how do I put a stake through the heart of the vampire of perfectionism?
August 20, 2009 1:00 PM   Subscribe

How do I stop setting ridiculous expectations of myself and then either beating myself up when I don't meet them, or feeling more stressed during the process than is warranted?

So I have a nasty perfectionist tendency that's ruining the fun of trying new things - I get frustrated really easily if I mess up or things don't go as easily as they should, feeling like a 5-year old in art class.

I have ADD (currently taking Adderall), but the Inattentive kind, which means that I've always had problems with following directions/processes - it takes me a bit longer, I write a lot of stuff down, forget things... so in professional life I struggle with "attention to detail." But I know I'm making things so much harder and less pleasant for myself by getting so frustrated that I'm not magically perfect. Please help me find ways to accept what I intellectually know - that learning something new or different requires a lot of trial and error, and you're never perfect on the first (or second, or third...) try.
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (10 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
I'm a total overachiever and this has been a challenge for me as well. What I've tried doing that worked for the most part is taking Learning Annex/Free University classes in things that I've always wanted to try but didn't because I knew I wouldn't be instantly good at them.

The next step is really focus on the joy of the learning process rather than the outcome. So if what I did turned out kind of "meh", I at least had fun learning and meeting new people. I was able to translate some of that into other areas of my life.

You might want to ease into this and start by taking a class in something you know how to do, but not super well so you go into the class with some kind of foundation.

Good Luck!
posted by Kimberly at 1:12 PM on August 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

Here's what I try to remember. Behave toward yourself acting as a good parent.

What would a good mom/dad say? If you fell while learning to walk would you say, "Asshole, why didn't you learn to walk perfectly on the first try?" or would you say, "Good job anon! Let's try again!"

Similarly in working on grown-up stuff that you are trying for the first time or just trying to work on more efficiently/better/harder, would a good parent say, "What the hell?! Why can't you be perfect?!" or would that parent say - "Great try! Next time, plan a little more carefully and write stuff down in baby steps so you don't forget that step."

Good luck!
posted by Sophie1 at 1:13 PM on August 20, 2009 [7 favorites]

I've had a lot of issues with perfectionism. I've by no means solved it, but I've found something that helps a lot.

When we identify something that we want to learn or do, we tend to fast-forward directly to the outcome we want. That outcome is often wildly unrealistic and acts to discourage us from even trying. What I do instead, is make a time commitment to the activity. Develop the habit of doing it.

If you've picked a good activity, you'll get some reward from doing it even when you suck at it. Force yourself to think about this reward. Reinforce to yourself how good you feel and review the benefits you received. Over time this can create new conditioning. "I want to be able to do this," becomes, "I like doing this."
posted by dualityofmind at 1:40 PM on August 20, 2009 [3 favorites]

Something I've been finding useful: Don't try to do the whole thing. Don't even think about the whole thing. Just do just the part of it that's in front of you right now.

To stick with the art class analogy: don't try to make a great painting, try to make a great brush stroke.

(You could do a lot worse than to be a 5-year-old in art class. 5-year-olds have an awesome time in art class.)
posted by ook at 1:40 PM on August 20, 2009

I love questions like this, because I used to struggle with this too, but not any more, and my life is so much better for it.

The way I look at it now is that when I'm learning something new, I am doing it to suck at it. I want to suck at it, as much as I can.

Why is this? Because the faster I can suck at something, the faster I can get through the sucking stage to get to something better. The "I suck at this" stage is not infinite. Eventually you start getting the hang of it.

Also, you know what, some people have this perception that in order for something to be worthwhile it has to be really difficult, and if it's easy and fun, you're doing something wrong. I challenge that. If you can find a way to make a process easy and fun, you're 99% to your intended goal.
posted by Theloupgarou at 1:41 PM on August 20, 2009 [4 favorites]

Kimberly and Theloupgarou both touched on what I found blew me past my crippling perfectionism. I set out -- deliberately, mind you -- to really screw something up. That really did it for me. I faced my worst fear and discovered it really wasn't very bad. In fact, I performed better when I was trying to screw up than when I was trying to avoid screwing up.

In my case, I had been overplanning speeches so nothing would go wrong and, upon reflection, realized that I came off stilted and fearful of making a mistake. So I set out to make a speech without doing any more than the most cursory planning. It was a rousing success. Go figure.
posted by DrGail at 3:24 PM on August 20, 2009

When trying new things that are difficult, I keep reminding myself that no one was born with these skills or knowledge. Even an expert in my new activity had to start from the beginning, practice a lot, and probably fail a lot.
posted by jenmakes at 8:49 PM on August 20, 2009

2 things:

1) I had a professor who I worked for tell me 'the perfect is the enemy of the done.' And...after I laughed and it sunk it, it really helped me make deadlines and make peace with things not being perfect... most of the time anyway.

2) Other thing that helped was comparing myself with myself, not other people. Of COURSE someone with 5 years experience at X is likely to be better. You'll get there if you want to and you don't have to be good at everything.

Also, seconding Theloupgarou and Dr. Gail. I had a professor who told us all to write 'a bad poem'. It's actually not as easy as you think to deliberately completely screw up--and you have more fun.
posted by eleanna at 10:04 PM on August 20, 2009

Ernest Hemingway felt so bad about not achieving what he had hoped that he blew his head off with a shotgun. All a matter of perspective, it seems.
posted by telstar at 12:12 AM on August 21, 2009

I understand this completely - I never learned guitar because I felt that there was only so good I could get, and I didn't want to do it unless I could be excellent. And of course, this feeling holds me back from attempting some of the ambitions I have.

However, last year I tried to learn things I'd never done before - painting, riding a bike. I'm not a good painter - no co-ordination or the ability to put what's in my head down on the paper - but I noticed how much better I was getting with practise, and while I didn't win the Turner Prize, produced a piece of work I was really proud of even if it wasn't exactly what I had planned. The main thing, though, was I found trying it out really enjoyable.
posted by mippy at 5:51 AM on August 21, 2009

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