Part Two of a Series
Perfectionism. It’s a label thrown around often, sometimes carelessly. It can be used in a pejorative way yet can be worn as a badge of honor. Perfectionism is not a mental health disorder—it’s a personality trait. And like any personality trait, taken to an extreme, it can be debilitating.
In this series, I seek to help readers lighten the load of the burdens we all carry, often unconsciously, that cause us to be less than compassionate, kind, and loving toward ourselves. Perfectionism, as I write in my book, What Leaders Need Now, is one of three thieves of self-compassion. There, I quote Dr. Kristen Neff, who I believe simplifies the very complex matter of perfectionism. She says that people with self-compassion “see one’s fallibility as part of the larger human condition rather than isolating.” Perfectionists behave as though human fallibility does not apply to them. That is a very hard way to live, and a very heavy burden to carry.
As an executive coach, I have worked with perfectionistic clients for many years. There is a set of common thought patterns many of them share. In this post, I’ll share a practice that can be transformational. It begins with simple awareness of the habitual thought patterns of our mind. The magic, if you will, is that the moment we become aware of a thought, we have an opportunity. We have a choice. We can consider the thought and choose whether to accept it. This is a radical idea, and I will address that more in a bit. But first, and most importantly, we must slow down and become aware of the thought itself.
The following nine sentences are statements perfectionists have made. Note any you have said or thought.
“If only I could get more frequent feedback…
…I’ll know if I’m on the right track.”
…I’ll know where I’m missing the mark.”
…I’ll know if they value me.”
“I made a mistake and now…
…it’s irrevocable and I’ll never recover.”
…everyone knows I’m incompetent.”
…I am a failure.”
“I have to do everything…
…I am asked to do.”
…that needs to be done.”
…because no one else can.”
“There is nothing more important than…
…getting it right.”
In the previous paragraph, I said awareness was the important first step. When I hear my clients make these or similar statements, I repeat them back, and they often hear themselves fully for the first time. These thoughts run on autopilot, internally or out loud, sometimes just outside of our awareness. In my last post, I discussed the voice of my “critic.” While I tend not to be a perfectionist, my personal self-compassion “thief” is a critical thought pattern that I had to learn to become aware of and choose to dismiss when not helpful to the situation at hand. Whether your thoughts are being directed by the perfectionist, the critic, or some other part of you such as the ruminator (whom we will discuss in my next post), consider these two questions:
- Do you believe the thoughts your mind produces?
- Do you know what that thought produces next?
Most of us, if we slow down enough, realize that our thoughts are not always true, accurate, or helpful. They can be habits of thinking, helpful at one time in life or in one context, yet not applicable in the current situation. They can even be sourced in other people’s well-meaning lessons or admonitions. As such, we can regard them as pieces of data to consider, then either accept or reject them. For me, a simple starting question is: “Is it true?” Often the simple answer is: “No.”
Slowing down is important for awareness in the moment and it also helps reveal the pattern. A single thought (that isn’t true) leads to a conclusion (that’s based on bad data) which leads to behavior (that’s not compassionate). Let’s look at an example.
Christian is a highly successful executive leader who exceeds his goals, achieves annual bonuses, and gets high marks on performance reviews. Six months ago, he was promoted to a role in a new division of his company. Recently, he made what he thought was a prudent and low-risk decision about a customer strategy. Due in large part to unpredictable market forces, it turned out to be a bad decision for the company. His leader reviewed the issue with him privately, the executive team discussed ways to mitigate the losses, and everyone (except Christian), thought the matter was in the past, with lessons learned.
Despite the fact that without a crystal ball, few people could have seen what was coming to warn Christian of the danger of his plan, blamed himself for the strategic mistake he had made. After all, he held himself to a flawless standard which only became more pronounced the more responsibility he felt. Christian’s thought was that mistakes in judgment were simply not permitted. And, because of this thought, after many sleepless nights, he concluded that he was not cut out to work at this level. Others noticed what they saw as an odd lapse in Christian’s confidence. So, when Christian approached his leader about going back to his old division to take a lower-level job, she was not surprised. But she was disappointed. She had not been disappointed when Christian made a mistake in strategy—those things happen when one is new to a business unit in a volatile marketplace. She was disappointed that Christian did not have the stamina and confidence to weather this error and put it in its proper perspective.
If you believe you are a perfectionist or have perfectionistic tendencies and have not explored them in depth, there’s great benefit to investigating their origins with a good therapist or seeking to uncover the blind spots in your thinking patterns and behavior with a good coach.
For today, try this: Become aware of both your self-talk and your “out-loud talk” that reflect perfectionistic thoughts. Notice that the moment you become aware of them, you are in charge, not the thoughts. That may be the most self-compassionate thing you do today!