Perfectionists and Perspective Shifts

Suzanne Manser, PhD
February 1, 2020

“Someone once asked me, ‘Why do you always insist on taking the hard road?’ I replied, ‘Why do you assume I see two roads?’”

– Author Unknown

Perfectionists will identify with this quote. We often see only one road. On this road, there is one valid way to move through the world – perfectly. Anything less is failure and is therefore unacceptable. Period. For those of us who travel this road, it can be challenging – to say the least – to shift perspectives. But if we don’t, we are stuck in a worldview that promotes feelings of failure, shame, and low self-esteem, because perfection is rarely reached and is always fleeting.

There are two stories I share with my perfectionistic patients to open their eyes to other roads. These particular stories are personal to me; each showed me a different way of being in the world that actually felt valid. One story happened to me. The other happened to Sara Blakely.

Sara Blakely is the founder of Spanx, an undergarment company that is both revolutionary and very financially successful. A number of years ago, I randomly read an online article about her (I think I was watching a lot of Shark Tank at the time). According to the article, when Sara was a child, her dad would ask her at the dinner table, “How did you fail this week?” He got excited if she had failed at something. Let me repeat that: He got EXCITED. If she had FAILED.

This absolutely blew my perfectionist mind. It turned everything 180 degrees to the left. Sara’s dad got excited if she had failed at something because that meant that she had tried something. The meaningful part to him was the trying. I had always believed that the point was to avoid failure (i.e., be perfect). This article about Sara Blakely showed me a completely different way of looking at the world: There is no shame in failure. In fact, it’s a good thing. It means you tried. Trying means you are engaging with life, and that is what is meaningful.

This was a radical perspective shift for me. Sara’s father taught me to shift my focus from the failure part to the trying part. I shifted my value from avoiding failure to trying. From avoiding pain to having experiences. Not that I am out there trying colorful new things every week, but there is definitely more trying. And there is less shame when I do fail. This blog is an example. I am risking all kinds of “failure” in putting my thoughts out there for everyone to see and judge. Or for no one to see or care, which might be even more embarrassing. I do it anyway, because I think these are helpful ideas that will benefit others, because I enjoy the process of writing, and because it helps me to develop new strategies and perspectives for myself and my work. It is a meaningful experience for me, and I would never have embarked on it if I had remained focused on avoiding failure.

The other story happened many years before I read the Blakely article, when I was in my mid 20’s. Shortly after moving to Boston, I was chatting with a new colleague who had already been living in Boston for a few years. She said something about her car being dinged up and that she expects it to get dings, and she doesn’t generally even bother to fix them. I distinctly remember thinking, “Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute – we are ALLOWED to be OK with our cars getting dinged??? There is an option to not get super upset?? Even if I caused it??” I was COMPLETELY unaware of that road. No one had informed me.

Imagine a vast choir of angels with their rich, beautiful, angel voices singing “Hallelujah!” That’s the level of revelation I’m talking about. With her casual comment, a road opened up for me. It ultimately showed me that I have a choice about how I react to “bad” things. I can override my default reaction. Instead of my default (perfectionistic) expectation that my car would not get damaged, ever, I could recognize that I lived in a place with lots of tight spaces and even more cars, and that few people are perfect drivers. I could choose to expect imperfection and not be embarrassed, ashamed, or horrified by it. It was a relief to get on a road where imperfection is not a sign of failure as a person. Hallelujah!

Now, seeing the new roads and confidently striding down them are two different things. I did not immediately become a Zen master who seeks out new experiences left and right and is comfortable coloring outside the lines. My mind has a black belt in perfectionism, and it does not want me to stray off of its familiar pavement. I still sometimes have to remind myself about the new roads, and it often takes effort to stay on them.

When I do manage to walk down the new roads, life has more ease to it and feels more meaningful and connected. I know that it is the best path for me. My perfectionistic mind, on the other hand, has all kinds of judgments. The goal is to not give those judgments any attention.

There is a third story. It doesn’t necessarily offer an actionable lesson, but it may offer a different perspective. Part of my perfectionism involves maintaining a high level of cleanliness and order in my home. When I had my first child, I conceded to a certain amount of mess. Not dirtiness, just books and toys strewn over a certain portion of the floor and bottle parts taking over most of the tiny kitchen counter. At the time it felt like I was at my utmost maximum tolerance of mess. When I was pregnant with my second child, a good friend told me to get ready to lower my cleanliness standards. I foolishly thought there was no way I would allow it to get worse than it was. Cue the second child and a level of mess I could not have fathomed. I now laugh at my earlier tolerance level. There is now kid stuff on almost every surface in my home. Toys do not get put away. Beds may not be made. Dust collects. Floors go unwashed for longer than I am comfortable saying. I saw cobwebs and did nothing about them for months. My perspective about the value of high-level cleanliness and order has clearly shifted.

In this story, there was no a-ha moment or angel-song revelation. I have simply been too exhausted to care. Little children are EXHAUSTING. Getting my house as clean as I want it would require me to sacrifice a lot of my time with my family and some sleep. It’s just not worth it. I can now tolerate an imperfect house if it means I get an extra hour or two of sleep and time with those messy kids. I no longer see the mess in my house as a sign of straight-up failure.

It’s good to have more than one road available to you. Options are helpful. Life does not generally work well with a one-size-fits-all approach. To truly handle whatever comes your way in your complicated life, you need to be flexible in your thinking. You need to be able to see things from different perspectives. These are not inherent strengths of a perfectionist. We are a rigid bunch, and we can be a tad self-righteous about it.

I share these stories with my perfectionist patients in hopes of jarring them into a-ha moments, and it does often work. New roads appear. On these roads, imperfection and failure carry no shame or negativity. This is all new territory. Once they see the new roads, our work becomes about them actively choosing those roads and figuring out how to stay on them. This includes reminding them over and over that it can be a good thing to fail, and that being imperfect in whatever area you hold dear is just being human. And reminding them to notice how good it feels to live in this new perspective.

[Little anecdote: Just now I noticed that my laptop battery was low, so I plugged my power cord into it. I looked to the left of my chair for the extension cord to plug the power cord into. It wasn’t there. It had been there for weeks. I stood up and looked around for it and got huffy when it wasn’t there. I felt put-out that I was going to have to move to a less comfortable seat. Then I happened to look to the other side of my chair, and there it was. Apparently my kids had moved it a foot and a half over. If I had simply thought to turn my head from left to right – literally changing my perspective – I would have seen it immediately. A small but clear reminder that new perspectives are helpful!]

It is possible to teach a perfectionist new perspectives. This blog is proof. It may take a lot of repetition, or it may take a single powerful moment. Sometimes we just need someone to explicitly point to the new road and give us step-by-step directions about how to get there, and remind us about why we want to be there. If you identify as a perfectionist, look around for other roads. See how other, non-perfectionist people approach life. Then let yourself experiment with other perspectives. Drop any judgment, and notice how it feels when you walk down a different road.

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