Perfectionism isn’t a cute Martha Stewart craft. “You’re such a perfectionist,” we say to the party host who places a lime wedge on the rim of everyone’s expertly chilled glass. But the truth is, the perfectionists wouldn’t make it to the party at all. They’d be too afraid no one would show up, that their music playlist wasn’t hip enough or that their soufflé was too flat.
Contrary to popular belief, perfectionists aren’t always winning marathons, heading the PTA and pitching new businesses. More often, they’re procrastinating — avoiding going after their goals in fear of failure, says Elizabeth Lombardo, Ph.D., author of Better Than Perfect: 7 Strategies to Crush Your Inner Critic and Create a Life You Love.
Squashing that fear of failure opens up a life where you can enjoy striving for goals, no matter what they are, how long they take, or even whether you achieve them. Here’s how:
1. Use the scientific method.
In her book, Lombardo recalls her days in high school chemistry. When their experiment findings weren’t consistent with their predictions, she and her lab mates didn’t consider the whole thing a failure. They were taught to ask how they got the result by asking questions: Did we follow the steps correctly? What ingredients resulted in this outcome? This scientific approach serves perfectionists well, because they blame themselves or others when things go wrong.
Instead of beating yourself up when something doesn’t go as you planned, treat the incidents as sources of information. Skip the guilt, self-blame and shame, and ask yourself the questions you might ask your high school science project. Collect the data and see what adjustments need to be made.
2. Say no to extremes.
Perfectionism feeds on absolute, all-or-nothing thinking. Rather than cutting back on desserts, for example, perfectionists will say, “I’m giving up all sugar!” Then when they inevitably eat a cookie, they feel like total failures. They berate themselves for having no willpower and give up on their goals entirely. It’s a vicious cycle that can end by eliminating extremes, Lombardo says. Avoid hard-and-fast, impossible rules for yourself. Instead think, I’ll try to cut back on sweets.
3. Slow down on social media.
“Perfectionists’ sense of self-worth is conditional,” Lombardo says. “They consider themselves OK if they are at a certain weight, if they make a certain amount of money, if their home is nice enough… and on and on.”
Because perfectionists base their self-worth on outside measures, they’re especially susceptible to comparisons. They will internalize the successes of their friends — promotions, vacations or kids’ college acceptances — as failures for themselves. Turning to Facebook and Instagram fuels these thoughts.
But don’t swear off social media entirely. That would be extreme. If you can cut back, great. But more important is simply remembering that what you see there does not reflect real life in all of its facets. Everyone has struggles, no matter how many trips to Tahiti they take.
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