Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Overcoming Perfectionism

by Rachel Olsen

Do you feel most of what you do is never quite good enough?
Do you avoid starting tasks for worry you’ll fail?
Do you think “average” is an ugly word?

If so, rather than working toward success, you are probably trying to be flawless from start to finish. It’s likely you are plagued by perfectionism.

I know; I’ve been there.

Perfectionism refers to a set of self-defeating thoughts and behaviors aimed at reaching excessively high or unrealistic goals. Mistakenly believed necessary for success, perfectionism is often detrimental. It can rob us of a sense of personal satisfaction or achievement, damage our relationships, and prevent us from reaching our potential.

In fact, research shows women who demand perfection from themselves often achieve less than women with more realistic strivings. Surprised?

Causes of Perfectionism

A number of negative thoughts, feelings, and beliefs can drive our perfectionistic tendencies:

Fear of failure. Perfectionists often equate failure to achieve with a lack of personal worth or value. (God tells us we have value because we are made by Him, in His image, for His plans and pleasure.)

Fear of making mistakes. Perfectionists often equate mistakes with failure – and therefore, with a lack of personal worth. In orienting their lives around avoiding mistakes, perfectionists miss opportunities to learn and grow.

Fear of disapproval. Perfectionists often believe if they let others see their flaws, they will no longer be accepted. Trying to be perfect is a way of trying to avoid criticism, disapproval, and rejection. (Christ was criticized, disapproved of, and rejected – and He was truly perfect.)

All-or-none thinking. Perfectionists frequently believe they are failures if their accomplishments are not perfect from start to finish. Every part must be flawless. They deny the learning curve and discount the process of “failing forward.”

Belief that others are easily successful. Perfectionists tend to perceive others as achieving success with a minimum of effort, few or no errors, little emotional stress, and maximum self-confidence. This of course is inaccurate. At the same time, perfectionists view their own efforts and confidence as uncommonly inadequate.

A Harmful Cycle

Perfectionistic attitudes start a frustrating cycle in motion. First, perfectionists set unreachable goals based on unrealistic expectations. Second, they fail to meet their often well-out-of-reach goals. Third, they become anxious and self-critical over their failure. Finally, rather than realizing the true problem, they demand a perfect performance next time or avoid the pursuit entirely.

Also, without realizing it, perfectionists can apply their unrealistically high standards to others, becoming critical and demanding. Their frequent lack of grace damages their relationships. Furthermore, perfectionists may avoid letting people see their mistakes, not realizing that self-disclosure allows others to perceive them as more human and thus more likeable. Because of this, perfectionists often have difficulty being close to people and they create unsatisfying relationships – which only confirms in their mind their lack of value or their need to strive harder.

What to do About Perfectionism

The first step in moving from a performance-based attitude of perfectionism to a grace-based attitude of healthy striving and dependence on Christ is to realize that perfection, instantly or in everything, is simply unattainable. And the pursuit of it is counterproductive.

The next step is to challenge the self-defeating thoughts and behaviors that fuel your perfectionism. Some of the following strategies - many outlined by the counseling center at the University of Illinois - may help:

Set realistic, reachable goals based on what you have accomplished in the past. This will enable you to rein in unrealistic expectations and experience the satisfaction of achievement.

Set subsequent goals in a sequential manner. As you reach a goal, set your next goal one step beyond your present level of accomplishment.

Relax your standards for success. Choose any activity and instead of aiming for 100 percent, try for 90 percent, 80 percent, or even 70 percent success. This will help you to realize that the world does not end when you are less than perfect.

Learn to discriminate the tasks you want to give high priority to from those tasks that are less important to you. On less important tasks, choose to put forth less effort in favor of increased rest and emotional stability.

Focus on the process of doing an activity, not just on the end result. Evaluate your success not only in terms of what you accomplished but also in terms of how you accomplished it. Did you remain calm? Did you learn something new along the way? Did you enjoy the process?

Use feelings of anxiety and depression as opportunities to ask yourself, “Have I set impossible expectations for myself in this situation?”

Confront the fears that may be behind your perfectionism by asking yourself, “What am I afraid of? What is the worst thing that could happen?”

Recall a recent mistake you made and list all the things you can learn from it. Mistakes are powerful learning tools.

Pray daily, giving your stresses and to-do list to Christ to oversee. Remember that His priority is your character and relationships over your accomplishments.

As perfectionists, we’ve come to believe our value – in God’s or other people’s eyes – is irrevocably linked to our performance. In a quest to be accepted and loved, we set out to be flawless. This is both unnecessary and unproductive.

So pull out a sheet of paper and write out in your own words the reasons why your perfection is unnecessary and unproductive. Don’t worry if it is well-worded or commas are in the right place. And in the process, you’ll begin to overcome the plague of perfectionism.

Rachel Olsen is a woman who seeks to savor life with Christ and help others find that sweet spot as well. A writer, speaker and editor with Proverbs 31 Ministries, Rachel communicates biblical truths modern women need to know. To learn more, read her recent release “It’s No Secret: Revealing Divine Truths Every Woman Should Know.”