Impossible Standards
March 13, 2007 2:18 PM   Subscribe

Help my wife with her impossible standards.

My wife always sets her standards to an impossibility and now she wants to learn to stop. We were wondering if there are any websites or books that you would recommend.
posted by Hands of Manos to Health & Fitness (31 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Her standards for what ?.. or do you just mean in general...

I have that problem sometimes. I'm a perfectionist and i *HATE* it when people just do whats "good enough".. and its obviously not. Most of the time I just do as much as possible myself, so I dont have to rely on others.
posted by jmnugent at 2:26 PM on March 13, 2007

Response by poster: Yeah she's a perfectionist in most things. Like she's taken up painting now and is new at it. If something is wrong with her picture she gets very angry and upset about it instead of thinking of positive solutions to the problem.

So yes, "just in general."
posted by Hands of Manos at 2:30 PM on March 13, 2007

It really depends on her specifics. I am a perfectionist with unrealistic standards, and because of this I am very all or nothing. If I can't have something done perfectly, then I don't bother because a half-assed supplement will just depress me.

I haven't found many books (and I have bought many) that really helped me with perfectionism, or websites for that matter. But I am eager to see if anyone else has any suggestions.

Personally, what is helping me most is trying to grasp what is "normal". I often ask my friends about their cleaning habits, their eating habits, etc, just out of curiosity. They don't seem to mind since I pose the question as "You seem normal & I'm trying to figure out what NORMAL people do!". It helps me to talk myself out of beating myself up when I can't devote an entire weekend to cleaning my apartment - that 15 minutes can make a difference and that's what most normal people do. That even the most successful people who have lost a lot of weight sometimes go hog wild at a holiday meal or great restaurant.

That really, it's all about balance. You can schedule every minute of every day to make everything nice & great & perfect, but it will never happen. It's about figuring out what's realistic & what's acceptable for your wife.

I also think that part of it is to stop looking ahead so much. A lot of my perfectionism seems to focus on a future, perfect version of myself, where my home will be spotless and beautiful, all of my work will be done perfectly and ahead of schedule, I'll be healthy and gorgeous, and my checkbook will always be balanced. But I find that I spend so much time worrying about getting to that perfect but impossible future-me, that I can't enjoy the present time.

That's when I consider that I can be hit by a bus tomorrow and try to ground myself in enjoying today. I try to do little things to further my goals each day, but to remember that the MOST important thing in life is to try & have a little fun as often as possible & to spend time with the people you love.
posted by tastybrains at 2:34 PM on March 13, 2007

Response by poster: Hey thanks TastyBrains. I've often told her to ask survey people as well. And I'm not going around her back asking this question, she's reading these responses as well...she just doesn't have a mefi account.
posted by Hands of Manos at 2:37 PM on March 13, 2007

Like she's taken up painting now and is new at it. If something is wrong with her picture she gets very angry and upset about it instead of thinking of positive solutions to the problem.

So she's expecting to be able to do things perfectly, without practice? Have her look at it this way: nearly everything that can be done has been done professionally. Would she, in her job, expect someone to be able to show up off the street and do her tasks as well as she does? Things require practice, knowledge, and experience. When you have those things, you no longer have to worry about the small details all the time -- you've proven yourself competent and know that you're doing good enough. Or, if she wants, a level beyond "good enough."

Giving in to a constant perfectionism isn't constructive. Sure, you cleaned the bathroom, but did you really get the toilet that clean? And you might have cooked dinner, but the rice wasn't quite done, and you used white rice instead of brown, so think about the health difference you could have made! Nobody regularly thinks these things, but they're things that someone truly paranoid could think.

Practice, knowledge, and experience. And then not sweating the small stuff.
posted by mikeh at 2:54 PM on March 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

My artist's anonymous group has this advice.

"Anything worth doing is worth doing badly."

ESPECIALLY in the creative realms, that is SO true.
posted by konolia at 2:55 PM on March 13, 2007

Response by poster: Mike,

Even in her job she's a perfectionist. She's a high school teacher and she just can't "grade papers" she spends hours pouring over them and it drives her nuts.

But generally speaking she expects that she can do something and if she can't she gets REALLY angry about it. So she's trying to stop this problem and that's what we're looking for.

And so far, thanks for the help guys!
posted by Hands of Manos at 3:06 PM on March 13, 2007

I would recommend that old staple of AxeMe, "Feeling Good".

What you are describing sounds like the sort of thing that CBT is designed to address. "Feeling Good" contains a lot of strategies for reviewing your beliefs and expectations in a rational, positive, and hopefully ultimately helpful way.

And AMEN to "Anything worth doing is worth doing badly." You have to bear that in mind when you learn new things. Although that doesn't sound as though it is on all fours with your wife's perfectionism, since it obviously pervades all areas of her life.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 3:15 PM on March 13, 2007

I overcame paralyzing perfectionism by forcing myself to live with imperfection, after getting some help through a cognitive behavioral therapist. My perfectionism was linked with anxiety more than anger. I went through thought exercises where I would think through actions and the worst possible consequences of not getting them exactly right. Then I'd force myself to do whatever it was, and when it wasn't perfect I'd force myself to live with the results. At first it was difficult, but now I'm willing to publicly make mistakes left and right. Not necessarily good for my reputation, but very good for my mental health and mood.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 3:19 PM on March 13, 2007

Best answer: She might be helped by looking into Cognitive Behavioral Therapy books, like The Feeling Good Handbook, which, although it's primarily about depression, gives a good sense of how to confront and think your way out of cognitive distortions.

