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It’s so much easier to fix a problem when you know what’s causing it. I often use the analogy of a wet floor. You can’t fix the problem by repeatedly mopping the floor if the real cause of the problem is a leaking radiator.
So, as I mentioned in my last post, I’ve come up with an incredibly simple way for anyone to work out what might be the real cause when they feel wound up. I call it “putting yourself through your PACES™”.
The letter P in PACES stands for….
Is perfectionism down to nature or nurture? The jury’s out but I suspect it’s a bit of both.
For some people, a burning need to present their best front seems to be hard-wired into their DNA .
Others are given a helping hand onto the perfectionist/inadequacy ladder in childhood by parents and teachers who repeatedly tell them that they have to live up to a certain standard of behaviour, performance, personality and presentation.
It’s no bloody wonder that so many of us grow up paranoid about the possibility of appearing anything less than on top of our game.
Again, as I’ve covered in my posts on the desire for approval and the need for comfort, it’s the consequences of not getting what we believe we have to have that really bother us when we even contemplate under-performing, let alone do it.
Yep, it’s that pesky “or else” again.
Wanting to do well is a positive quality, as long as you remain rational and flexible and realistic about the chance that you might not do brilliantly – and you acknowledge that you’re still a worthwhile person if that does happen.
The problem is, there comes a point where “I want to do well” tips over into “I MUST do well, or else that would be really, REALLY bad and I couldn’t bear it and it would mean I’m a stupid, worthless idiot and a failure!”
You can see how thinking like that would mess with your head. Plus, it actually increases the likelihood that you may not perform as well as you want to because you’re in a lather and your body is filled with tension long before you even start.
Compare two little boys on the start line of a race. One is completely psyched. “Gotta win, gotta win. If I don’t win it’ll be awful and it means I’m stupid. I can’t not win!” Physically he’s so wound up that he’s a tense froglet of nervous energy.
The other little guy is more philosophical. “I really want to win and I’m going to try my best, but there are 10 kids in this race and some of them are really good runners. Only one of us can win. If it’s not me, I’m not going to be happy about it, but you know what? I’m pretty fast. I know what I have to do and I’m going to give it my best shot.”
Which one do you think is in a better frame of mind and body to win that race? I know which one I’d put my money on.
It’s this liberal sprinkling of the imperative that’s the real problem. Rigid perfectionists set unrealistically high standards for themselves and constantly make irrational demands about their own performance. They don’t allow for the possibility of failure – in fact even thinking about it can trigger an avalanche of negative thoughts and emotions.
Unfortunately this level of ‘demandingness’ (or what one of my heroes, Albert Ellis, the founder of Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy, cheekily called musturbation) can also go hand-in-hand with unrealistic expectations of other people’s performance too. This can make the world an uncomfortable place if you’re an extreme perfectionist – or you’re married to one.
Here’s a news flash:
None of us is born perfect, so constantly seeking to achieve that state is not only impossible, but irrational.
Of course not everyone with perfectionist tendencies take it to extremes. Many, if not most of us, have the odd moment of bother with feeling that we’re going to be negatively judged for not doing a good enough job. We leap straight to the thing we messed up, rather than feeling satisfaction at all the other things we did beautifully.
And let’s not forget that perfectionists have been responsible for some of the world’s most astonishing works of art, literature and science.
It’s hard-wired into us, this desire to do well at all costs. The key is to manage it so that we reap the benefits of achieving great things, without punishing ourselves unduly for our slightly less glorious performances.
If you recognize perfectionist leanings in yourself, one solution to making sure you don’t wind yourself up too much is to leaven these tendencies with self-acceptance. This can be a challenge for those who always want to be better than “just good enough”.
It’s very easy for perfectionism to spill over into low self-worth, which is, effectively, an inability or a refusal to love yourself for who you are. If you never think you’ll be smart enough, interesting enough, talented enough or lovable enough unless you’re on top form, you’ll always be striving for that validation – and mostly falling short.
But the most helpful solution is to become aware of the demands you’re making of yourself and others – and to seek healthier, more rational, more flexible and more helpful ways to want what you believe you must have.
The way to do that is to strongly prefer that you do well, but accept that you might not. And if the latter happens, it might feel bad but it won’t be the end of the world, you will be able to cope, and it won’t affect how worthwhile you are as a human being.
That, ultimately, is what will transform your mindset into one that is truly capable of great things.
This is incredibly important! I’ll return to it in more detail in a later post.
In the meantime…
Task 1: Decide that you’re going to accept yourself unconditionally. Acceptance doesn’t mean resignation – it means that you don’t judge yourself as being good or bad. You just simply ‘are’.
Task 2: Challenge your inner perfectionist. Human beings have imperfection built into our blueprint so it’s impossible for you to be perfect all the time. Accept that “good enough is good enough”. It will take a little while and may feel uncomfortable, but tolerate that discomfort and keep practising with vigour and energy (and gusto!).
Task 3: Choose right now to become your own best friend and biggest supporter. Make today the start of a life-long love-affair with the most amazing person – that’s you. Actively choose to stop beating yourself up for not being Ms or Mr Perfect. Treat yourself the way you’d treat someone you love – with acceptance, understanding and forgiveness.
Task 4: Turn your gaze outside of yourself. Be curious and amazed and wonderstruck at the way the world functions. Keep a gratitude journal – every night, take a couple of minutes to jot down what you’re grateful for. Make a point of including what you like about yourself and those around you, especially the imperfections.
Good luck with the tasks and let me know how you get on.
In my next post, I’m going to look at the second of the five PACES™ (ways in which we wind ourselves up): our need for APPROVAL.
Make sure you tune in – and please share and comment if you’ve found this useful.