You find yourself taking forever to make a decision, complete the work in front of you or even get dressed in the morning. One woman spent two hours getting her makeup just right, finding the right combination of clothes. Another man bored his friends with his continual indecisiveness about what he was going to order for lunch. Another woman couldn't get her work completed because she had plaguing doubts that it just wasn't good enough. Nothing seems acceptable if you have doubts, if you think that it could be better, if you can't accept mistakes. It's as if your doubts are holding the reins and you aren't going anywhere. Trapped.
If you are like this, you are not alone. You are a perfectionist. You berate yourself if you make a mistake, regretting that you didn't do the best you could do. Or, you drive other people crazy with your demands that things have to be just right.
Now, you don't have to give up on healthy high standards or trying to improve yourself. There is such a thing called "adaptive perfectionism." Here's what it looks like:
- My goals are high -- but realistic.
- I don't like mistakes, but I can accept them.
- I balance my negatives against my positives.
- I can get satisfaction from my work.
Having high standards is not the same thing as demanding perfection. Making mistakes is part of playing the game, and you need to look at all the information -- your positives and negatives -- to have an honest picture or yourself. But the maladaptive perfectionist thinks differently:
- My goals are so high that I can almost never achieve them.
- I can't stand making mistakes.
- I focus on my negatives rather than my positives.
- Nothing I do ever feels good enough.
Which are you?
If you are the maladaptive perfectionist then you never achieve your goals; they are in the stratosphere. You criticize yourself and discount any of your positives. And you are stuck with this empty, terrible feeling of being a failure. You are prone to procrastination, regret, worry and depression.
So what can you do?
1) You don't have to regret mistakes.
You can notice that you made a mistake, but use it as information that you can improve on something. Mistakes are information, not the road to perdition.
2) Don't be proud of perfection.
Don't confuse perfection with "I'm proud of my high standards." As I mentioned, you can have healthy high standards without being a maladaptive, depressed perfectionist. A lot of perfectionists are closet critics of the world. Get down from your pulpit and enjoy the rest of us in this imperfect but wonderful world.
3) Develop your Bill of Rights.
Think about a Bill of Rights for yourself, like the right to be human, the right to make mistakes, the right to move on and the right to feel good about things. Give yourself the right to learn.
4) Make your perfectionism look dumb.
Put a toy doll in a chair and label it "my perfectionist voice." Now tell it how idiotic and unfair it really is. Tell it that it only makes you and the rest of the human race feel lousy. Tell it that it's fired.
5) Practice being imperfect.
Take a day and do everything imperfectly -- but well. This is what I call "successful imperfectionism." One of my patients worried about writing the wrong amount on checks, so I had him write each check for one dollar more than required. I had him finish things before they felt completely finished. I had him wash his hands and stop before they felt completely clean. Practicing imperfectionism can help you realize that the world doesn't end when things aren't perfect. It also tells you, "You are the only one who was watching."
6) Mistakes are part of progress.
You don't make progress unless you are willing to make mistakes. Think about Christopher Columbus who, after "discovering" the Americas, returned to Europe and died still thinking he had landed in Asia. One hell of a mistake. Thanks, Christopher!
7) Make room for mistakes.
I like to think about bothersome thoughts, feelings, sensations or mistakes as the night visitor who comes, unannounced, bringing new ideas, new experiences. I love these lines from "The Guest House" by the Sufi poet Rumi:
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they're a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
Good enough really is good enough. It's always been true.
I recall years ago getting frustrated with some patients. I kept barraging them with my techniques and advice. Then I realized that I had to admit, "Bob, you are making a mistake, being so demanding." So I thought, "Maybe this could be an opportunity for me to learn from my patients." I analyzed it, looked at it from their points of view. I began taking notes. I then wrote a book, "Overcoming Resistance in Cognitive Therapy." If it weren't for the mistakes I had made -- and my willingness to listen to my patients who knew more than I did -- I never would have been able to grow.
Not only is good enough good enough -- it's also an opportunity to learn, accept, forgive and become better than you have been. I wish I had my mistakes here to thank for that.