Hello again! I can officially say we are in the thick of summer. The heat is rising and I’m needing to get up earlier if I want to accomplish anything in my yard before the sweat starts running down my face and it’s too unbearable. We are also having the occasional lightening storms that we often get during the summer evenings and they can get pretty wild. I hope you’re enjoying your summer and getting a chance to do something you enjoy with the people you love.
Okay, let’s get into this topic. It’s a fun one because this is something I’m still working through, but have made some fair progress on. I’d say I was a classic borderline perfectionist before I started learning some of the life coaching tools.
Viewing myself as a failure, relying on other people for praise or validation to be okay with myself, fear of looking incompetent, beating myself up, having my self-worth conditioned on achievement, fear and worry over the unknown or uncontrollable, creating unsaid rules for myself and others, wanting things my way, and assuming that others are judging me the same way I judge myself are all common characteristics of a perfectionist. We think that if we can deliver perfectly, if we live perfectly, we are proving our worth as a person.
And it isn’t always the obvious thoughts that go through our heads that say, if I don’t complete this perfectly no one will like me. That would be great if it were that easy, but those thoughts usually ride in the subconscious background of our minds. It sounds more like,
It’s not ready yet.
Because it could be better here and here and probably right here.
Why does that really matter?
Because it needs to look right, it needs to be presentable.
And after we discuss what looking presentable looks like,
It looks more than presentable to me.
Mmm, it’s getting there, but it’s not quite right.
Why does it need to be better?
Because everyone will like it more.
How will you know they like it?
Because they’ll tell me.
What if they like it, but don’t say anything?
Then it probably wasn’t good enough.
And what are you making that mean about you?
That I’m not good enough.
And there it is. Hiding deep under all those other reasons.
Speaking from experience, perfectionism is miserable. There’s no winning, no satisfaction, and you can fool yourself into believing you’re accomplishing something, even though you are never truly finished. You’re never done because you notice this mistake, and that could be better, even though you are the only one who would even notice the change. Each mistake glares at you until you change it. It gives you anxiety to look at it until you change it.
Because we know that perfection is a really hard thing to achieve, those who struggle with perfectionism are rarely ever finished. There’s always just one more thing to fix.
A few years back, so pre-coaching, part of my job was putting together an application for an award. I spent over 100 hours grueling over it. After it was “finished”, it really wasn’t. I still went back and repositioned this picture and changed that phrase and thought this hue of blue would be a better color than the current one. Reading and re-reading to make sure there were no typos. The deadline for submission had arrived and I was exhausted. The only reason I stopped changing things was because I had to submit it, perfect or not. I thought there’s no way I missed any edits. I combed over it so many times.
Fast forward a year and the same award’s deadline was approaching. For months, I could feel my stress and anxiety slowly increasing just thinking about it. This time we had to stand out different from the first and how could I make it better than before? I decided to pull up the first submission as a reference… and look at that, a typo. What??? I spent so much time and I still missed something? I was telling myself that if we even wanted a chance at winning, it had to be perfect. But, guess what? That was a lie. We still won the award. Even with typos.
As a perfectionist, if you never finish, you never get that satisfaction of completing something; unless you have a deadline like I did. However, I wonder if I would’ve been satisfied if we didn’t win. I’m guessing that I probably wouldn’t have tried going for that award again and would do it kicking and screaming if I had to.
Sometimes that’s how perfectionism kept me playing small. I’d get in such deep fear of failure that I didn’t even start something. I’d pass up opportunities because I didn’t think I could handle the rejection if I didn’t live up to my expectations and the elusive, faceless other’s expectations of me. And it would be my own self-rejection.
My first year of college I tried out for an esteemed choir and I didn’t make it because I didn’t have an advanced knowledge of music anthology. I was offered a spot in the choir right below it and I just needed to learn and study a little more and then I’d make it. I was mortified. I felt like I let myself down and was ashamed that I didn’t make it. I didn’t tell anyone. I was so afraid of being rejected again that I not only decided I wouldn’t try out again, but I also didn’t take the spot in the other choir. I love singing, but it was too much anxiety for me to not be accepted in the choir I wanted and then chance another rejection after another tryout. So I kept playing small.
