Tips for Managing Relational Perfectionism #1
Updated: Jul 6, 2021
Ok, hello relational perfectionist who understands the ways in which society has encouraged this in them and recognizes that the best place to work on it is in therapy.
You are here for some tips and I am here to deliver in both this blog and next.
So here it goes, what can you do when you have identified that you have perfectionistic qualities?
1. Identify and notice when and how it’s coming up
It’s really hard to change something invisible.
First it has to take shape and take form. While noticing and having insight may not “feel” as good as fixing, they are essentials part of the process. Seeing it and not rushing to fix or change it is actual practice for combating the perfectionism. It’s allowing the space for messiness that perfectionism wants to cover up.
As I once explained to a client, it’s about noticing what comes up when a few dishes are left undone and leaving them undone. How many times does your brain go back to the dishes? How difficult is it to let go and walk away? How strong is the pull to just tidy up?
This is the stage where you can act like a scientist gathering data. If we move to change too quickly, our “solutions” don’t stick which brings me to …
2. Realize it is there because it has at one point served an adaptive function
Our bodies and brains are geared toward survival – not happiness, but survival.
Perfectionism, like other cognitive structures, probably played a protective role at some point in your life, even if this was instilled in you by important others (like caregivers).
Even if you did not choose this behavior for yourself to begin with, it probably helped you navigate life. I can imagine that having high standards for yourself and others and being cautious before leaping and covering your bases and having an inner critic all protected you in the past.
That’s why you keep using perfectionism.
It is doing something functional, even when it is also painful or ineffective.
Yes, hammering a can until it opens works but wouldn’t a can opener be easier and less messy?
So rather than noticing it and hating that part of you (getting perfectionistic about being perfectionistic), notice it and respond with the acknowledgement that this is a protective, but antiquated, skill/response. To change, we must …
3. Explore the feelings underneath
You knew I would get here didn’t you? How can I not talk about feelings?!
What it was doing and protecting you from is now critical to understand. Often perfectionism is about control. At the root of control is a desire for safety, which means it’s probably protecting you from feeling afraid or hurt or humiliated or rejected or....
As complex as we are and as grown as we get, we all still have five universal emotions: enjoyment, fear, sadness, anger, and disgust – another blog on that for sure!
Within each of those large umbrellas, there are lots of nuanced emotions but to begin, start with the big picture. Which of the five is/are underneath my perfectionism?
So how do you know what you are feeling?
This is a question I get asked A LOT. Building emotional literacy is like learning a new language. It takes time and you have to start with basic words (the swear words of course – just kidding). You can’t just start by writing a novel. First you need to learn words like cat, sun, and hello. Slowly, you’ll know the difference between different animals and one day, between different types of cats and ultimately, you’ll weave these words together into a story about how a Tabby cat met a Persian hairless and became fast friends.
But for now, be basic.
You have an amazing resource for helping you learn about your feelings, your very own language teacher: your body!!! Your body will tell you what you are feeling.
Maybe it’s been calling you for a long time and you’ve been ghosting it. Eek … time to pick up and have a conversation. “Hey, I know it’s been a while, what’s up?” is a good place to start.
While our bodies are incredibly complex, most emotions happen along our central nervous system with its nerve endings running along our spine so it’s likely we will have physical sensations speaking to us somewhere between the base of our necks/jaws and the depths of our bellies/lower backs. That includes: an upset stomach, tight chest, sore neck, lump in your throat, gritting teeth. All of these may be your body’s way of saying “I’m afraid.”
If it’s hard to know what you are feeling emotionally, start with just the physical sensation – the tightness, the heaviness, the tension, the tingling. Just note that. Slowly over time you will be able to see the patterns of emotional feelings and their accompanying physical sensations.
Labeling what you are feeling – in your body and psychologically - is critical.
The act of labeling is a forebrain activity (your brain’s CEO) and just doing that stops you from being completely in your lizard brain (your primal reptilian brain … will talk more about the brain in future blogs). You don’t want the lizard calling the shots so getting in touch with the CEO is a foundational step to taking action anyway.
Getting and staying in the sophisticated part of your brain is really important.
One tool for doing that is your breath so in the next blog, I will share tips for using your breath to then move into a place of intentional action.