I am a recovering perfectionist. Like I was the classic GT kid. I graduated from high school second in my class. I was 16 when I started at A&M as a sophomore. Those are things you just don’t accomplish without being highly motivated to do the best.
Once I was past the regimented world of academics, I found my need to have everything done just right, often to be more of a hinderance than a benefit. My perfectionism, also meant I often quickly gave up on things I did not possess innate talent for. Instead of working to develop skills that I was interested in (but not necessarily gifted at) I focused my attention on tasks that would garner praise from my environment.
In CBT, perfectionism is tied in with the cognitive distortion of black & white thinking. This tendency to evaluate things in extremes can lead to a pattern of all or nothing engaging in life. When I knew I could produce top quality work I would be respected for, you bet I’d spend hours making sure every detail was spot on. But in arenas where I knew I was unlikely to shine…. HA! Good luck trying to get an effort out of me.
As I begin 2020, I am pretty much rebooting my life from scratch. Since today is the 15th, I did my first mid-month self assessment. I have big goals for where I want to be a year from now. Because of all the bullshit that went down in my life last year, I feel like I’ve got several years worth of work to catch up on.
I’m looking to set new healthy patterns in every domain of my life – financial, career, relationship, physical health. While I can see growth in each of the domains I am focused on, my first thought today was I should have been further on everything. I could have done more.
I began having the thoughts, if I had just focused on one domain. What could I have accomplished in that time period? If I had just prioritized health & fitness could I have lost an additional five pounds already?
Whoa Jamie!! Your distortions are creeping in.
Sure, you can see quick gains by zoning in and focusing all your energy in one arena. But usually those results are short lived. One of the biggest reasons for this is they aren’t sustainable to your regular life.
Balance is key. My approach to rebuilding my life is a balanced approach. It focuses on holding me accountable each week to making small, necessary changes in a bunch of different areas. By doing this, I am building a foundation for my new life that I am already actively creating. This all/or nothing approach may have gotten me in the past, but this time I’m walking the middle path.
If you’re struggling with Black & White thinking (or really any of the distortions) here’s four steps to start letting go of those thought patterns!
The first step to changing any thought pattern is to notice you’re having it. Go ahead and take a few minutes to think about how you speak to yourself. What are your most common all/nothing thought patterns? What situations are you most likely to find yourself having these thoughts? Identifying them now, will make you more likely to spot them later on when you experience them with heightened emotions.
What are some other ways to look at this situation? Distortions come from our negative inner critic and are usually based in fear. That critic doesn’t want you to succeed. It doesn’t want you to be the best version of yourself. Because if you were, you wouldn’t have place for it anymore. It can be helpful to tie your re-write into a goal or value that you are focused on right now. Show that critic who you’re going to be!
Commit to Follow Through
When you mindfully catch yourself in one of these thought patterns, the first thing you want to do is label it for yourself – Hey I’m having a all/or nothing moment! This takes you out of the thought loop and is the first step to creating a new neural pathway. Now use your re-write skill, focusing on a goal or value. See your ideal self following through in a balanced manner. Imagine the positive feelings of living as this new version of yourself.
There are tons of categories of cognitive distortions. We all tend to have our “favorites” that we rely on. For the ones you are most prone to using, you’ll likely find that re-writing once isn’t enough. You may have to go back again several times to tell yourself your new thought. That’s totally normal. Our brains are wired to defer to the pathways that get the most use. Every time that you engage the mindfulness and re-write skills you are strengthening your new pathways.
Getting over perfectionism is hard. I feel like I finally let go of all this old baggage that has gotten in the way in the past. I want to be the best version of myself so badly and to embody this fully formed new me – TODAY!
I know it’s all about re-wiring though. The goal is to embrace the journey and take each challenge step by step. When things aren’t going fast enough, I just remind myself that all/nothing approach was the Old Jamie. It’s just not the way we do things around here anymore!!
Are you a recovering perfectionist? What are some of your tip for combatting all or nothing tendencies? Share your story in the comment section below!
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