I’m guessing I didn’t start out that way. Was there something that happened as a child to have such a drastic change from then to now? I don’t think so. In fact, I don’t really think it was super drastic. I thought about myself growing up and also my experience with my children growing up. I noticed that most little children tend to get a lot more external validation and praise from adults because, as adults, we’re trying to use positive communication to encourage proper behavior and to encourage skill building.
For example, when I was trying to teach my children to read, when they first started out and they’re trying to sound out the word cat, after they said the C sound kuh, I’d say good job and then they made the aaa sound, yes, yes, good. And the T, tuh. And then as soon as they start putting it all together c-a-t, the praising gets a little more animated and a little more animated until they finally put the word cat together and it’s this huge celebration. Yay! Good job! I knew you could do it!
I never really understood how hard the English language was to learn, with all of its rules and caveats, until I started teaching my children how to read. I know learning to read can be a struggle, so I want to keep motivating them and continue to cheer them on, so they will feel that motivation and want to continue learning until they get it.
I think we do the same thing when we’re teaching them how to speak and walk and when we’re teaching them manners and when they’re potty training. And for me as a parent, the harder I thought the task would be to master, the more praise I’d give them to help them stay motivated to keep going.
Each time we get external validation, we get a little dopamine hit. Which is also the same rush that happens when we do drugs and when we laugh and when we are intimate with our partners. Dopamine is the feel-good feeling and feeling good, feeling pleasure, is one of the three basic needs in the motivational triad that your lower brain is trying to fulfill.
Ok, so each time we were given praise as a child, our minds received a small dopamine hit. I imagine my subconscious thinking went something like, Hey! They like what you are doing! They like you. You’re being accepted. Keep doing it!
And the more I was getting it, the more I wanted it. Also, the more I was getting it, the more it took to get the same rush, just like drugs. So I needed to do more and more and hope that I’d be validated. So as kids we are getting praise and validation for hitting milestones and we don’t need to motivate ourselves because everyone else is cheering us on.
But then we grow up and we aren’t praised for reading well and we aren’t praised for not messing our pants and going in the toilet. Okay, yeah, that would be really weird if we did, but you get what I’m saying, right? And the way we seek for validation from other sources is needed more and more. We up our game to continue to get those dopamine hits from other people. And we keep upping the game and upping the level of difficulty AND upping our level of expectation.
And this is why I don’t think there was this drastic change in my need to be perfect. It was a gradual lack of validation that I was used to getting. I think as the validation from others decreased as I got older, my need to be perfect increased and part of my problem was I never learned to validate myself. Everyone else did it for me.
Now, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be praising our children. I’m totally not saying that. And each child’s reaction and how they internalize it is different. I’m sharing with you how I viewed it and what I think could be the cause for some of us to strive for perfection. It’s because we seek validation from others before we consider validating ourselves.
The easiest dopamine hits are from other people. It’s so much harder to get genuine validation from ourselves because we know all of our mistakes and we know all about ourselves so we, in a sense, start to justify why maybe it wasn’t as big of a deal or why we don’t deserve as much praise. So it’s way easier to believe it when it’s coming from someone else.
However sometimes that’s what it comes down to is validating ourselves and motivating ourselves to keep learning and growing, regardless of the failure. If you find you’re taking too long on something or are having to much anxiety over it, the best way to start separating yourself from perfectionistic tendencies is to separate your worth from your actions. And your worth from your results. You can just decide that you are good enough even if your work isn’t. And this is really hard to do if your brain has the habit of thinking differently about it.
Like I said, sometimes it’s harder to realize what our subconscious dialogue is telling us deep down.
Now, three years later and post coach training, my road to perfectionist recovery is going well. What’s different? I shoot for excellence. And that’s what I’m going to talk to you about in part 2. What excellence is and how to start living that life.
So your homework for this week is to notice if you’re falling into any of the following perfectionistic traps. Remember you may be viewing yourself as a failure, relying on other people for praise or validation to be okay with yourself, fear of looking incompetent, beating yourself up, making your self-worth conditioned on achievement, fear and worry over the unknown or uncontrollable, creating unsaid rules for yourself and others, wanting things your way, and assuming that others are judging you the same way you judge yourself. Noticing is step one.
And it doesn’t mean that if you have any of these tendencies you are a perfectionist, but can you be open to the possibility that these thoughts aren’t serving you and aren’t helping you reach the potential you’re striving for?
So, there’s your homework
Until next time,
Have a brilliant week! Bye!
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