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Last Updated Saturday April 01 2017 07:02 AM IST

Heal Thy Self | Top tip for being happy

Nirmala Ferrao
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Success The gulf between striving for excellence and striving for perfection is not just a semantic one. Photo: Getty Images

Stop being a perfectionist.

Have you noticed that people who describe themselves as perfectionists usually do so with a sheepish smile on their faces?

And have you noticed also that their smile is a strangely conflicted one that seems to combine both, pride and embarrassment?

Also read: Heal Thy Self | Chant away stress!

The pride comes from their belief that being perfectionistic is the ideal way to be. (Wrong!)

The embarrassment comes from their awareness that, to most other people, most of the time, their perfectionism can be a pain in the rear. (Right!)

Perfectionism is a real problem, not something to be proud of.

“What’s wrong with striving for excellence?” you might ask. In one word, “Nothing”. But the gulf between striving for excellence and striving for perfection is not just a semantic one. It’s as deep as a moat. Strivers after excellence are realistic. They have a positive motivation – the desire to get the job done. They can be happy about having done a great job even though all their goals may not have been completely met. And they can derive a very real sense of pleasure from the process (the journey), as much as from the outcome (the destination).

Also check: Heal Thy Self | Can mental illness be caused by an infection?

The perfectionist’s drive for success and accomplishment may seem, on the surface, very similar to that of the healthy “striver for excellence.” However, the underlying dynamics are very different. Strivers after perfectionism are idealistic – often to a pathological degree. Theirs is a negative motivation – to avoid disapproval, rejection or criticism from other people, or just from the inner critic in their head. Because perfectionists will accept nothing less than, well, ‘perfection’, they are rarely satisfied with the outcomes. And they are so completely focused on the destination that they never enjoy the journey.

Are you a perfectionist?

Perfectionist Perfectionism is a real problem, not something to be proud of. Photo: Getty Images

Perfectionists generally know themselves for what they are. But if you want to make sure, check whether the following traits of the perfectionistic personality sound familiar.

Unrealistic standards. Just being ‘almost perfect’ is not enough for a perfectionist: it’s tantamount to falling down on the job. The perfectionist is perennially assailed by the feeling that (s)he should have done more, in less time, than is reasonably possible. All-or-nothing, black-and-white thinking is typical of the perfectionist. Other people (those lucky souls who were handed other personality styles) can stop at a reasonable point and proclaim an outcome “good enough.” Perfectionists have a very hard time knowing what “good enough” means. If it’s not perfect, it’s a failure.

A hyper-critical perspective. The tiniest mistakes and imperfections are magnified by perfectionists into “just won’t do” proportions. They home in and obsess over minor flaws – such as a word or a hair out of place – and have trouble seeing that the job overall has been well done. ‘Finicky’ and ‘fussy’ are words that justifiably describe them.

Not only are perfectionists highly critical of themselves but also of others. Frozen into inaction by their fear of failure, they end up spending a good amount of time frowning upon the imperfections of others. Criticism then becomes like a recording loop in their brain, playing its jarring tune over and over: Ohmigod, doesn’t she look into a mirror before she leaves the house?.... Where on earth does he get his statistics from – an Ouija board? ... I’d never be caught dead serving tea in coffee mugs…

Anger It’s hard work having to be on top all the time, so perfectionism unsurprisingly also trails in a load of stress. Photo: Getty Images

Defensiveness. Paradoxically, perfectionists can’t take criticism from others, even constructive criticism. They are so full of how they hold themselves to such high standards that criticism simply feels like an attack to them. They find it hard to see what’s ‘constructive’ about it.

Need to control. Perfectionists are control-oriented and disintegrate in the face of loss of control. Because they need to be in control, they can draw non-negotiable lines over insignificant issues such as the arrangement of the living-room furniture or which liquid soap the family will use. They find it hard to see another’s point of view, are unwilling to compromise, and will defend their opinion till Kingdom come.

Depression There are perfectionists who view their depression as a flaw and become more depressed. Photo: Getty Images

Chronic depression. Because their goals are set so high, perfectionists beat themselves up every time they go unmet. Unable to bounce back easily from disappointment, they wallow in depression. Their depression can then pretty much take on a life of its own: there are perfectionists who view their depression as a flaw and become more depressed.

