Q & A: Taming Perfectionism
Q: I have always been a perfectionist and it’s getting worse. I used to only focus on my grades, then it became swimming, and then weight. I feel kind of crazy and work hard to hide it from my friends. Keeping up my standards for myself feels like my whole life. How can I change without giving up my swimming and getting fat?
A: The last line of your letter is an excellent example of black-and-white thinking. Your choices are not being a perfect swimmer OR gaining weight. You can learn to be in the middle and have it all—interests and a life, yummy food and a healthy body. The way to reclaim the joy of sports is to tame your perfectionistic beast and do things because they are fun and feel good. You can strive for excellence without torturing yourself. The first change to make is to identify the talking in your head that is really the perfectionist running you. At first, you might be overwhelmed by its dominance and tirelessness. Remind yourself that this beast only exists if you believe in it and give it energy. Perfectionism is usually a young and innocent part of ourselves that is in pain about something and decides if I do things perfectly then hard things won’t happen. But the truth is hard things happen to everyone. Striving for perfection won’t keep pain away, and being imperfect didn’t cause the problems in the first place!
One idea for taming the beast is to write a dialogue between the perfectionistic voice and a sane and loving voice. (Make sure you end with the loving voice so it gets the last word.) This will NOT make you a multiple personality case. It will help you create and strengthen the ability to take care of yourself. Here is an example of how to do this:
Perfectionist: You never do anything right. You are such a loser!
Loving Voice: Why? I do plenty of things right. I am not worse than anyone else.
Perfectionist: You said such stupid stuff today. Sometimes you act like an idiot.
Loving Voice: Everyone says stuff they wish they didn’t say sometimes. I am not bad. Even if I do say things I wished I didn’t say… So what? Everyone does!
Perfectionist: But you need to be perfect.
Loving Voice: Why? No one is! I love other people and they aren’t perfect. I can do the best I can and be good enough.
By Andrea Wachter, LMFT
Reprinted with permission from Eating Disorders Recovery Today
Winter 2008 Volume 6, Number 1
©2008 Gürze Books
About the Author
Andrea Wachter, LMFT, is a therapist in private practice in Northern CA. Send questions to [email protected] with the subject line: EDT Question. Your name will be kept confidential.