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video lesson

 
 
 
 
 

transcript

 

So, let’s get started, shall we?

These quotes by Chinonye J. Chidolue are somewhat of an ice bucket over the head, but I think they sum up perfectly what perfectionism is.

“Perfection is inexistent. It is the short-lived joy of muddling in the dips of a superficial life in a bid to bury who we really are.

Perfection is a faux. It’s a mask carved by our own poor esteem to hide who we really are and make others see what really isn’t us.

Perfection is a lie, and lying to others is explicable but lying to oneself is the highest form of deceit.”

- Chinonye J. Chidolue

It took me a long time, though, to realize all of this.

There was a moment 5 years ago where I sat at my desk in my busy office, pretending to be busy myself. Secretly I kept sneaking glances out of the window, dreaming of a different life. I couldn’t help but think about where it all went wrong. I followed the steps. I did everything right. Why was I failing at my job? Why was my perfectionism failing me?

I thought I had it all together. I was the good girl, the smart girl. Your typical overachieving straight-A student. My good grades got me love and attention and praise. And so, I took on the persona of the perfect student. I deployed my perfectionist super powers: being diligent and extremely detail oriented, focusing on quality over quantity, holding myself to high standards, and working in a structured and organized manner. This role was written for me. I was born to be the perfect student. I thrived all the way through high school and college. But still, here I was, feeling miserable at my desk in my busy office.

I know that you’re at a similar place in your life. Perfectionism has stopped living up to its promise. In fact, when you think about it,  it has never delivered on any of the big promises it’s made you. You’re not happy. There’s no feeling of fulfillment. You don’t feel good enough or like you measure up.

Fortunately, in our stories, in our struggles also lies the answer.
 

What is perfectionism?

Most of us think that perfectionism is a collection of personality traits: type A, attention to detail, being very organized and stuff like that. It’s how perfectionism is portrayed in popular culture. It’s how we talk to each other.

“She’s such a type A, she’s such a perfectionist!”

“Stop fussing over details, you’re such a perfectionist!”

Right?

But that isn’t true. We don’t suddenly turn into a perfectionist once we start focusing on details and being all organized. Those things happen as a response to our perfectionism.

Here’s what perfectionism really is: a dangerous and harmful way of thinking and behaving. Perfectionism is a coping mechanism that we use when we feel scared, insecure, uncertain, and/or not good enough.

You know, those moments when you feel insecure or uncertain, like when you meet your in-laws for the first time or when you’re faced with a deadline on an important work project, trigger a fearful thought pattern within you that goes like this:

“If I do this perfectly or have a perfect life or look perfect, I am in control and therefore people can't hurt me or see me for who I really am.”

Here’s where I get really personal and vulnerable and use my story as an example.

Because “a fear-based coping mechanism and thought pattern as a response to insecurity, uncertainty, and feelings of unworthiness”, what does that mean, right?

When I dug deep into my own history, I began to see how perfectionism had taken root in me at a young age. As a kid, my good grades got me love and attention and praise. It was one of the very few ways to get love and attention. To me, it felt like love was conditional. Not who I was, but how I performed determined whether I was good enough and deserved love. And that hurts! That hurts to say!

This dangerous thought pattern became the core of my belief system:

“If my school or work performance determines whether I get love and attention or not, I better perform perfectly so that I can make sure that I never feel the pain of not getting love and attention again.”

Being the smart girl became my identity.

I also came to see that what I’d always assumed where my perfectionist super powers (like being diligent, preferring quality over quantity, and holding myself to high standards) were actually MY super powers. They’re my strengths and my talents. And all these years, I’d been abusing them through perfectionism.
 

Two core areas that are the birthplace of perfectionism

Now, this was my story and my circumstances. The topic and circumstance may change from person to person, but what I’ve found is that the mechanism of perfectionism is the same for everyone.

What that means is this. There are two core areas that are the birthplace of perfectionism: appearance and performance.