Anger and stress. Perfectionists feel impotent if they haven’t done their best (or surpassed it) and this can bring on a lot of anger, often hidden and controlled. On the other hand, their critical take on the imperfections of others can also bring on anger, in this case the self-righteous kind.

It’s hard work having to be on top all the time, so perfectionism unsurprisingly also trails in a load of stress.

Resentment and self-pity. The lack of real achievement is a common outcome with perfectionists. They lose so much time and energy on small irrelevant details, have organisational rituals which seem pointless to others, always seem to be needing so much more preparation before getting started on something, that they end up actually achieving far less than others who get on more briskly with the imperfect present.

Faced with the fact that they are notching up fewer achievements than others, perfectionists build up a cache of negative emotions:

Resentment and Jealousy - Why should others get more rewards than I do when their performance is so average, so full of holes I could pick, when I have a far greater potential for perfection than they do?

Self-pity - Poor me; why can’t people see beyond my immobilization to my true, never-expressed talents?

Depression Giving up is much safer, much easier, too. Photo: Getty Images

Psychological laziness. The most efficient kind of laziness there is. All the challenges of life, all the big decisions, all the difficult choices, are negotiated in the gray matter of your mind. Give up there and your work is done. And that is why perfectionism is the ideal way to never get past the mental starting-block of any goal, project or change. Giving up is much safer, much easier, too. You don’t really have to try.

Low self-esteem. Weighted down with the baggage of self-censure, perfectionists are unhappy, suffer from low self-esteem. Often, they tend to avoid situations, especially competitive situations, that might showcase their presumed imperfections.

In addition, the hyper-critical glasses with which they view the rest of the world tend to isolate perfectionists from others; the alienation and loneliness that result lowers their self-esteem even further.

Where does perfectionism come from?

Appreciate Perfectionists generally do not consider their perfectionism a ‘problem’. Photo: Getty Images

A pile of research seems to point to a substantial genetic contribution to traits such as perfectionism, orderliness, low self-esteem and overall anxiety, all of which are to be found in what has been called “the perfectionistic personality”. It is likely that multiple genes will eventually be identified as setting the stage for such a personality.

Whether single or multiple, however, these genes will necessarily have to interact with environmental influences to bring on the full-blown perfectionistic personality. The childhood history of perfectionists is typically characterized by an over-emphasis on achievement by family members (parents, older siblings, grand-parents). Under such pressure, a child can begin to believe that he is not loved unconditionally, but only for what he achieves, and only if and when he performs. Come home with all A+’s and one B? The child would be questioned on why (s)he got the B. Such a child doesn’t learn that mistakes are a natural and acceptable part of life, that they are to be honoured because they offer us a chance to learn. Failure for such a child equals loss of love. In the end, perfectionism comes down to this need and search for approval and acceptance.

From ‘absolutely perfect’ to ‘good enough’

Sinbad the sailor released himself from his burden by making the Old Man drunk on wine. Releasing oneself from the burden of perfectionism is not so simply done. Even in professional therapy, it takes time and a lot of hard work. In fact, in the first place, clients hardly ever come with a presenting problem of perfectionism. For a very good reason: Perfectionists generally do not consider their perfectionism a ‘problem’. The difficulties that bring them into therapy – including the emotional gremlins of low self-esteem, anger and depression – all these are viewed by them as being brought on by “other people” in their lives. In therapy, perfectionists tend not to want to disclose anything that’s going to make them look imperfect.

Without professional therapy, the journey is rather more difficult, not to add, lonely. Books on perfectionism will bring knowledge and insights about this rampaging demon, but conquering it comes not from intellectual accretion but from acting – from doing battle in the trenches. Here’s a look at some of the weaponry that you can hoist:

Become aware of your tendencies. You may not realize how pervasive perfectionism can be. By becoming more aware of your perfectionistic patterns, you put yourself in a better position to alter them. The best strategy is to record your perfectionistic thoughts as they pop into your head. If it’s impractical for you to jot down thoughts as they come, it’s a good idea to go over your day each night and recall the times when you felt you’d failed or hadn’t done well enough, and – importantly – to write down what you thought at the time. This will help you become more aware of perfectionistic thoughts as they come to you in the future. (But if you go one day, or several, without doing this, don’t feel you’ve ‘failed’ – just get back on track).