The paradox of perfectionism of the sort you're describing is that it can actually be a way to avoid doing things, rather than a way to do things well. Many many things take practice, and many things don't need doing perfectly, simply adequately.
posted by OmieWise at 3:25 PM on March 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

Someone posted this link in a previous question on a different topic.
posted by Kensational at 3:36 PM on March 13, 2007

With the painting, try to get her to convince herself that the goal is not the end result but the journey. If she is enjoying the act of putting paint to paper/canvas, then she is succeeding. Otherwise, why paint?

Another trick there is to not aim for any painting to be submitted, or sold or hung (even at home). Every painting could be considered an exercise - this one is an experiment in capturing light, I don't care if it looks crappy, because I'm not aiming to create something to look at, I aiming to discover more about this medium.

For people who have often been good at things the first time they try anything, it can be quite difficult to accept that they need to build up skills.

I would suggest to her, as well, that she consider her perfectionism over a period of time, by writing in a journal, and asking herself what she is getting out of it, and what it is costing her. (Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, really, when you try and approach things logically and honestly). Ask her to consider whether the extra ten hours spent on a project resulted in an improvement worthy of the time. Ask her to think about why she needs to be perfect, or to do perfect - and whether she would be acceptable to people who matter to her if she performed mediocrely. Ask her to think about whether she judges others with the same standards by which she makes herself jump through hoops, and listen (but don't argue) if she choose to tell you about it. Arguing with her will just make her feel like she's wrong (and therefore not perfect), which is why I suggested the journal.
posted by b33j at 3:54 PM on March 13, 2007

Best answer: Bird by Bird by Ann Lamot is about writing but also a good book in general about allowing yourself to do a "bad first draft" in life--plus she's just a very funny writer. It speaks to the idea that perfection is the enemy of the good (I'm not sure if I have that saying right).

Also when I'm driving myself crazy on a project, I try to remember what my a friend who does merchandising for a big department store always says: "Done is beautiful."
posted by agatha_magatha at 3:57 PM on March 13, 2007

Maybe she could try breaking down the things she is trying to do into smaller steps. So instead of aiming for "Best painting ever", aim for "Super quick five minute draft" with the explicit intention of throwing it away. A five minute draft is perfect if you do it in five minutes, and that's achievable. Next step - five minute draft, but not with such a big nose. Or whatever.

For me, just acknowledging the problem made it better. Once I start noticing "oh look, I've finished this thing adequately but I'm still fussing over it", then I can just force myself to stop fussing and call it finished. Once I've walked away the stress stops.

If Mrs Hands is specifically bothered that she doesn't keep the house perfectly clean, and if you can afford to, you could try hiring a cleaner.
posted by emilyw at 4:11 PM on March 13, 2007

Response by poster: Agatha,

I love Ann Lamot and have considered getting this book too!

Just a quick recommendation...Plan B by her is great too!
posted by Hands of Manos at 4:23 PM on March 13, 2007

Taming the Gremlin is about reducing negative self-talk. I'm working on it now and I would recommend it for anyone who hears that little voice telling them they're "just not good enough."
posted by etoile at 4:33 PM on March 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

use this mantra: "The better is the enemy of the good".

This is for people who can do a good job at something but they prevent themselves from doing so because they think they can do an even better job.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 4:39 PM on March 13, 2007 [2 favorites]

my above is similar to "if it is not broken then don't fix it"
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 4:42 PM on March 13, 2007

I bet that once she considers "taking things lightly" her new ideal of achievement, she'll find plenty of ways. So, she just has to convince herself that actually, perfectionism and judging herself harshly is counterproductive (eg, it'll make her less thoughtful of others, less efficient, unable to learn new things). Her new ideal could be to be kind to herself -- everyone deserves to screw up now and then! Maybe she should try to make at least one mistake a day. :)
posted by beatrice at 4:42 PM on March 13, 2007

i second the therapy suggestion, just because she's obviously developed some mental/emotional habits that she's interested in breaking. it often takes more than willpower to overcome a lifetime of thinking a certain way, and a therapist will help her identify useful strategies.

perfectionism often stems from anxiety and insecurity; she may actually have trust issues. not necessarily in a love sense, but just in a responsibility sense. she may be unsure of what "standard" she needs to live up to or what she's "supposed" to do. she may have issues with feeling judged, which causes her to harshly judge others. she may have grown up in a chaotic environment that is causing her to overcompensate. as others have said, she may be afraid she is being judged by her rough drafts.

these are all normal, unless she has an eating disorder or some other unhealthy manifestation of perfectionism. a therapist will probably be more help than any book.

but, if that's a step you don't want to take right away, she could try to desensitize herself by, say, setting a schedule where she only cleans the house once a week, except for spills/stains. or, she could set a rule to finish a painting, no matter how bad it is, before she's allowed to begin a new one. or she sets a timer for each paper she grades. she must let you cook dinner a few times a week without interfering.

and you can be supportive by reinforcing these behaviors. praise her when she relaxes and lets something go.

and yes, "bird by bird" is a great read.
posted by thinkingwoman at 4:57 PM on March 13, 2007

a fear of success is a form of the fear of failure.
posted by rhizome at 5:01 PM on March 13, 2007

I used to have a lot of perfectionist misery. I still have trouble with it, but I've tamed it a lot. CBT helped, and I'm sure the passage of time and plenty of practice have helped even more. It's never going to go away, though.