Our society and culture only views girls in one of two ways. Girls are either the smart girl or the pretty girl. Nothing more. Both of these boxes are constructed based on outside judgements. We, as a society, don’t tell girls they’re good enough as they are, but that only how well they perform and how good they look matters. Which is really sad. I wish we could celebrate girls for how fabulous they really are instead of pushing them into a box.

So, there are two boxes, two molds for girls.

I was definitely the smart girl and I bought into that smart girl persona hook, line, and sinker. I believed the messaging: if you perform perfectly - that means getting good grades, picking the perfect college, graduating with honors, getting a top notch job etc - if you perform perfectly you will be worthy of love.

Now, the perfectionism mechanism for the pretty girl stereotype is the same. They feel like, not who they are, but how good they look determines whether they are good enough and deserve love. And so they believe this:

“I better appear and look perfect so that I can make sure that I never feel the pain of not getting love and attention again.”

And so girls and women who focus on the perfect appearance focus on looking good, having the perfect body, healthy eating, having the perfect exercise routine, but also if they and their spouse are the perfect picture, if they’re children are dressed perfectly, and things like that.

They believe the messaging around the pretty girl persona of: if you look perfectly you will be worthy of love.

Now, I want you to use the worksheet that accompanies this lesson and start doing some homework. Which of the two core areas that are the birthplace of perfectionism do you feel best describes your situation: appearance or performance? And which box do you feel like society puts you in: the smart girl or the pretty girl?

Most likely, you’ll instinctively know which scenario applies to you and your life, but if you have trouble figuring it out, use the worksheet from lesson 0.3 where you wrote down your perfectionism story to see which themes popped up for you when it comes to your perfectionism.

Also, ask yourself what’s the thought pattern that’s at the root of your perfectionism? It’s very likely that it’s similar to the examples used earlier in the lesson:

“If my school or work performance determines whether I get love and attention or not, I better perform perfectly so that I can make sure that I never feel the pain of not getting love and attention again.”

… but maybe that’s not the case for you. Take some time to go back to the person or the child you were when your perfectionism took hold inside of you and reconstruct that core belief and thought pattern that you probably weren’t even aware of at the time but you can see it take shape right now at this moment.
 

Why letting go of perfectionism is so difficult

Letting go of perfectionism is difficult because this wrong view of perfectionism as a collection of personality traits is SO pervasive. It’s all around us, in the way we talk to each other and in the way it’s shown in magazines and tv shows. ‘Perfect’ is how we describe each other. When I’m asked to say something about you, it is the default, the norm, to say you are perfect. Plus, we’re rewarded for our perfectionism. It starts with getting A’s in school and it ends with getting a promotion at work. We’re praised for being perfectionists.

Letting go of perfectionism also means having to deal with difficult emotions. Perfectionism is the coping mechanism we use when we feel not good enough, not worthy. The emotion associated with that is shame. And shame is probably the most misunderstood emotion of all and the emotion most of us are in denial about.

Also, this wrong view of perfectionism as a collection of personality traits has so many of us thinking that to let go of perfectionism means having to let go of being type A or of being diligent. And that causes anxiety and so we feel stuck. But overcoming perfectionism really is to slowly untangle the hold that fear has on us and to start questioning the underlying beliefs. To break down that coping mechanism we’ve used for so long. And that’s difficult. And it takes time and dedication.
 

Perfectionism as a cognitive schema

To escape the tyranny of perfectionism, we need to understand and challenge the underlying beliefs that drive us to get things - you know - ‘just right’.

Each of us has a set of central beliefs about ourselves, other people and the world in general and about the future. We use these beliefs or schemas (which is just a fancy word from the world of psychology) to interpret the experiences in our life, and they strongly influence our emotional reactions. These deep-seated and often subconscious beliefs can also have an influence on our choice of actions.

So, let’s explore what these schemas can be at the root of our perfectionism.

