I am a perfectionist. This often helps me to deliver quality, but also gives me anxiety if things are not perfect, which happens to be always. In this post I share my experience with perfectionism, and some methods that help with the continuous struggle.

What perfectionism means for me

Perfectionism may sound nice, like you do everything perfectly. For me it is more like quality anxiety. Or more accurately, imagined criticism anxiety. I think about what negative feedback I may receive if I make a mistake, that people may think less of me if I am not productive enough, or that people are disappointed in me when I deliver imperfect results. This mostly happens in my head. I am my own worst critic.

The effect is that I try to avoid making mistakes, and this comes at a high cost. Here are some of my solutions to avoid making mistakes:

  • Don’t start projects. A project not started is a project not failed.
  • Don’t finish projects. If it is not finished, it can’t be reasonably judged, so nobody can say it’s imperfect.
  • Don’t participate in games. In most games, there is a possibility to lose, which you can totally avoid by not participating in the first place.
  • Don’t make appointments. This way, you never have to bear the social awkwardness of canceling an appointment.
  • Don’t engage in social interactions. Don’t introduce yourself to new people. Don’t congratulate people when it’s their birthday.
  • Spend too much time on things to make them perfect, and then still be unhappy both about the result and the amount of time invested.

Most of these are obviously not absolutes. I do start and finish some projects, and this blog is good evidence that I occasionally expose myself to imagined criticism.

One of the most frustrating perfectionist thoughts I have is “if only I had done that differently”. When I make a mistake, I wish that I could go back in time and do things differently. Of course I can’t, and I am angry and disappointed with myself for making a mistake.

Playing down your own thoughts

A helpful thing to realize is that I am not my thoughts. The thoughts that pop into my head are not deliberate or true. Brene Brown describes this as having gremlins in your head. When you think a negative irrational thought, it’s not you that made it up, it’s a little gremlin that lives in your head. Its job is to mess things up. To tease you. While you can’t get rid of the gremlin, you can identify that these thoughts come from him and interpret it accordingly.

Another thing to realize is that the software of your brain is pretty outdated. Our brains evolved for efficient hunting and gathering, and remaining alive on the savanna of Africa. At that time, being part of a tribe was of crucial importance. If your tribe thought you were weird and cast you away, you would have to hunt and gather all by yourself and would probably not live long. Therefore, the brain evolved to be socially cautious, to the point of social anxiety. Realizing that you have a 50,000 year old brain can help a bit with interpreting the things it says. In a socially awkward situation your brain might panic in anticipation of being evicted from the tribe, but rationally you know that being awkward is not a life threatening condition.

As you have gremlins and mammoths in your head, thoughts are best taken with a grain of salt. You can’t really trust anything you think, so best not to get too worked up about your own thoughts.

Solving the right problems one at a time

As a perfectionist, not much is up to my standards. I see problems everywhere. I want to solve all of these problems and make the world a perfect place. However, in practice this is not within my reach and leads to frustration.

At work, I tend to want to fix the whole company, and everyone in it. Because I am not the CEO, and other people view things differently, this is not within my control. This leads to a feeling of powerlessness, and has lead to burn-out once.

Stephen Covey describes the circle of influence and the circle of concern in his book. The circle of concern includes things you worry about. The circle of influence covers things under your control. If these two circles overlap for the most part, you can solve problems you worry about. If these circles are disjoint, you worry about problems you can’t solve, which doesn’t help much.

There are two solutions if the circles are disjoint: either increase your influence, or decrease your concern. I have tried both. The good news is that both methods work, but the bad news is that both are hard. It’s pretty hard for me to not concern myself with problems I see. Some problems are pretty complex and working towards a solution takes a lot of time and effort.

One thing that helps me is to take on just one problem at a time. Instead of solving all the problems in the world, I take one problem and try to solve it. This reduces the cognitive load, and makes it OK to ignore other problems for the time being.

When choosing problems to take on, it helps to think about the process instead of the end result. You may want to have six-pack abs, but do you really want to change your diet and train to accomplish this? However, if you are someone who likes tweaking your diet and likes excessive training, having six-pack abs is almost a natural consequence. Thinking about whether I like the process or the end result helps me to distinguish fun problems from unreachable goals.

For example, I really like learning new things. Becoming a good hacker is a good goal for me, and learning what it takes goes naturally. There is a ton to learn, and I keep finding it interesting. However, when I was a regional training coach for Scouting, I didn’t like it very much. Even though I envisioned I would like the end result of visiting other groups and talking to people I know, I didn’t like the tasks needed to get there: setting up the meetings and building the relations with people I did not yet know.

Head space

When things get bad, I see problems in everything and I develop a pessimistic view of the world. In real life, not much is perfect, and I take that as a sign that all is doomed and life sucks. I keep thinking about how bad everything is.

There are a couple of things that help me to get out of this negative thought spiral. The first is reminding myself that I don’t have to think about anything. When I am ruminating, I remind myself that it is OK to not think about anything for a few moments. That often helps to break the cycle, and focus my attention on the world outside instead of only on my own thoughts.

Another thing is to meditate, or practice mindfulness. I once did a mindfulness course, where they explained several methods of meditation and ways to view problems. When meditating regularly, problems become just small setbacks instead of a sign from the gods that the world is ending. After meditation it is easier to put things in perspective. However, I find it pretty hard to practice this regularly. Usually I only get to this when I am already in a pretty bad mood.

Drinking less alcohol also helps a bit. Even though alcohol temporarily dampens the thought process, in the long run it doesn’t really help. The thoughts that are temporarily disabled just come back later with more force.

Ongoing struggle

The tips described above help me to deal with my perfectionism. They don’t solve it, but make it manageable. Perfectionism keeps being a pitfall for me, and it keeps being a struggle to deal with it. However, I have come a long way, especially in putting my own thoughts and behaviors in perspective. I hope this post can help you to do the same.

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