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A Perfectionist’s Guide To Enjoying Imperfection

Topics: Lifestyle & Culture | 1 CommentBy admin | January 23, 2011

Trying to do things perfectly is easy. The hard part can be accepting that you won’t.

No wonder he did so many sketches.
He was in the perpetual planning
stage that plagues perfectionists.

Can you guess who said “I have offended God and mankind because my work didn’t reach the quality it should have”? It was Leonardo da Vinci. Can you imagine? What a miserably unhappy fellow he must have been. And a perfect example of one of the pitfalls of being a perfectionist. We often think of a perfectionist as someone who meticulously demands that everything around them be “just so”, imposing their will on others. But I speak from firsthand experience when I say that more commonly, perfectionism manifests itself as a self-defeating, sometime paralyzing life approach that leads to procrastination, disappointment, and an ongoing, low-key dissatisfaction with life in general. I personally didn’t realize that I had this problem until a few years ago. It was brought to my attention in an unexpected way; I had quit drinking, because although I wasn’t having more obvious, “dramatic” problems with alcohol, I recognized that it was significantly diminishing my quality of life. It was a long-time struggling alcoholic that mentioned it. It was a simple, but shocking revelation for me. Prior to that point, I knew that I tended to be extremely organized, a little particular about fine points, and punctual. That sort of thing. But what had never occurred to me was how many things I hadn’t done in life, because unconsciously, I felt I wouldn’t excel at them. On the other hand, I’ve done very daring things in a mediocre way, like skydiving and hang gliding. With hindsight I realize that I secretly thought that things like this somehow made up for all the other things I hadn’t done. Because who can question your willingness to do things when you can inject that kind of experience into a conversation? If you’re not sure if you’re a perfectionist, maybe you you should take this test provided by Discovery Health. If, like me, you get annoyed with the obviousness of the test questions and quit after the first page, you probably have a problem with perfectionism. There are hundreds of articles on perfectionism out there, but one of the more concise summaries I found just now was this one on the University of Texas web site. It defines a lot of the key characteristics and the problems they create in a simple, summarized format. So assuming you’re deciding that maybe you have a problem with perfectionism, how do you fix it? My asking that question is kind of a joke; that’s probably one of the first things you have to get used to. Life is not a state, or a series of states, it’s a process. If you even pause and say “Damn, I think I have a problem with perfectionism”, you’ve begun to fix it. And you may never actually “fix” it. That’s the real secret. Part of dealing with self-defeating perfectionism is simple acceptance of who you are. And accepting that you’re not perfect, may never be, and probably you’re the only one who expects you to be. This piece on Lance Armstrong’s LiveStrong.com takes a rather in-depth look at the problem, and offers a ton of ideas for working on it. But I have three simple suggestions below. You’ll be surprised that not only will you like you more when you learn to let go of some of your negative perfectionist traits, but other people will too. Life’s too short to mope about lamenting its imperfections. Learn to enjoy its consistently successful chaos.

Do Things You Don’t Do

This sounds ridiculously simple, but it did wonders for me, and continues to do so whenever I remember to do it. It can also be just plain fun. If I were going to be a perfectionist about this, I’d make a list of a hundred things you could do, but the basic idea is to do things you’ve never or rarely done, and I have no idea what you’ve done or not done, or why. In my case it was simple things, like bowling, going to a driving range to see if I could develop a decent swing, indoor rock climbing, and running. The objective is to just do something different, and not care if you do it badly. For me, almost all of these things seemed like really dumb things to do, and in each case I learned a ton about myself. Like, I’m a horrible bowler, for instance. If you have trouble getting this idea in motion, try watching the movie Yes Man, and then try saying “yes” all day one day. You’ll be surprised where you end up.

The Serenity Prayer

You may be familiar with the “serenity prayer” that’s commonly recited by people in twelve-step programs. You also may find it trite, irrelevant, or meaningless. Let’s re-frame it though. And you can even leave the “God” part out if that suits your needs. The commonly recited version is “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference”. So what is it really saying? Especially if you already rely on the prayer, break it down and put it to work. It’s remarkably practical. First, relax. The majority of the universe is beyond your control. Get used to it. Look at whatever problem confronts you at the moment, and ask “can I really do anything about this RIGHT NOW?” If not, let it go, knowing you can get back to it if necessary. Second, if it IS something you can take care of, well, buck up and do it. And third, if you’ve done the first two parts, you’ve already implemented the fact that you’re wise enough to know the difference. You don’t have to say it in its original form, but it’s a fantastic tool for slowing down and assessing frustrating moments.

Mind Reading

It’s amazing how good a perfectionist is at reading others’ minds, while failing to read their own. By reading others’ minds, I mean the tendency of the perfectionist to load themselves with anxiety about the expectations of bosses, house-guests, members of the opposite sex, whoever. Chill out. You really don’t know what other people are thinking, and you can always ask. You’ll be surprised in many cases that they’ll be glad that you did. And you’ll slowly find that maybe you’re addicted to the discomfort that these silent assumptions provide you, but in fact feel better when you’re not engaging in that particular addiction. On the other hand, few of us pause to realize that we engage in a lot of “self talk”, because it’s so seamlessly integrated into our thought processes. For just one day, listen carefully to see if there’s an almost-discernible voice in your head that’s muttering negativity. If you discover it is in fact present, listen to it. Identify what it’s “saying”. For me, this voice was a constant over-anticipation of all the possible outcomes of almost every activity that faced me on a given day. Which is absurd, because on many days, half of the events of the day still managed to play out in a manner that was not included in one of my “battle plan” scenarios. This kind of thinking can keep us from the place where we do in fact often take the “perfect” action. Spontaneously, and in the present.

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  1. Posted by Getting Unstuck | dissociatedpress.com on 03.21.11 10:34 pm

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