Patty was feeling frustrated and depressed. No matter what she tried, she felt she was stuck. As a young child, she remembers she would come unglued if anyone walked in her room and messed up her belongings. She would arrange and rearrange things until they felt just right. When going to school, she remembered asking her mom if her hair looked perfect. Her mom would say, “You look beautiful!” Patty didn’t believe her. She would ask her mom to fix it better, or she would try to do it herself until it felt right.
She wanted to be the best at everything she tried, but when things didn’t go as she expected, sadness and depression ensued. Her all-or-nothing thinking was getting in the way of succeeding at school because she’d get caught up in her fears of failure. When she had a test at school, she’d think, “I’ll probably fail the test tomorrow because I didn’t study enough. I’ll lose my scholarship, drop out, and be miserable the rest of my life!”
Patty — like other individuals who experience unhealthy perfectionism — wish there were quick and easy solutions, but there are none. However, I’d like to suggest five points to “start” working on this challenge.
- Stop and go!Children with ADHD usually act without thinking; they are impulsive. On the other hand, OCD leads you to think too much and this leads you to compulsions. Set a timer and when the alarm goes off, be impulsive and stop what you are doing. Go do something else. Plan ahead so that you know what is next on your schedule. You can say something like: “This will need to be good enough right now. Tomorrow I’ll pick up from here.”
It will be excruciatingly stressful and even painful. If your life, your loved ones’ lives, or your job depended on practicing this suggestion, would you try it at least once?
Ask your best friend, spouse, or roommate to help you. Make sure you reward yourself when you take that first step in changing your brain pathways.
- Thought patterns.When you are trying to complete a task and compulsions get in the way, have you noticed your thinking pattern? Individuals who experience unhealthy perfectionism have difficulty seeing the middle ground in challenging situations.
Sometimes they’ll say, “Part of who I am is my perfectionism. I’ll lose my identity. I want to continue to achieve, be organized, be detail-oriented, and be determined. I don’t what to change who I am.” You don’t need to change who you are, but you can change your thinking errors.
For example, you may think, “If I don’t find every mistake on this report, my boss will fire me.” Are you fortune-telling, catastrophizing, and doing all-or-nothing thinking? You can only see doom at that moment. However, when you start keeping a journal of thoughts and feelings, you will begin to notice that your negative thoughts lead you to negative feelings. The good news is that you can learn to reframe those thoughts and find alternatives to a better attitude. You will learn that you don’t need to go from one extreme of thinking to the other.
- Allow for mistakes.Any perfectionist will shriek at this suggestion. However, research confirms that in order to change your brain pathways, you need to do something different than what you’ve been doing. You can start by creating a list of situations you wish to work on. Determine what your anxiety level is on a scale of 0 to 10. Allow yourself to make a mistake that causes minimum stress, and work on getting used to being comfortable with discomfort. Resolve to worry about the consequences when they actually occur and not before. Once you have become desensitized to a small purposeful mistake, move on to another one and so on.
You can reduce the times you do a task or delay redoing it. Your anxiety will rise temporarily, but remember that redoing things until they feel just right only reinforces your OCD.
- Refocus.You may fear failure and what others think or say about you. The possibility of failure is not acceptable to you. Refocusing on what matters in your life can be helpful.
Life is meant to be enjoyed despite mistakes and problems. I once met a brilliant and talented young man who refused to accept failure and was constantly on the quest for perfection so he could be happy. Unfortunately, he found himself in therapy because he was depressed, anxious, and exhausted seeking the elusive pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
Even though your mind seems to tell you there is such thing as “achieving perfection,” don’t believe it! Your OCD is lying. Sometimes clients say, “There are times I feel like I’ll turn over the leaf of uncertainty once and for all.” Unfortunately, it doesn’t happen.
At the end of the day, what do you really care about? If it is happiness through perfection, you may wish to refocus and resolve that happiness is a state of being and mind. It’s an attitude.
- Time – you own it.Just like money is an asset, time is, too. The difference is that we all have the same amount of time — 24 hours a day. When we look at time, it’s a level playing field. We own our time and we get to choose what to do with it. Perfectionists procrastinate to avoid anxiety and the fear of failure. They may waste a lot of time and wait until the last minute to get a task done but will feel exhausted. Their excessive worries prevent them from enjoying their precious time they could spend with their loved ones or doing meaningful activities that could really bring them true joy.
You can choose to obsess, redo, and worry. Or you can chose to spend your time on what really matters. Your determination and your character strengths can help you start making changes. How you choose to spend your time will always be up to you.
The road to learning to manage your perfectionism will be challenging and full of twists and turns, but you can do it! Many before you have successfully navigated that same road. As you “START” your journey, your life will have more happiness and meaning.