When Perfection Is the Problem

Humorist Walt Kelly titled his book, We Have Met the Enemy and He is Us. Kelly was onto something.

When perfectionism and procrastination combine you can be your own worst enemy. By freeing yourself from this complex process, you can better use your time to accomplish more with less stress. Here you'll see a sample of how this process works, a case example, and some ideas for breaking the perfectionism-procrastination connection.

What is perfectionism? Is it a process of stretching for excellence in areas of your life that you find purposeful? Is it pattern of nit-picking, defect-detecting, and controlling? Is it a process where you hold to lofty standards, demand perect compliance from yourself, and make your worth contingent on meeting lofty standards? Depending on your definition, it can be any one of the three. I'll focus on demanding perfectionism.

A belief that your worth depends on meeting lofty standards is a breeding ground for unpleasant emotions, such as anxiety. If you dread the thought of performing poorly, you may experience anxiety anticipating a failing performance. What you fear is based on what you think of yourself falling below your standards. You may also feel anxious thinking that others will also judge you as a failure.

Contingent-worth anxiety thinking is a form of dichotomous thnking.  You see future performances as successes or failures and your personal worth according to this same judgmental process. You are a winner or a loser, worthy or worthless, strong or weak, and so the list goes on. For example, you decide that a B+ grade is respectable. You expect this performance from yourself. The goal may be reasonable. The expectation is not. You get a B and feel like a failure.

Perfectionism can be absolute. In a psychological world of fixed convictions it is not enough to do well enough; you have to do perfectly well. It's not enough to have typical performances; they must be astral. When meeting a standard or attaining perfection becomes a contingency for personal worth the feeling of anxiety is a normal emotional consequence of this form of thinking. 

Perfectionism is a risk factor for performance anxiety and procrastination.  You expect a great performance. You have doubts whether you can achieve that goal. You have an urge to diverge and do something less threatening.  So you delay until you see your way clear to achieving your standard. Waiting for an assurance of success is an example of perfectionism-driven procrastination.

There are at least seven operations involved in this perfectionism-procrastination process. (1) You hold to lofty standards. (2) You have no guarantee you'll do well enough to suit you.  (3) Less than the best is not an option. (4) You feel uncomfortable following the thought of not doing well enough.(5)  You dislike or fear the feelings of discomfort. (6) You hide your imperfections from yourself and dodge discomfort by doing something "safer," such as playing computer games. (7) You repeat this exasperating process until you get off this contigent-worth merry-go-round, accept yourself as a fallible person, and do the best you can without demanding perfection from yourself.

When a perfectionism-procrastination process is ongoing, this strained state can contribute to what Rockefeller University professor Bruce McEwen describes as an allostatic load. This is a wearing and tearing of the body due to stress.You can reverse this process by thinking about your thinking and separating desires to do well from requirements to perform exceptionally. Start with looking for the presence of contingent-worth thinking. If you hear your inner voice telling you that if you are not great your nothing, you've found an anxiety belief that adds to your allostatic load. Uncoupling yourself from this thinking style can help end perfectionism-related emotions and hassles.

Perfectionism is a changeable form of thinking. For example, you are always more complex than what you produce at any one moment in time, so you can't be either perfect or imperfect. but you are always "you." This is the concept of the pluralistic self and here is how pluralism works. You are a person with many atributes.  Work at accepting this pluralistic view of you, and you are on your way toward easing up on yourself.

Let's look at Judy's procrastination-perfectionism situation and a cognitive incongruity intervention she used to change her anxious contingent-worth outlook. Judy attended a procrastination workshop that I led. She spoke up and said her problem was procrastinating on moving to a larger apartment. An obvious question was why did she want to move? She told the workshop group that she needed a larger apartment because she was running out of space. Why? Her answer was surprising. Her apartment was filled with yellowing New York Times newspapers and  magazines. She needed more space. How did she explain the collection?

Judy wanted to date a highly intelligent man. She expected to find him at a sophisticated Manhattan cocktail party. Here is the rub. She convinced herself that if an intelligent man spoke to her about a New York Times editorial, she'd look like a fool if she hadn't read it. So she dutifully and daily purchased the Times and put it on her stack. This was her precondition to appear smart which was her precondition for dating an intelligent and sophisticated Manhattan man. She expected to date only the best, and to do this she had to be the best.

Anxious over the thought that she couldn't develop a perfect understanding of the editorials, she put off reading them until she had ample time to research the topic. Then she put off the research. This is the contingency manaña procrastination ploy. Judy now procrastinated in two areas: researching the editorials and going to parties. Her precondition was obviously unnecessary.

What could Judy do differently? In a television skit the comedian Bob Newhart played the role of a psychologist with a two-word solution to curb all problem habits. Here is his stock solution: STOP IT! In a perfect self-help world, when you afflict yourself with a needless anxiety, you tell yourself to STOP IT. Then you permanently stop. We don't live in a perfect world. So, let's try a different way.

Judy's precondition for success was a red herring. But first things first. We needed to rule out a hoarding compulsion. Several group members helped her start ditching her New York Times collection. Judy reported feeling better with less paper.

With the red herring out of the way, Judy turned to meet her contingent-worth challenge. She quickly grasped the idea that she tended to make her worth contingent on meeting unreasonable standards. She discovered how to challenge her contingent-worth belief by introducing an extra step into the process. She explored an incongruity between her theory of worth and her theory of self.

Judy based her worth on perfect performances. She saw herself as worthy if she performed well and worthless if she didn't.That was her theory of worth.  But how did she see her "self?" Her "self" was different. She was pluralistic; a person with a broad array of talents, emotions, beliefs, and experiences. That was her theory of self.

Here is the cognitive incongruity intervention: How can you either be smart or dumb if you also are a person with hundreds of talents, emotions, beliefs, aptitudes, and millions of varied experiences? Her theory of worth didn't match her theory of self.

Judy left the workshop with a few good ideas on how to curb her contingent-worth thinking, stop procrastinating on facing her fears of meeting attractive men, and to be in a position to stretch for the results she wanted.

If you want to know more about breaking a complex procrastination-perfectionism connection see Knaus, W. (2002). The Procrastination Workbook. CA: New Harbinger, or Knaus, W. (2010) End Procrastination Now. NY: McGraw-Hill.

I did a recent podcast with psychologist Tim Pychyl that gets into other dimensions of perfectionism, performance anxiety, and procrastination. I offer additional solutions. The podcast is free. Here is the link:


 Dr/ Bill Knaus

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