If You Are a Perfectionist

It’s important, first of all, that we understand what perfectionism is. It’s not about having high standards; it’s about defining success very narrowly, and failure very broadly, and then punishing yourself harshly for perceived failures. E.g., “If I don’t get an A or A+ on this test, I’m a huge loser.” That’s perfectionism; and it instills a great terror of failure in us that causes us to want to procrastinate because as bad as procrastination feels, on some level it still feels better and safer than risking failure.

Here’s the specific mechanism and link between perfectionism and procrastination:

1. You start to do your work.
2. You encounter a problem maybe you don’t know what to do, or don’t have the help you need, or have conflicting priorities, or maybe you’re tired or distracted.
3. You think, “Uh oh, I may not succeed.”
4. Then your inner perfectionist starts to panic: “Holy cow, you’d better succeed – otherwise you’ll be a total loser!”
5. Then your inner perfectionist uses the only method it knows to try to get you to resume your work: coercion. “What’s wrong with you?” it asks. “Why are you so lazy? Where’s your commitment? Where’s your discipline?” But all that harsh voice does is increase your fear until you have no choice but to…
6. Flee from the situation, and your work and that’s your procrastination.

Nonperfectionists, in contrast, skip steps 3 – 6 in favor of simple problem solving. If they don’t know what to do, they ask for help. If they have conflicting priorities, they make a to-do list, or delegate. If they’re tired they have some coffee, and make sure they get more sleep in the future. There’s no shame, blame, remorse, regret or guilt.

Grandiosity is a huge part of perfectionism. It’s a form of delusion that things that are difficult for other people should magically be easy for you. Grandiose people think, for instance, that they should be able to write a thesis without having to give up any professional or personal commitments. They always have a rationale. “I’m well organized.” “I know my subject so well.” “I went to a top school.” Etc. But the data points don’t connect: it’s still delusional grandiosity.

Another perfectionist symptom is overidentification with the work. If a work goes well, perfectionists feel like king or queen of the world; and if it fails, they feel like crap. That only increases their terror of failure, of course.

Other perfectionist symptoms include:

Labeling – “Why am I so lazy? “Why am I such a wimp?”
Hyperbole – “This is the worst paper ever.”
Dichotomization, or seeing things in black and white no shades of gray. “If I don’t get an A, I’m a total failure.”
Competitiveness / comparisons. – “Joe is able to do sports, work twenty hours a week, and take 16 credits, so I should be able to, too!” But perfectionist comparisons are inevitably flawed, because the comparison is not designed to elicit insight but coerce the perfectionist into working. The example, for instance, conveniently forgets that Joe has an easier major, and is content to get worse grades.

As you can see, perfectionism is a real cornucopia of antiproductive habits, attitudes and ideas. We get it from society especially the media – and from our parents and teachers. It’s catalyzed, often by a cruel or toxic rejection, especially from a teacher or other authority figure. And it tends to afflict the best people the ones who care the most, hold themselves to the highest standard, and seek to do the most good.

But fortunately, it’s very solvable – so let’s talk about the solutions.

Journaling is one. Write out your fears, confusions and ambivalences about your work in as much detail as possible; and also write out potential solutions. What you’ll probably discover is that many of your fears are small and easily dealt with, while others are larger and will take more time and perhaps help from others. But the more fears you identify and deal with, the easier it will become to deal with the remainder.

Also, cultivate the mindset of what I call compassionate objectivity, which is the opposite of perfectionism. Perfectionism is harsh and punishing and reductive, but compassionate objectivity is the voice of the inner kind and wise adult who adds perspective by looking at the whole situation. For instance, “Okay, so I didn’t get an A on that paper. That’s disappointing. But why did it happen? Well, I was sick for part of the time, and really worried about some stuff going on with my relationship. Also, the instructions for the paper were really unclear I really should have checked in with my teacher, and I’ll be sure to do that next time. And maybe I’ll go get some counseling to help me cope with the relationship.

Note how the compassionately objective person is not giving herself a pass: she clearly identifies her mistakes and makes a plan for improvement. But she dispenses with the guilt, shame, blame, regret and remorse that mires the perfectionist.

It’s imperative that you learn to recognize and intercept your perfectionist thoughts and expressions and replace them with compassionate objectivity. At first, doing this may seem weird and artificial, but keep practicing and eventually you’ll get used to it, and then it will become automatic.

Another important solution is to practice compassionate objectivity while you work. Get a kitchen timer and set it for two or five minutes. Then, do your work during that interval. The key is not what you produce that doesn’t matter at all – but how you felt producing it. Your goal is to maintain an engaged, but nonjudgmental, mindset where you’re attached to the process of your work, but care not at all about the product. This is not giving up on quality, by the way: I promise you that the quality of your work will automatically manifest itself as an offshoot of your process, and whatever you yourself lack in terms of skills and technique, others can help you with.

If a voice inside you says, “Two minutes? That’s pathetic! How are you going to get anything done two minutes at a time!” that’s the voice of perfectionism, and you should ignore it except to journal about it and take it as a sign you’re on the right track.

After you can write with compassionate objectivity for two minutes, increase the timer interval to three, then five, eight and ten minutes; and then fifteen, thirty, etc. In just a happy few months, you should be able to sit and work for hours at a time, having fun nearly every minute of it.