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I Have to Stop Feeling I Have To Be Perfect

A new employee, Alice, was to start today, so many had come through my department lately, I didn’t want another person to train. But I had no say-so in it. The people in HR did the hiring. The new hires just couldn’t do the work, though. There were always errors. I took a deep breath and let it out slowly as I saw the HR person leading the new hire to my office, I wasn’t ready.

I took Alice to lunch a couple of times trying to give her some insights into what I expected of her. She seemed to get it. I guessed time would tell.

I just couldn’t understand what was so difficult about transcriptions. You listen to the recording and type what you hear. Yes, they had to make sure the spelling, the punctuation, the paragraphs, the pagination were all correct. But, they were typists and transcriptionist, after all. That was their job. That’s what they were hired to do.


The Explosion

I had called Betty into a meeting so I could explain a new assignment. Betty was the social media marketer for the company. I didn’t know why they put her in my department. But, she was here. I began to explain the job when she interrupted asking questions, telling me why it wouldn’t work. I noticed the scowl on her face. That was the last straw, I just couldn’t handle anymore.

“That’s fine. I’ll find someone who will do what I want. Please pick up your things and leave.”

I shut the door to my office and sat at my desk for quite some time. This had been happening more frequently. I wasn’t sure what was going on. It did remind me of my mother, though. Everything in the house had to be perfect. I always had to wear a dress with perfectly combed hair with ribbons around my ponytail. She even went as far as getting one toy at a time down for me to play with. If she saw anything out of place she exploded. Was I becoming my mother?

After I cooled down, I started reviewing Alice’s transcriptions. She had now been on the job for a few weeks. She knew the expectations. My job was to make sure everything that left the department was totally perfect. Lately, I’d been checking everybody’s work two or three times. Everybody seemed to be slipping. I picked up her paper and glanced through it. I stormed to her desk.

“What’s wrong with it?” she asked looking all innocent as I threw the paper in her face.

“An extra space, I told you everything must be perfect. No exceptions. Fix it,” I screamed.

As I turned around I saw eyes peering over the cubicle walls.

“Get back to work,” I screamed. “All of you need to improve the quality of your work. I have to go over everybody’s papers two and three times.”

The Boss

I stormed back to my office. Dennis, my boss, stood in the doorway. He moved to the chair in front of my desk as I walked in. He closed the door. My heart sank.

“Am I being fired?”

“No,” Dennis said with a chuckle, “But I could hear you all the way to the front office. I was wondering if we had a werewolf in the office. It sounded like an angry growl or maybe I’ve been watching too many of The Vampire Diary shows. I expected to see claws out when I came back here.”

I could tell he was just trying to lighten the mood. But it wasn’t working.

In a more serious tone he said, “Nancy, I’ve noticed that these explosions have been happening more regularly. We have really good employees. But, we have lost several people recently from your department. We were unable to talk them into staying because of your unrelenting demands for perfection and your explosions.”

“You have been with us several years. You are very good at your job, but we cannot allow these confrontations to continue. I have made an appointment for you to see our coach in an hour, over in the other building.”

I nodded, slightly, as I dropped my head.

“Why do I feel like everything has to be perfect?”

What is Perfectionism?

Striving for excellence motivates you; striving for perfection is demoralizing. – Harriet Braiker

The Centre for Clinical Interventions defines perfectionism as:

  1. The relentless striving for extremely high standards (for yourself and/or others) that are personally demanding, in the context of the individual. (Typically, to an outsider the standards are considered to be unreasonable given the circumstances.)
  2. Judging your self-worth based largely on your ability to strive for and achieve such unrelenting standards.
  3. Experiencing negative consequences of setting such demanding standards, yet continuing to go for them despite the huge cost to you.

Perfectionism is so toxic because the person desires success and achievement, but focuses on avoiding failure, which gives them a negative orientation.

How Perfectionism Starts

This negative orientation is usually handed down from parents to children, in small ways such as a look of disapproval or silence when the child earns an A- instead of an A. As the child matures, this forms a negative core belief that goes something like:

I must be completely competent, consistent, and perfect in everything I do. There is no room for errors.

These ideas become core beliefs. Core beliefs are strongly-held, rigid, and inflexible ideas which are maintained by focusing on information that supports the belief and ignores contradictory evidence.

Your experiences create your core beliefs which create your automatic thoughts, which are continually playing in the background of your mind. They direct how you evaluate new events and situations, continuously shaping who you are and what you are capable of. They control how you feel, what you say to yourself and others, and dictate how you will behave.

Perfectionism Behaviors

Perfectionist’s behavior varies between things they actively do and things they avoid doing as a result of the perfectionism. All of the behaviors, things they do and things they avoid, perpetuate the relentless striving to reach the goal.

