I can’t remember one yoga class that I have taught when I did everything I wanted to relay to my students without messing at least one thing up. I say right when I mean leg, cue a different pose than my intention, lose my train of thought and forget what I’m trying to convey, . . . When I first started teaching many years ago, the thought of “messing up” was not acceptable to me. And yet, I did mess up, every time that I taught. It’s a wonder that I continued, but I found the reward to be much greater than the risk of making mistakes and feeling vulnerable. Making mistakes – NOT being perfect – made me vulnerable. Vulnerability made me uncomfortable.
Exactly what IS perfectionism?
Before going too far, it’s important to understand that the urge towards perfectionism is natural.
We all have the capacity to make new and improved versions of things or ourselves. Perfectionists, however, are those who not only see that gap between the current state and envisioned one, but have an obsessive compulsion to bridge it. This impulse may not be constrained as realistic. And while
compulsion is often deemed a sign of dysfunction, something compulsive isn’t automatically unhealthy. In fact, we need people who relentlessly strive towards ideals.
The key is to use this power with constructive and conscious awareness and intention.
Dangers of unmitigated perfectionism:
- Inevitable setbacks and mistakes can lead to depression and reduced motivation to change behaviors
- Rigid, all-or-nothing thinking and unrealistic expectations lead to excessive stress, hindering performance and lowering self-esteem. This easily becomes a self-perpetuating cycle that can trigger a lack of progress
- Over-emphasis on outcomes, goals and achievement saps the fun from daily living. Change should lead to living life to its fullest and experiencing joy; it should not merely be about success or failure. Without joy, there is more temptation to “numb” feelings with substances, and a greater risk for stop progressing
Symptoms of being overly fixated on perfectionism:
- “All or nothing” thinking (perfection with total success or failure are the only two options; there is no in-between)
- Overgeneralization (words like “must”, “always”, “never” rule behavior)
- Discounting positive attributes and exaggerating negative ones
- Goals set unreasonably and unrealistically high
- Defensiveness about feedback; resistant to suggestion
- Over-identification with outcomes and goals
- Need for approval; “people pleasing” behaviors
Ways to Overcome Perfectionistic Tendencies
If you recognize that you have some perfectionistic tendencies, know that perfectionism is only problematic when taken to extremes. It is not humanly possible to be perfect at everything all the time. So lighten up and enjoy the process instead of fixating on the goal.
Assess the “evidence” for harsh appraisals of yourself. What catastrophe (if any) will occur if you don’t meet each goal with 100% success? Where can you let yourself be “good enough?”
Re-work the attitude around being perfect equating to feeling good about yourself. You can change rigid, self-destructive attitudes and beliefs – you created them and you have the power to un-create them!
Here are some additional ways to balance a perfectionist attitude:
- Celebrate small accomplishments. See the value in appreciating little steps you’re taking in a positive direction. From little steps, greater goals may arise
- Adopt a “good enough” attitude. Rather than being critical of others who may be less than perfect, learn to value their approach without judgement
- Use your support systems. Let others know that you are trying out a new approach and ask that they not take advantage of your tendency to seek perfection and ask close friends to remind you when you fall back into perfectionistic habits.
- Intentionally make small mistakes. You read that right. Draft an email with words misspelled – you don’t have to send it. Just be “ok” with good enough and acknowledge the upwelling of anxiety
- Understand your values and how your actions interplay with them. Your values (honesty, integrity, connection, etc. ) will help to clarify how you choose to spend your time in purposeful ways
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