Self-Punishing Perfectionism

Do all of us assume there is an implied promise that perfectionism brings us rewards?   If there really are rewards, are those rewards real, or is the promise false and the allure is based on an illusion?  What are the costs and benefits of perfectionism? For the sake of this post, the definition of perfectionism I’m using is illustrated in those persons whose standards are high and beyond reach and reason.

The people strain compulsively and unremittingly toward impossible goals and measure their worth entirely in terms of productivity and accomplishments without setting boundaries.  This compulsion impacts the spiritual, emotional, and physical health of the perfectionist and possibly the people around them.  We can add a bit of diminishing self-control, some troubled personal relationships, and low self-esteem to that as well.

Since I am still a “Recovering Perfectionist,” I think I have a bit of insight into this issue.  I initially saw this in others (don’t we always do that?).   The “all or nothing thinkers.”  Ah, and there’s an eye-opener.  It is basically based on black and white thinking -because there is no middle ground.  The most important, commonly forgotten factor here is BALANCE IS IN THE MIDDLE of “black and white” and “all or nothing”!  Any tiny amount of “minor errors” invites decide we are “total failures.”  That is a perfect analogy of a perfectionist.

Perfectionists tend to think other people (only “other” people are successful people, right?) achieve personal goals with minimal effort, few errors, maximum self-control, and little, if any, emotional distress.   Delusional FANTASY!!!!!   That syndrome is called “Saint-or-Sinner” in the perfectionist world.

A perfectionist who decides they need to start a diet tells themselves from the start that they are on a diet in the strictest terms.  The first lapse ushers in a period of time where “sainthood” ends, and the chance for perfect dieting is viewed as being absolutely lost forever.   Binges step in that is characterized by guilt and moralistic self-deprecation.  The payment for failing will be to HARM THE SELF INTENTIONALLY because they failed.  You know what I mean.  You ate only one spoonful of ice cream.   A small amount in reality.  But that tiny scoop made you feel like a TOTAL failure. So you went on to eat the whole half-gallon.  Has anyone been there – done that?  Of course, I never have.  Haha.

We could spend hours and hours talking about WHY we develop perfectionism.  Learning to take baby steps to break through the illusion of perfectionism is highly important.  A pro and con list may be helpful as well.  Putting together an “advantage/disadvantage” list of the “practice of perfectionism” can also help break through the “fantasy” idea that everyone else is perfect.  We understand written words more easily than feeling thoughts.   When we weigh the costs against the benefits of being perfect, it becomes evident that it isn’t worth it.   We can choose to step out of the illusion of perfectionism at any time.

Another great idea is keeping a journal of self-critical thoughts.   When reviewed, your list can be shockingly illuminating.  How can anyone be happy if they think so badly of themselves?   To counter that, keep a journal of all the good things about you, no matter how tiny.   You know, “I did not text while driving today.”   A VERY GOOD THING!   Your “good-things list” will continue to grow if you write them down as a practice in reflection.

To REALLY crack the perfectionism addiction, think about starting a Happiness Journal.  All your happy things should be recorded there. The little things, the big things, and all the surprising things.  Review the list regularly. Focus on what works, what makes you happy, what makes you real.

My most powerful perfectionism buster tool is this.  When I plan something, I put it on paper to clearly see any illusions that have dirtied my thought process.  Then, I reread it from the perspective of the people I love most in life.  Finally, I give my plan/ideas to them, knowing nothing was mean, difficult, or self-deprecating in any way.  But that “simply a good plan.”
….. works perfectly!

Dr. Deb

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