Active Behaviors:

Perfectionists engage in behaviors that will help them reach the unrelenting standards that they have set for themselves and for others, in the case of Nancy. The person thinks these behaviors will help them reach their goals:

  • Excessive checking
  • Excessive organizing.
  • List making.
  • Correcting others.

Avoidance Behaviors:

Perfectionists avoid certain behaviors that they feel would prevent them from achieving their goals or standards. They feel that participating in these behaviors would cause instant “failure”:

  • Giving up too soon.
  • Indecisiveness.
  • Avoid tasks they fear they are unable to do adequately.

Perfectionism is a type of thinking that is very negative, self-critical, and leads to thoughts of failure.

Self-criticism and Unhealthy Thinking:

  • Black and white thinking which leads to extreme thoughts and behaviors – no gray areas.
  • Shoulding & Musting: unreasonable demands – “I should have been harder on them. They must be more focused.”
  • Catastrophizing: blowing things ways out of proportion – “I’m going to lose my job.”
  • Jumping to conclusions: assuming we know what others are thinking – “They’re going to fire me, not send me to a coach.”

Confronting Perfectionism

As the person notices the problem, whether on their own or by other’s reactions to their words or behavior, the first step is to become aware of the core belief, aware of the perfectionism.

Because their core beliefs are so deeply entrenched into who they are and because they began at such an early age, it’s usually an outside situation that brings it to their attention. These situations confirm, yet again, the perfectionist’s negative belief, that they are a failure. Consequently, the perfectionist’s negative beliefs are very hard to change.

When the person sets unrealistic high standards, so high they can’t be achieved, the perfectionist will determine that they aren’t working hard enough or that they are a failure. Some will try even harder where others will give up altogether and go into severe depression.

Steps to Change the Core Belief of Perfectionism

My hands shook as I entered the coach’s office. I had heard stories. I was totally convinced this was my last day, last hour. How would I manage without my job? Wild, random, thoughts ran through my mind as I waited. It seemed like hours, even though, it had only been minutes.

The coach finally came out.

“Are you okay?” the coach asked. “Would you like some water? You don’t look so good.”

I nodded. I couldn’t manage to say anything.

The coach got me some water and ushered me into her office. She sat the water on the table next to me. My hand shook so violently that I spilled it as I tried to drink.

The coach silently watched until I seemed to settle. She said, “Can you tell me why you’re so nervous?”

I looked up, tears sliding down my cheeks, “I don’t know what I’m going to do without a job. I don’t know if I’ll find another one. It’s just me, and my cat. I don’t have anybody else.”

The coach walked around the desk to sit in the chair beside me. She handed me a Kleenex, then gently place her hand on my arm. “You aren’t being fired. You still have a job. We just need to talk about a few things.”

“I’m not?”

“No. In fact, this company likes to help people through difficult times instead of letting them go. I understand that you’ve been at your wits-end a few times lately. Let’s figure it out so we can make some changes. Tell me what’s been going on.”

I began to relax.

The coach asked me if I believed in God and the Bible. I nodded. So the coach continued.

Biblical View of Perfectionism

“We are all human beings with inadequacies and weaknesses. We all ‘fall short’;  ‘miss the mark’, according to Romans 3:23. When we trust in Jesus, He forgives our shortcomings and imperfections. We can stop striving for ‘perfection’ and rest in the one who is perfect Jesus (Matthew 11:28). All of us make mistakes. None of us are perfect. When we set unrealistic expectations for ourselves and others we set ourselves up for failure. This is true on the job, in relationships, every place. When we make mistakes we learn and grow. Without mistakes, we never grow.”

We talked about my childhood, thinking patterns and how negative thought patterns were simply bad habits that had developed over the years.

A Plan for Change

Step #1. Set new goals. Ones that were:

  • Self-accepting.
  • Self-caring.
  • Self-approving.

Step #2. Keep a journal to identify the unhelpful rules and assumptions that had developed over the years, rules that govern excessive behavior.

Step #3. Determine whether the rules were realistic, reasonable or achievable by answering the following questions:

  • What do I expect of myself at work? Employees?
  • What standards do I expect myself to meet? Employees?
  • What might happen if I relax my standards? How would my employees handle it?

Step #4. Identify the negative consequences for each of the above rules.

Step #5. Design a new set of rules that were more realistic and achievable, using the above questions.

Step #6. Develop a plan of how to implement the new rules and assumptions for possible situations.

Affirmations to Change Negative Thinking

Another tool for changing negative thinking patterns is to make positive, affirming declarations as often as possible.

“I accept myself totally. My needs are important and I take full responsibility for getting my needs met. I like who I am and deserve to be cared for. O Lord! Look at me through eyes of mercy and forgiveness, through eyes of everlasting love and kindness-Ps 25:6-7. Blessed is the Lord, for he has shown me that his never-failing love protects me like the walls of a fort!-Ps 31:21. Abiding love surrounds those who trust in the Lord.-Ps 32:10.”

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