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Free yourself from the grip of perfectionism

BY DR. DELISE DICKARD

My yard is filled with clover. The little green leaves with the snowy white plumes remind me of recess in grade school. While the boys dominated the monkey bars, the girls would sit in a cool patch of clover looking for that lucky four-leaf one.

Today, so many years later, the green clover with the white plumes covers my entire front yard. To me it seems perfect. It drives my husband nuts.

“It’s a weed,” he said one day as we debated over whether we should get rid of it.

My husband struggles with a little perfectionism, and while I have my own issues, this is not one. I have a pretty broad definition of the word “perfect.” But he gives me a window into this common frustration.

I’ve asked in pure amazement: “You mean if you do something so well that you reach 95 percent, that is not good enough?”

“Of course not,” he rebuts.

“Ninety-nine percent?” I ask.

“Not really,” he says, shaking his head for emphasis.

In my work as a psychotherapist, I love to help people embrace their success—whether it is 60 percent of what they wanted or 90 percent. Absolute perfection, after all, is just plain unrealistic.

Let’s face it, once we reach a certain age, we’ve typically embraced some reality. Maybe we’ve realized that the great novel in our head probably won’t be the next “Great Gatsby.”

Still, we can achieve so much. And most importantly, we can embrace our success more realistically if we loosen the grasp on 100 percent perfection.

ASK YOURSELF . . .

If you struggle with perfectionism, there are some questions you might want to ask yourself:

Is your perfectionism really obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) in disguise?

Wanting things to be in a certain place or arranged a certain way is fine as long as it is a simple preference. But if you feel an abnormal amount of anxiety when things do not follow a rigid pattern, then you should consider the possibility that what looks like perfectionism might actually be OCD.

In fact, OCD can be very hard to diagnose, sometimes because the sufferer would prefer to call it perfectionism. But OCD can be very painful and even life altering.

Once discovered, however, it can usually be managed and treated well by a professional mental healthcare provider.

Is your perfectionism a distraction that keeps you from accepting the random nature of real life?

Sometimes, a focus on making things “perfect” can help us feel more in control. It can be healthy to feel well-organized or well-prepared. But if it is a preoccupation that keeps us from noticing or accepting life’s random flow of events, then maybe we are using it as a coping mechanism that can become a distraction.

Imagine you set the table for a dinner party and suddenly realize one place setting has the fork on the wrong side of the plate. If you spend too much time focusing on the problem, you might miss the wonderful conversation that is taking place around you.

Do you expect more perfection from yourself than you would from a good friend?

This is a good test to see if you are being overly harsh with yourself. Everyone makes mistakes. Just as we find it within ourselves to forgive our good friends when they err, it’s even more important to have the ability to forgive ourselves.

In fact, since we are the only ones who know every mistake we have made, that makes any comparison with others a little unfair. So if we tend to be a bit of a perfectionist, we have to remember to be as gentle with ourselves as we would a loved one.

Are you reducing your own sense of self-worth by repeatedly expecting perfection from yourself?

If you’re prone to low self-esteem, your mind can make matters worse by focusing on what you perceive as personal failures, all the while dismissing any possible accomplishments. In other words, your mind, if you let it, can be very creative in finding new ways to experience the feeling of failure.

Expecting perfection and dismissing everything else as a personal failure is one way the mind can hurt you. I often suggest that clients who struggle with this problem try to ruminate a little longer on their accomplishments.

If, for example, a person says, “Well, I was a very good mother to my kids,” I might suggest she give that positive thought more airtime in the mind by simply thinking about it several times during the day.

Is the voice of perfection really coming from a past memory?

You may have memories of people who were overly critical of you in childhood—a strict teacher, an overbearing parent, etc. For example, if you put the fork on the wrong side of the plate and your hear your mother’s voice in your head berating you for the error, then that is a good indication that you might need to revisit your past relationship with your mother.

In other words, maybe the perfectionism is a futile effort to satisfy a feeling of failure that emerged from an earlier dysfunctional relationship. Resolving the problem would then involve revisiting those early feelings of failure.

REDEFINE ‘PERFECT’

If you are thinking about this and still holding onto the need for perfection at all cost, you might think of simply broadening your definition of the word “perfect.”

Perhaps you could make it a little less rigid and a little more flexible. Maybe it could actually include a little patch of clover every now and then.

I practiced this last week, when I reviewed this column for the final time. At some point, I had to stop tinkering with words and checking for errors. Just before I pushed the “send” button, I smiled and said to myself, in the very broadest sense of the word, “Perfect.”

Dr. Delise Dickard, a licensed professional counselor, is the director of Riverside Counseling in Fredericksburg. She welcomes reader comments and questions. For contact information, see riverside counseling.org.

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