Turning Perfectionism To Your Advantage

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If you didn’t see my first post on perfectionism, you should definitely check it out here. I broke down the two big categories of perfectionism and gave examples of what they look like. I also talked about how perfectionism is a reactive - not proactive - behavior. This tidbit is important because it’s crucial to turning perfectionism to your advantage. 

 

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A proactive behavior is one that creates something new or causes something to happen. A reactive behavior is a response to something that has already occurred. I prefer to write new posts when I feel inspired (duh) and can enjoy the process of creating something new. That’s a proactive behavior. It’s occurring because I decided to make it occur. However, if I write because I feel pressured to produce new content, then that’s a reaction to my feelings of discomfort. This qualifies as a reactive (and for me, likely a perfectionistic) behavior. 
 

We’ve Given it a Bad Rap

Within the therapeutic community (and especially the eating disorder community), perfectionism is typically framed as a negative. If you’ve received treatment for an eating disorder, I’m sure your therapist has asked (accompanied by a slight head tilt) “is that your perfectionism talking?”  We do this because perfectionism can tear people apart. It can be brutal. But it isn’t always. 

Perfectionism is also a useful tool when wielded wisely. People like Steve Jobs and Martha Stewart are famous for it! Martha Stewart once described herself as a “maniacal perfectionist” and credited it with her success. What separates people like Martha Stewart from the rest of us? How did she ride her perfectionism to success and fortune when we struggle with nagging self-criticism?
 

Here’s what I think

Success in perfectionism depends on making it a proactive behavior. Like I explained in my previous post, perfectionism is damaging when it is a reaction to distress. Following all of your “I’m not good enough” thoughts down a rabbit hole of obsessive worrying will leave you feeling like complete crap. If you’re able to apply your determined eye for detail to the valued activities that fill you with satisfaction, you’re suddenly in Martha Stewart territory. Below are my top tips for the expert use of perfectionism:

1. Apply it to what you love

Let go of needing to be perfect at every task you complete. You absolutely do not need to be the best cook in your family or the most flexible girl in pilates. This is doubly true if you don’t even like those activities. Most of us only have 1-3 activities of high importance in our lives. 

I can easily conjure up perfectionistic images of my clinical expertise and private practice success. Do I have now what I can imagine? No, and I probably won’t. (Perfectionism can be rather grandiose). But it does motivate me to grow. It motivates me to attend conferences, read books, and collaborate with brilliant professionals. I always have my eye on what I want to learn, try, and do next. I 100% attribute that to my perfectionism - and I love it! Don't waste your time perfecting skills you don't enjoy. Choose what you're passionate about! 

2. Ignore the Self-Criticism

If someone tells me they experience perfectionism without ever hearing self-criticism, I will punt a scientist their way and try to figure out how. I’m not sure it’s possible. But if you’ve figured it out, pleaselet me know! 

For the rest of us non-unicorns, it’s important to recognize when your criticism detracts from your enjoyment of a beloved activity. I posted a video on my Instagram of a combination I learned in aerial silks. I’ve done aerial arts for years and it’s my favorite way to move my body! My perfectionism motivates me to grow and improve. But it also means it’s rare to see a video of myself I like. My brain treats videos as learning aids: “Oh, you did these 6 things wrong. Try it differently next time.”

Here’s what my brain says every time I watch this video:

You’re too handsy.
You didn’t hold that pose long enough.
Your transition was awkward.
Arch your back more.
You should have climbed higher! Your drop wasn’t impressive because you were too close to the ground.

If I spent too much time on these thoughts, going to aerial would really suck. So I don’t. I only film myself on occasion and I make myself name everything I do like about the video. And most importantly, I try to stay in the present moment. I focus on how my body feels while I'm in the air and what it feels like as I move through a combination. Those are the experiences that make me love aerial anyway.

Countering perfectionistic self-criticism in an entire post unto itself. But I recommended focusing on the present moment. Use your favorite mindfulness skills to ground you when hearing critical thoughts. And remind yourself why you care so much about this activity to begin with. Describe how it makes you feel, and what you love about it. It's a lot harder to ruminate on self-criticism when you're actively describing what you love. 
 

3. Ask for Help

One of the ways perfectionism gets us into trouble is when we feel too ashamed to admit when we aren’t hitting the bar we set for ourselves. Listening to your shame is the fastest route to misery. Take a breath, remind yourself that no one can accomplish anything alone, and ask for help. Whether that’s asking your boss for an extension or getting your yoga teacher to demonstrate a modification, promptly asking for help when needed can keep shame spirals at bay and you feeling good! 

 

4. Take Your Expectations Down a Notch (or 12)

Speaking of setting too high of a bar, perfectionists are notorious for having unrealistic expectations for themselves. There are two ways to approach setting a high bar:

  1. Set it and expect yourself to meet it at all costs.
  2. Set it as a dream goal you’ll strive for but with a more reasonable backup. 

That first one is obviously a trap. Stay away from it! The second one is useful, though. Method two allows you to use your perfectionistic vision to dream up an incredible future. And dream it with the knowledge that your brain tends to work in an extravagant way, meaning your full vision may not be realistic.

hen I started my practice, I dreamt up elaborate visions of expensive office furniture and of myself selling out weekend workshops. Well, my office furniture is from Wayfair and I haven’t drafted any workshop material yet. But I scaled down those ideas to create an office I really enjoy. Plus, I’m working with some other professionals in the area to create some great educational content! I will continue to take small steps toward my original vision. But I am doing so with no timelines and without pressure. 

Those are my 4 tips: when you apply your perfectionism to what you love, ignore your self-criticism, ask for help when needed, and set realistic goals, perfectionism can be an incredible advantage. Let me know if you have questions, and I’d love to hear how your perfectionism has helped you!