack when doing something you struggle with.
- It might be about knowing not to give up whenever you make a (big) mistake and instead find a way to keep going.
Whenever your expectations of what you should do or be exceed what is actually possible for you, you’re potentially left with anxiety (or depression, or beating yourself up, or trying to constantly work harder)
In a way, this anxiety is like the pull and tension of a rubber band that is stretched between two versions of reality. The further apart your “shoulds” and “what actually happens” are, the stronger the pull and the bigger the anxiety.
The Pull of Perfectionism
So what if your anxiety isn’t a sign that you should get to the ideal, but instead a sign that the real and the ideal are stretched too far apart? A little stretch can be motivating. A slight pull between where you’re at and where you want to be can feed your motivation and sense of adventure.
However, when the distance gets too big, the elastic (that is your sense of well-being) gets put under a lot of tension. This tension is helpful if you need to take a big dramatic leap to get yourself out of the arms of a monster, but it’s not so helpful when you’re planning a dinner party or trying to write a book, creating a poem or trying to exercise more.
Our “not life threatening” projects require some healthy pull, but when we exhaust and strain ourselves to the point of pulling our motivation-muscle completely, we get nowhere. That’s what perfectionism anxiety does: it gets you to freeze, or run around in circles but it’s probably not going to urge you to efficiently fry the eggplants for your dinner party pasta salad or write up that next blogpost.
The Crucial Question
So, if you’re trying to do or be something, and it’s making you extremely anxious, check in with yourself to see if what you are aiming for is perhaps too far apart from where you’re at. If you can bring your next planned step closer to where you are already at, it will feel more doable. So instead of flying up the whole achievement stairs in one go, you just focus on the next small step up.
That means that instead of creating a gourmet 4 course meal that stresses you out, you aim for a fun picknick with a cold pasta salad you can prepare in advance, and ask guests to bring a small sidedish.
Instead of expecting yourself to be the life of the party and sparkle all night, you aim for having at least one good laugh with someone new.
Instead of finishing your workbook in one week and expecting you’ll love everything about it, you aim to create an o.k.ish first draft in a month. After that, you know you can make changes during round 2, but at least you’ll have something on paper to work with and get feedback on.
Instead of expecting yourself to redo the whole backyard, you just focus on planting one flower bed for now.
You don’t wash all the laundry, just one basket.
The trick is, once you get going and make a little progress, you’re already closer to your ideal. So while there might be an anxious stretch between where you are at now versus where you want to be, the more steps you take, the more doable your goals become.
In other words, instead of using the perfectionistic elastic band to cover the biggest possible space between here and paradise, you glue it not to paradise, but to the first step in that direction.
If you’d love more practical tips and reframes, and to develop a new way to reach your goals, without getting stuck in the dark side of perfectionism, take a look at the Practical Perfection Programme.