Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Theme of Perfection

There's a theme in my office - client after client after client comes in with a mentality of perfectionism which then equates to an all or nothing pattern of thinking and being.  There's a spectrum here that goes from controlling certain aspects of one's environment to obsessive-compulsive disorders.  Most of us are somewhere in the middle or toward the controlling side of the spectrum, but others are more severe.  In addition, many suffer with anxiety, depression, and addiction due to this mentality. What's going on and what can be done about it?

There's an aspect of control in each case of perfectionism.  A client seeks to control outcomes, to control the external environment, and even to control the behavior and thoughts of other people.  We can all see how this is not going to end well and yet I bet each of us can admit to doing this in some or many life situations.  Logically, realistically, we know we can't have this level of control and yet, we keep trying.  Likely, this comes from some childhood experience/s of trying to please others, or create calm in a home full of chaos, or some traumatic event or recurring events.

There's something commonplace about this - many of us do it with some aspects of our lives.  Not usually a big deal.  However, it's a debilitating problem for others.  Nothing is ever good enough.  Many of my clients fail to meet their own expectations on a daily basis.  Every mistake, every failure, every misstep becomes a tragedy of shame and blame and often overwhelming perceptions of failure.  "Why am I like this?!" I hear. Successes are ignored, seen as a fluke, and/or chalked up to some external source.  They may think the same way about other people - behaving judgmentally, criticizing, and creating anger and impatience with every personal interaction. 

What this might look like for some is a daily existence of overwhelming anxiety - days full of tasks that need to be done just right.  The anxiety of fulfilling expectations is too much to face each day. The result of which might be substance abuse, over-eating, other addictions such as sex or shopping, depression and more.  Each person chooses coping mechanisms and many of them aren't particularly healthy.

For others, it looks like anger, rage, and frustration.  Someone working to the point of frustration going over and over a task, nit picking over every detail, over-thinking every aspect of a task.  This often coincides with an over-critical look at other people - no one is ever good enough, no task ever done the way it should be by others and a need to do things over.  Every day just becomes tedious and frustrating.  Some days they just give up, completely overwhelmed or turn to unhealthy and sometimes dangerous coping mechanisms.

It may also look a bit like obsessive-compulsive disorder or what was once commonly known as being "type A."  True obsessive-compulsive disorder doesn't just involve thinking obsessively, but also involves a need to do something compulsively with repetition in order to relieve the anxiety. What I am referring to here with perfectionism is a need to get something done so it looks or seems a certain way - trying to control the outcome, to create a level of pride or validation to the point of obsession.  Unfortunately, nothing ever seems to be enough.  What looks to others as success, to this type of person is still not right.  Life is a struggle toward a constantly shifting goal.  And, again, it leads to poor coping skills.

This almost always turns into "all or nothing" thinking and behaving.  The person with overwhelming anxiety gets up and gets going and has a great day one day and the next is so overcome with anxiety, that she can't leave the house. So it goes back and forth, up and down.  Exhausting!  The person working to the point of frustration, works too hard and then parties too hard.  The ups and downs of this lifestyle become unsustainable.  The obsessive-like person lives unsatisfied, trying to find that place where all will be as he sees it in his mind and anything but that ideal is equal to nothing.  They have their perception of "all" and anything less is the same as nothing - no balance, no in between, no exceptions.

So what is the solution?  No one solution can fit all, but to start, finding a sense of balance is necessary.  The extremes of life are always incredibly difficult.  Being the best at anything can be just as hard as being the worst (ask successful musicians, athletes, etc.).  The extreme ends of the spectrum are too difficult to manage.  So, balance is needed.  Find somewhere in between with some variation up and down from that in-between state.  Talking to one's self about accepting balance, about letting go of perfection will be needed to train the brain away from the all or nothing mentality.  Clients come to me unwilling to accept that this is true, but gradually, I help them to see that they are ruining their lives and their relationships by being perfectionistic in their thinking.  All or nothing thinking, does not lead to"all", it leads to "nothing", to failure, to addiction, to unhappiness, and more......

Another way to change our thinking is in the science. Success= learning from mistakes and from experience.  It's proven by science and studies on human behavior that we learn more from mistakes than we do from success.  If we can just take each mistake, each failure and look at it as a learning opportunity, we'd be on our way!  The next time you make a mistake, open yourself to the opportunity rather than condemning yourself as a failure and a screw up.  In that opening, comes the chance to see what's possible, what went wrong, to create new outcomes and better understanding.  Life is like a science experiment.  Try something, it doesn't work, learn from that, try something else.

Finally, shame does not help with learning or growth.  Period.  We learn least from punishment and more from modeling and encouragement.  Study after study since B. F. Skinner's time of in-depth study on human behaviors has shown that to go in a positive direction, create a positive consequence or learning situation.  Shame and embarrassment are meant to be indicators - "hey, this is not ok, this is not right, do it differently!"  Instead, we drag that shame around and repeatedly beat ourselves up with it.  Not helpful, so stop, now.

Breathing and meditation can help with this.  Breathing helps the body relax.  Relaxing the body releases tension and this will help us to work with the mind.  Easing the stress reaction in the body, turns off our simplistic, survivalist brain mechanisms and let's the reasoning faculties be more in charge.  This will then allow us to talk ourselves out of the all or nothing pattern.

Meditation teaches the brain to focus.  It teaches us to control our thoughts.  So, doing the work suggested above can happen, because your brain is ready, willing, and able.  Meditation can literally make us better at thinking!

A combination of the cognitive - thinking- skills suggested above with a meditation and breathing practice each day can turn this perfectionistic thinking around, creating balance and a greater level of success and happiness.

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