Happiness he best strategy is to record your perfectionist thoughts as they pop into your head. Photo: Getty Images

Do a cost-benefit analysis. You may have believed for a long time (and may still do) that your perfectionistic traits actually make you more effective (although, according to research, this isn’t true), but at what cost? Jot down all the ways that perfectionism is hurting you (and those around you). Again, do this in writing, not in your thoughts, and when you see how long that list of negatives is, it will bolster your motivation to shed those damaging tendencies.

Seek out the positives. If you’re struggling with perfectionism, you’ve probably honed the skill of spotting mistakes even in the best works of others and of yourself. This tendency, over time, builds to the point where you just naturally look for the flaws, and notice them above all other things. Like any other habit, this is difficult to stop straightaway, but one good way to start is to make a deliberate effort to notice all that is good with your work and that of others. If you become aware of noticing something you don’t like, look immediately for five other qualities that you do like. You’ll be surprised at how often you do find them. Doing this as a regular exercise will temper your critical focus and will itself become a positive new habit.

Alter your self-talk. Self-Talk, a.k.a. your thoughts, go on and on in your mind, often without your being consciously aware of them. Those who wrestle with perfectionism tend to have a critical voice in their head telling them their work isn’t good enough, they’re not trying hard enough, and they’re not good enough. This kind of negative self-talk reinforces the perpetual drive to keep trying harder and harder. Changing this little voice is a matter of challenging those negative thoughts each time they surface. Here’s an example:

Your son is doing poorly in school. You blame yourself – If my son is not performing well, it can only mean that I’m doing a poor job as a mother. It’s all my fault that he isn’t studying.

Now, challenge those negative assumptions: By taking all the responsibility for how my son is doing in school, am I not disregarding the fact that he is an individual who is ultimately responsible for himself? I can do my best to guide him, but in the end he controls his own actions. Would I take the credit if he performed well? No, I’d say, “He accomplished that by himself.” So why blame myself when he does something not-so-praiseworthy? Beating myself up is not going to change his behaviour. Only he can do that.

Criticism Constructive criticism can give you important clues on how to improve your performance, making it a useful stepping stone that leads to excellence. Photo: Getty Images

Learn to handle criticism. This, too, is actually a matter of changing the way you think (i.e., react to criticism). Perfectionists see criticism as an attack and therefore react defensively. But train your mind to look at criticism differently. Constructive criticism can give you important clues on how to improve your performance, making it a useful stepping stone that leads to excellence. If the criticism is pointed or harsh, it’s okay to remind others (and yourself) that mistakes are a great way to learn.

Take small steps – and only one at a time. If you’re a dyed-in-the-wool perfectionist, you’ll probably want to be rid of this ogre in a hurry. But instant nirvana just doesn’t happen in this area. Your brain has gone down the perfectionism path too long to stop immediately. It’s like an ocean liner that reverses engines and then takes miles and a long, long time to stop.

Not only do you need to go slow, you also need to go easy on yourself. As a perfectionist, you’re more likely than others to set your goals (for change) unrealistically high, not making allowance for a learning curve and leaving no room for error. While you don’t need to sacrifice the end-result, it’s important to take only bite-sized steps towards them, breaking up your goals into sub-goals, and rewarding yourself when you successfully attain each one.

Starting with allowing yourself small imperfections is key to making progress. For instance, deliberately allow minor typos in your e-mail messages to go without spending time correcting each one. I’m reminded of the tradition of Oriental painters who purposely leave a small mistake in each of their paintings. This is a subtle reminder that nobody but the Creator is perfect and it is an insult to assume humans can be perfect, too.

Not just that, but it is far more relaxing, even enjoyable to flaunt your imperfections. Among those who do is model-actress-author-TV host Padma Lakshmi who has never had a problem posing for photographs that show-and-tell the 7-inch accident scar on her right arm. As Virginia Woolf said, “The most freeing thing is to like your imperfections.”

(The author is a former editor of 'Health & Nutrition' magazine, and now works as a counseling therapist)

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The opinions expressed here do not reflect those of Malayala Manorama. Legal action under the IT Act will be taken against those making derogatory and obscene statements.