Under every perfectionist belief is a hidden fantasy that some really good thing will come from being perfect. For example:

"If I do it perfectly, then…”

“I will finally be accepted.”

“I can finally stop worrying.”

“l will get what I have been working toward.”

“I can finally relax."

The flip side of this belief, also subscribed to by perfectionists, is thinking that there will be a catastrophic outcome:

"If I make a mistake, then...”

"I will be humiliated.”

“I am a failure.”

“I am stupid.”

“l am worthless."

Okay, let’s take action. Grab your worksheet and reflect on what your cognitive schemas around perfectionism are. Finish these sentences: "If I do it perfectly, then…” and "If I make a mistake, then...” Please note that this isn’t easy and it can be a painful exercise, because this is probably the first time you’ll be examining these deep-seated and subconscious beliefs. And writing them down makes it become real.

Alright, now… changing these schemas means taking notice of the experiences you have that are inconsistent with, contrary to, or otherwise do not fit with them.

Let’s take June’s situation as an example. She’s one of the women I’ve worked with in the past and who - of course - gave me permission to use this story.

June prides herself on being a ‘perfect’ homemaker and mother. She believed this with 90% certainty:

"If I do it perfectly, I will be rewarded."

But when we started talking about this belief versus her reality, June quickly came to realize that she did a number of things perfectly that others didn’t even notice.

June would tell herself that there would be a reward from her husband or her children for taking the extra time to iron their clothes perfectly. But her son didn’t even realize his shirts had been ironed. An when Mother's Day came, she got the usual candy and flowers. No special treats or special recognition for her extra efforts.

So, when June began to notice the inaccuracy of her belief, she could reevaluate how she spend her time. She decided that if it makes her feel good, then she’ll do it. But if it is just extra work that no one will notice, then she’ll skip it. June now believes that:

"If I want a reward, I’ll find a quicker and more direct way to get it."

If you believe that getting things just right in your life will lead to acceptance, then think about situations where you didn’t feel accepted despite all of your efforts. What are the things you would like to change about yourself? What could you do differently that would make you feel better about who you are?

Maybe, instead of believing "I must have perfection before I can have peace of mind," consider changing your belief to "I need to give myself credit for what I do well, even if it isn’t perfect."

Grab your worksheet and question and challenge each of your cognitive schemas around perfectionism that you wrote down in the previous exercise. Can you find evidence or inconsistencies from your everyday life that contradicts these beliefs? If you approach these beliefs as hypotheses rather than facts, how can discredit them? And can you write down a new belief?

Now, I realize that writing down a new belief statement can feel a bit off. I mean, as of right now, it’s just a statement, not something you really believe. I still encourage you to think about it and to write those statements down, because it’s the first step. You have been carrying your beliefs, your cognitive schema with you for years, so changing things up will really take some time and practice. Getting to the other side of perfectionism will take time and practice too, but will be diving deeper into that in the upcoming 2 modules.


 

Alright, that’s it for this lesson. I know getting to the truth of perfectionism is tough. But I also know it’s something that must be done. Because if we don’t take perfectionism down at its roots, then what’s the point?

It’s like when we’re doing garden work and we only chop off that part of the weeds that is visible to the naked eye, then it’s just a giant waste of effort. We have to get into the ground and get our hands dirty. We have to go beyond the surface and take the roots out, too.

It feels uncomfortable and maybe even painful to do that, to take these deep-seated beliefs out of the ground and look them in the eye and examine them for the first time. Challenging something we’ve held to be true for a long time is difficult. And getting honest with ourselves and acknowledging that what we’ve always believed is a lie is difficult, too.

We’ve always believed that perfection is a virtue and a prerequisite to being loved. But that is a terrible lie. I hope this lesson is a first step in getting closer to the truth, the truth of your perfectionism.

Take some time to finish the exercises on the worksheet and then I’ll see you in the next lesson.