Aspirin for Perfectionists

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Three basic changes can bring considerable relief to people who are too hard on themselves.

Aspirin and perfectionism occasionally meet on their own

Aspirin and perfectionism occasionally cross paths

Striving for achievement is normally healthy. People who set ambitious goals and work hard to meet them are often productive and feel satisfaction with their achievements. However, when high achievers cross the line into full-blown perfectionism, they often suffer, as illustrated in the following examples…

Jack goes shopping after work and fills his cart with 24 groceries.  Back home, as he unpacks his bags, he realizes he forgot to buy garlic, and thinks, what an idiot I am!

Marion, a single mother of two, has worked in her department six years, achieving two promotions and popularity with her colleagues. This week, she schedules a meeting for the wrong day, and accidentally disconnects a call. When she goes to the doctor and realizes she didn’t bring her insurance card, she thinks to herself, I’m so incompetent!

Professor Smith receives lower-than-usual marks on student evaluations, and concludes, I’ve lost my mojo!  Now, Smith spends hours at home worrying about teaching.

The cases of Jack, Marion, and Professor Smith illustrate three hallmark traits of perfectionists: They beat themselves up for mistakes, don’t give themselves credit for a majority of achievements, and try to master forces that are beyond their control, usually with worry. Since true perfection is impossible, people who think this way at times may feel disappointed and miserable.  What is the treatment for the perfectionist’s headache?

Perfectionist Aspirin #1—Grade By Percentages

Jack forgot to buy garlic, making him human instead of perfect. Does forgetting one item out of 25 make him an idiot? If his shopping trip was a class exam, and he got 24/25 correct, that makes 96%, also known as an A+. If people graded their competence using such percentage scales, they would almost always receive passing grades, and very often A’s. With an A+ in your pocket, it’s hard to make a case for idiocy.

Perfectionist Aspirin #2—Weigh the Evidence

For Marion, percentage grading is problematic. She made three mistakes in one week, but it’s impossible to count how many tasks she performed correctly. Instead, she can weigh the evidence of her belief, I’m incompetent. She messed up a meeting, botched a phone call, and forgot a needed insurance card in a short span of time. If you’re the judge and jury, do you find her guilty of incompetence?

These guys are at risk of destroying the evidence

These guys are at risk of destroying the evidence

Before you decide, consider the evidence to the contrary, that she is competent. She has been a stable employee for years, has been promoted twice, enjoys good relationships, and independently raises two children and maintains a household.  Could an incompetent person really achieve this? If she weighs the evidence, comparing her recent mistakes to the body of her successes, she cannot reach that conclusion.

Perfectionist Aspirin #3—Let Go of What You Can’t Control

No one can truly control another person’s actions, or be all things to all people. Professor Smith may have delivered perfectly fine lectures to exceptionally critical students. If this were true, what could anyone have done to prevent low evaluations? Smith needs to accept that student evaluations are beyond an instructor’s control. Sure, professors can work hard to prepare lectures and use cutting-edge teaching techniques in class, which may ultimately influence students to give positive feedback. However, once they deliver a class, it is out of their hands, and the students alone have control over how they rate that professor.

Falling backward

He has done everything he can to gain their trust, so all that remains is a leap (or backwards fall) of faith

To regain the “lost mojo,” Professor Smith must stick to what is within control: putting more effort into preparation and technique. Smith worries excessively about teaching and student feedback, which creates the illusion of control (I’m thinking about it, so that must make a difference). In reality, it does nothing to improve Smith’s in-class performance, may actually hinder it, and at minimum detracts from the professor’s quality of life at home. Furthermore, if Professor Smith ever received low marks again, then worrying would have served no purpose other than to bring the pain early.

Take 3 Aspirin…

If ultra-high expectations, self-criticism, dismissing of accomplishments, and excessive worry cause you to suffer, then be sure to keep these three aspirin handy to soothe that perfectionist headache: (1) grading yourself by percentages, instead of all-or-nothing; (2) weighing the evidence to determine competence and refute inaccurate self-labeling; and (3) focusing on efforts, and taking action on what is within your control (and not fretting over forces out of your control). Not only will these help reduce the burdens of perfectionist thinking, but will also enable you to retain positive feelings and enjoy your many accomplishments.

Fire suppression 2by Jason Sackett, LCSW
Professional Staff at CWFL

jsackett@usc.edu

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