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Caroline Foran 6 ways to challenge perfectionist thinking

For a healthy perfectionist, failure won’t necessarily be celebrated – let’s not expect miracles – but it won’t pin them down like a gigantic paperweight, writes Caroline Foran.

FOR STARTERS, DON’T expect to alter your thinking about perfectionism overnight.  If you’re getting frustrated at yourself because you find yourself slipping back into perfectionist thinking, that’s just your maladaptive perfectionism at work (ironically).

Decide which kind of perfectionism you are going to allow: adaptive, which is healthy and serves you well; or maladaptive, which can suck the joy right out of your life. A healthy perfectionist will still be motivated by high standards, but their ideal outcome will be something to aim for, as opposed to an absolute all-or-nothing goal, where anything short of it equals failure (of both the task and you as a person).

For a healthy perfectionist, failure won’t necessarily be celebrated – let’s not expect miracles – but it won’t pin them down like a gigantic paperweight. It won’t define them.

2. Cognitive restructuring

This is simply about putting your thoughts and your beliefs on trial. The task is to examine regularly the evidence that supports or rubbishes your perfectionistic thinking surrounding a particular thing and to look objectively at the facts. Are you less of a person if you don’t get the highest grade possible?

Am I really a bad writer if this book flops? Does not getting it right really mean I’m not good enough or will never be good enough?  Cross-examine your thoughts  and feelings with the reality of the situation you’re in. Look to the past for confirmation.  When you realise that a particular thought is not based on any truth, write down a new, more realistic alternative.

3. Adjusting standards

Overcoming perfectionism is essentially about reframing your standards, where possible, so that they are reachable with effort and determined by you (not someone else). If you are the one to set your own standards, yet you can never measure up to them, something’s not quite right.

Shouldn’t we set our own standards to suit ourselves? In my experience, if you set unrealistic and unreachable goals and you fail to achieve them, you experience a strong sense of failure, coupled with low self-esteem and high self-blame.

It’s wonderful to achieve beyond what you’d expected from time to time, but it’s just not realistic to sustain that on an ongoing basis, and true perfectionists tend to aspire to heights that simply don’t exist.

Set a standard for yourself with your next task that you would be approving of and encouraging of if you were setting the standard for someone else you care about. Set a standard that is still high but achievable. If you set a standard that is impossibly high, and that can never be reached, you have to understand that you may feel down, and you may never feel accomplished.

4. Perspective shifting

Take out a pen and paper and write down what you would say to a friend who is in the same position and endlessly critical of themselves. This is a version of social comparison that can be helpful. It enables us to examine the evidence objectively without emotion by taking ourselves out of the equation. What would you say to someone who failed? Would you tell them they’re clearly just not good enough?

Here you can also examine and challenge your double standards: why have a more lenient set of standards for someone else but impose a harsher set of rules for yourself? Why are we so understanding of and kind to others and so bloody brutal when it comes to the most important person of all?

5. Behavioural experiments

Actively seek out opportunities where you can make mistakes and live with it – the point is in how you respond to the ‘failure’. Will the world fall apart? No.

If you actually make imperfection or failure the goal with things that don’t carry as much weight for you, you can lessen the impact of getting it wrong – or less than 100 per cent perfection – when it comes to something that is important. You can learn to tolerate and be okay with ‘good enough’ and, as a result, develop more flexible thinking.

6. Encourage downtime

Do you know someone who is so goal-focused that they don’t really get any enjoyment out of downtime? Psychotherapist Mark Tyrrell explains that, for some perfectionists, life can feel pretty meaningless unless it’s always results-driven.

Free time doing something that serves no other than to be enjoyable is rarely valued in what he describes as a ‘repressive psychological regime’. Start to prioritise downtime as not just something in between your normal results-oriented routine but something to be valued and appreciated.

Caroline Foran is the bestselling author of The Confidence Kit: Your Bullsh*t-free Guide to Owning Your Fear. Her debut book, Owning It: Your Bullshit-free Guide to Living with Anxiety, was number one for 16 consecutive weeks in 2017.

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