It happens every time I sit down to write these posts.
It happens whenever I dare to follow a new creative idea.
And it even happens with simple, everyday things like cooking dinner or making my bed in the morning.
What’s the thing I’m talking about?
Well, that thing is called perfectionism.
Simply put, perfectionism is the need to be perfect or the fear of not appearing to be perfect.
It can trigger severe anxiety and depression and in some extreme cases – according to the Review of General Psychology, a journal of the American Psychological Association – it can lead to suicide.
For some Adult Children of Alcoholics, the tendency towards perfectionism can be linked back to childhood. Where at one time we falsely believed that if we were perfect then our mother, father, sister or brother wouldn’t drink or participate in whatever dysfunctional behaviors strained the family.
For me, being perfect meant excelling in school, especially math, a subject that I S.U.C.K.E.D at. I remember trying so damn hard to get all my multiplication tables right when my stepdad would drill me. With each one I got wrong he’d get drunker and angrier until that combo exploded and someone, usually my mom, ended up getting punched in the face.
The conclusion I made was simple – my stupidity caused his drinking which led to his anger which led to the abuse. If only I was smarter. If only I knew my multiplication tables inside and out – then he wouldn’t have acted out. If only I was perfect.
Back then being perfect was a survival tactic. But as an adult, perfectionism has kept me locked in a box, held together by the fear of making even the smallest most insignificant mistake.
If you can relate, this one is for you.
Today I’ve got 3 tips that will help you step beyond your need to be perfect, which of course can only open up your world and your life to a whole new set of possibilities.
Now, although perfectionism is common among Adult Children of Alcoholics, it’s not a characteristic that’s limited to the millions of us walking around on the planet. Anyone at any point in their life, regardless of background, can struggle with perfectionism. So in that sense we’re in good company and we’re most definitely not alone!
Once you’re finished reading, I’d love to hear from you.
In what area of your life do you struggle with perfectionism? I want you to think about that area of you life and ask yourself, if I wasn’t trying to be so damn perfect all the time, how would that area of my life change? What new opportunities or experiences would open up for me?
Leave your thoughts in the comment section below.
Remember your voice, experiences and insights are vital to this community. And what you have to share is not only unique but it may be exactly what someone else needs to read. And that someone could be you.
Thanks for reading and contributing to the conversation!
Until Next Tuesday,
#1 Perfectionism is a D.E.S
Going forward, I want you to try to think of perfectionism as a D.E.S or a dead end street.
What happens when you drive down a dead end street? You get frustrated, maybe anxious and probably a bit annoyed now that you have to figure how to back out to get out.
Dead end streets offer you no choices. There’s no option to make a right or left or to keep going strait. You’re basically stuck.
Well perfectionism is a lot like a dead end street. It basically wipes out your options. It destroys all opportunities for growth and discovery.
It leaves you frustrated, anxious and annoyed with only one option – to back out and return to right where you came from.
Unlike perfection, imperfection is like a long and endless road. Sure, if you choose the open road there are lots of opportunities for you to screw up along the way. You may make a left instead of a right. You may drive right past your exit. You could even run out of gas right before you reach the gas station.
But the mistakes you make can easily become learning opportunities that not only help prepare you for the rest of the journey but they also help you grow as a person.
It’s not always pretty but imperfection creates possibility. There’s always much more that you can learn from your mistakes then from the false security and protection of perfection.
Or think of it like this,
Perfection leads to a dead end. While imperfection creates possibility and progress.
#2 You Soothe You Lose
We can’t have a discussion about perfection without talking about anxiety.
Perfectionism stirs up anxiety over the thing you are convinced you won’t be able to do perfectly.
And personally speaking when I reach that point where the anxiety gets too hot to handle I get overwhelmed and I stop. Which usually means I completely shut down and back away from the thing I was supposed to or wanted to do.
It’s taken me many years to figure this out but backing away or giving up was and still is how I soothe or manage my anxiety.
So for example, let’s say I signed up for a beginner ballet class. And for the weeks leading up to the first class, instead of focusing on the people I’d meet or the new creative outlet I might discover, I focused on how I wouldn’t be any good at it or I wouldn’t be perfect.
That unnecessary pressure I’d put on myself would trigger anxiety. And in my head, I’d create all of these horrible scenarios where I’d be chastised or embarrassed in front of the whole class.
The anxiety would grow to the point where the only way I could soothe it would be to drop out of the class before it even started.
No class = no pressure to be perfect = no anxiety.
This is a pattern that has been part of my life ever since I can remember.
When you soothe the anxiety that’s connected to perfectionism you lose.
For the longest time I thought my tendency to quit or give up made me a loser. When in reality, quitting or giving up was the only way I knew how to soothe anxiety.
Anxiety of course is overwhelming and uncomfortable but it can also be used as a clue. Next time you experience anxiety around a task or situation where you’re putting pressure on yourself to be perfect, instead of giving up or looking for a way to soothe the pain, try to sit with it. Try to notice what’s going on in your head.
What are you thinking about?
What stories or scenarios are you creating about what may or may not happen if you’re not perfect? How are these stories feeding your anxiety?
I know, much easier said than done but it’s an option worth considering.
#3 Give F*ck It A Try
You’re probably already familiar with this story or some version of it may have happened to you when you were younger.
It’s the story about the parent who’s trying to get their kid to get in the pool and swim for the first time. The kid is reluctant and scared so his or her parent eventually gets fed up, picks up the kid, tosses them in the pool and somehow he or she figures out how to stay afloat.
When dealing with perfectionism, sometimes you have to be your own parent and throw yourself in the pool.
As an adult, you can do that by simply saying f*ck it and doing the thing you’re afraid you won’t do perfectly anyway.
For example, I’ve gotten paid to write for some fantastic publications simply because I said f*ck it. I know my emails to these editors weren’t perfect but instead of letting perfection keep me from hitting send, I said f*ck it and hit send anyway.
And you know what? I got a lot of writing work this way. And I even submitted an essay that was considered for The New York Times. Ultimately, my work was turned down but now I know the editor. I have her email, she knows my name and I have a better idea of what she’s looking for.
Was it a perfect ending? No. But I learned something along the way and it’s all because I dared to look perfection in the eye and say f*ck it.
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