It’s great to have high standards. This is often what pushes us to do our best and succeed. However, when our standards go beyond the truly achievable and don’t allow for mistakes, they get in the way of work, school, and our relationships. A sign that your standards are too high is when there is no “good enough” or you’re thinking a lot about what you “should” do. These suggest that you probably suffer from the Perfectionist family of Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs). And the need for perfection is a great way to bring on feelings of anxiety.
Here’s a way to check whether Perfectionist ANT is in charge. Ask yourself these questions:
- Do I have trouble meeting my own standards?
- Do I spend time making detailed lists of things I need to do?
- Do I end up feeling frustrated, depressed, overwhelmed, anxious, or angry while trying to meet my own standards?
- Has anyone told me that my standards are too high?
- Do I find it hard to finish projects, meet deadlines, trust others, or do things spontaneously?
- Does the idea of asking others for help feel like weakness or failure?
If you answered “Yes” to any of these questions, there’s a good chance you have a Perfectionist ANT infestation.
What the Perfectionist Does
The Perfectionist does not allow for middle ground – it’s All or Nothing.
- EVERYONE must like me.
The truth is that you do not like EVERYONE, so you cannot expect them all to like you. One of the great things about people is that we’re all different. However, that means that we are going to have conflict with some.
- I have to win EVERY game.
There is not a professional athlete out there who expects to win every game. Even teams that are “undefeated” only keep track of that for a season.
- I can NEVER disappoint my parents.
There is a saying, “Good judgement comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgement.” Part of learning is making mistakes, and sometimes our mistakes disappoint people important to us. But as long as you learn from your mistakes, other people’s disappointment will fade.
Perfectionist ANTs are also very good about telling you what you, or others, should be doing. The problem with “should” is that it tends to create some unrealistic rules.
- There should never be any mess around the house, ever.
If you have children, I hope you give up this rule right away. Even if you do not have kids, and you (or a housekeeper) cleans regularly, life happens. Sometimes even cleaning causes a mess: maybe the vacuum bag breaks as you’re changing it; or the dishwasher springs a leak.
- I should know everything I need for my school project before I start.
In reality, the point of a school project is to learn something. It is entirely possible that part of the project is to learn what you need as you go along.
- I should be able to do this.
This is about as useful as, “I should have known.” The truth is that there will always be parts of life that are out of our control. We cannot do or know everything. Sometimes we cannot even do or know things that we used to. We have to recuperate after an injury. We cannot remember the name of every person we meet. And we cannot know about the traffic accident that took place right as we started the car, making our commute a lot more challenging.
How to Deal with a Perfectionist ANT
So, how do you prevent a Perfectionist ANT infestation? With realistic thinking, perspective taking, looking at the big picture, compromise, and practice. Remember, ANT infestations stimulate our fight-or-flight instinct and cause us to bypass the logical section of our brain.
- Realistic thinking includes asking curious questions (who, what, when, how) to help pull us back to the real world as well as using positive statements like, “Making a mistake doesn’t mean I’m stupid, it just means I’m human.”
- Perspective taking is about taking another person’s point of view and finding other ways to look at the problem. For example, a perfectionist might say, “I should exercise every day.” Putting this in perspective might be, “I have a busy schedule; it’s understandable I can’t work out daily. It doesn’t mean I’m lazy. Most people can’t do it either.”
- Looking at the big picture means asking yourself whether, in the grand scheme of things, the issue that worries you (like answering all your email within 2 hours) really matters. Great big picture questions include:
- What’s the worst that could happen?
- If the worst does happen, can I survive it?
- Will this still matter tomorrow? Next week? Next month? Next year?
- Compromise is about setting realistic standards and the basic question to ask yourself is “what level of imperfection (or number of mistakes) am I willing to tolerate?
Perfectionist ANTs have a phobia of making mistakes. In the long term, learning to recognize the situations that trigger an ANT attack is very important. The next step is to then learn how to turn those negative situations into positive ones because avoidance and giving into Perfectionist ANTs will only make it harder to resist them the next time. So if mistakes are your kryptonite, gradually exposing yourself to mistake making (gradually and purposely making mistakes) is the way to become tolerant and feel better. For example:
- Leaving a visible area of your home a little messy
- Telling people when you’re feeling tired or ask for help
- Showing up for an appointment a few minutes late
- Wearing a piece of clothing that has a small stain, tear, or is old
Perfectionist ANT is all about emotional fears and these fears are different from physical ones. It’s OK to be afraid of jumping out of an airplane – it is not for everyone, and you do not need to take up that hobby. However, having a meltdown in the middle of a project because the product is not what you envisioned; avoiding or not turning in your homework because while you “should” understand it you don’t; or never interacting with people because you are afraid of disappointing someone only serves to earn poor grades and damage relationships.
Finally, getting rid of any ANT infestation takes practice. Every new skill requires practice, and dealing with an ANT infestation is a skill. This is where working with someone such as a therapist can be useful. A therapist can provide expertise, support, and encouragement to help you keep going even when it seems like a Perfectionist ANT is about to take over.
Finally, remember that lowering your standards doesn’t mean having no standards. Instead, you are creating a realistic environment that encourages you to do your best without taking over your life and keeping you from doing things you consider important – like spending time with friends and family or finishing school or work projects.