Want to know the worst thing about being a perfectionist?
Of course, you know that perfectionists are hard on themselves. They’re always focusing on what’s wrong, not on what’s right. On what they didn’t do, not on what they did do. But the really worst thing about being a perfectionist is that they think in black and white. Everything is either right or wrong. They are good or bad. Smart or stupid. Strong or weak. Normal or nuts. So, if you’re not smart, you must be stupid (idiot!). If you’re not strong, you must be weak (wuss). If you didn’t make the right choice, you made the wrong one (How could you?). So how do you modify perfectionistic thinking?
This binary thinking is indicative of a fixed, static view of reality. On some rare occasions, such thinking makes sense. We can generally describe a child as a boy or girl (although in today’s transgender world, even that is not a rigid category). But smart or stupid, good or bad, right or wrong – sorry, that’s just too simplistic a way of categorizing people and their actions.
Consider a not so unusual scenario created by binary thinking:
Jason believes he’s dumb. Why? Because his brother is the “smart one” in the family. The bumper sticker that brags to the world, “My child is an honor student” is not there because of Jason’s grades. Neither is the science award hanging on the den wall. In this high achieving family since Jason is not smart like his brother, he’s thought of as stupid.
It’s true that Jason is not an honor student. He’s an average student, which in his family is a disgrace. Never mind that Jason is a whiz at computer games. And has a wild sense of humor. And loves playing the guitar. In his family, these skills are viewed as a waste of time. It’s only a high GPA that counts.
Binary thinking is limiting. It leaves no room for nuances and contradictions which is the foundation of human behavior. You can be an Einstein in one subject yet awfully dumb in another. You can present as a self-assured speaker yet feel terribly anxious while doing so. You can be kind to others yet harsh to yourself.
Wouldn’t it be great if perfectionists could transform their binary thinking into thinking on a continuum? Here’s an example of how this would work.
What part of your personality are you displeased with? For this exercise, let’s use the level of anxiety that you typically experience.
Draw a horizontal line across a piece of paper. Write the numbers “1” through “10” evenly spaced along the line.
Rate your general anxiety level by putting an x on one of the numbers; the higher the number, the higher the anxiety. Let’s say you rated yourself a “7”.
Now, reflect on a situation that was challenging for you. Perhaps you were taking an important exam or undergoing an invasive medical procedure. Rate your anxiety level at that time. A typical response: “Off the charts, a 20.”
Now consider how your anxiety level might have decreased if you treated yourself to a massage before the event. If you love massages, you might respond, “At least for the moment, my anxiety zipped down to a “3”. On the other hand, if you’re squeamish about massages, your anxiety level might rise by such a suggestion.
As this example illustrates, thinking on a continuum is dynamic, not static. Rather than just thinking of yourself as an anxious person, you take into account situational factors, context, expectations, likes and dislikes. This more compassionate way of thinking doesn’t label you as an anxious person. It points out in what type of circumstances you might feel increasingly anxious and strategies that you might take to alleviate your anxiety.
So, next time you’re berating yourself for being imperfect, scratch your binary thinking and begin thinking on a continuum. You might just start recognizing that you’re not nearly as bad as you thought you were.
Linda Sapadin, Ph.D. is a psychologist and success coach in private practice who specializes in helping people enrich their lives, enhance their relationships and overcome self-defeating patterns of behavior.