When I was a teacher, my department head said about grading papers: "Decide the limits of what you want to accomplish, and try to stay within those limits. You need your energy for other parts of your job. " She pointed out that the excess effort I was putting into grading and commenting on student work wasn't actually benefiting my students, and was in fact taking away from my work -- and I saw that she was right. (Of course I then had to beat myself up for having done things wrong for so long, but that's just part of the syndrome.)

When your girlfriend paints, she's defaulting to "Do the best you can, and then look for your weaknesses so you can do better." It might help her to set different standards before she starts out. "I'm learning to paint because I want to learn to see differently. I'm hoping it'll take my mind of my day-to-day stress for a while." Those two goals are pretty good, and if she does end up learning something and distracting herself, she'll have succeeded.

All of this is hard to do. But she can try it out many times a week, with lots of little things. It might also help her to figure out when/where these punitive standards started. I'll bet a dollar that the word 'parents' will come up. :-)

She could also remind herself frequently that she's going to "screw up" (by her standards) in some way no matter how hard she tries, so she might as well decide ahead of time on a narrower area in which to beam her exacting gaze.
posted by wryly at 5:04 PM on March 13, 2007

You're going to be in so much trouble when she notices you said she spends hours "pouring over" papers :-)
posted by flabdablet at 5:06 PM on March 13, 2007

All the therapy and book suggestions above seem like better ideas long term, but just a quick small suggestion that I saw in a parenting discussion: Try to make the "must be perfect" goal time-related; that is, rather than "I must finish these papers perfectly," try "I must finish all these papers in the next two hours." Be hard on yourself for spending too much time on things, rather than for not doing enough. (Again, this is a short-term, trying-to-break-the-habit plan, not something I'd recommend for the long term.)

As for the long term, remember that it does take much more courage to attempt something that you're not sure you can do than it does to do something you're already good at. Finishing a project and finding room for improvement means that you're actively improving yourself, which is one of the most courageous things a person can do -- change is scary, and hard. Reward yourself for that effort when you do make it.

After all, think how boring the world would be if you already knew how to do everything. There would be no growth, no new knowledge; everything would be static and stagnant and dead. Uncertainty, and imperfections, and growth make us alive. (I've always loved Tony Kushner's ideas from the Angels in America plays about this; the angels are jealous of humans because god found the always-perfect angels boring and was much more fascinated by the fallible humans, because in that fallibility was the possibility of the unexpected. Interacting with perfect angels all day was boring.)
posted by occhiblu at 5:29 PM on March 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

Maybe it's not relevant to your situation, and maybe you've already seen it, but this thread was an astonishingly good and oft-favorited discussion on how perfectionism gets inculcated in children.
posted by painquale at 6:07 PM on March 13, 2007

I'm a recovering perfectionist as well. It's tough to work through-- getting emotionally healthy through counseling was a tremendous help. Also, a few months ago I read an article (in Redbook?) about Ashley Judd's struggle and time in treatment for perfectionism, among other things. Her quote: "A wonderful pastor once told me, 'Perfectionism is the highest order of self-abuse,"' she tells the magazine. "So now I try to remind myself that if I engage in perfectionism, I am abusing myself. Period."

That has struck me the more I think it over.
posted by orangemiles at 6:38 PM on March 13, 2007 [2 favorites]

She should draw a line down the middle of a piece of paper. On the left side, list all of the benefits of beating yourself up when you don't do things perfectly. On the right side list the disadvantages. Then rate them on a scale of a hundred, like 60% to your advandage and 40% to your disadvantage.

Repeat twice a day for 3 months.
posted by Ironmouth at 7:14 PM on March 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

I have recommended it previously on the green, and again now: The Paradox of Choice (Barry Schwartz)
posted by misterbrandt at 8:48 PM on March 13, 2007

All William Stafford's former students in the audience chimed in with his favorite piece of advice at his memorial at AWP nine years ago:

"Lower your standards!"
posted by brujita at 9:00 PM on March 13, 2007

I love a quote by Balanchine, the master ballet choreographer: "If you set out deliberately to make a masterpiece, how will you ever get it finished?"

I try (mostly unsuccessfully) to make that my mantra. I think I will try it now and end this sentence without spellchecking and without a period

And therapy. Definitely.
posted by walla at 12:38 AM on March 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

This is late but maybe it will still help. I am still quite a perfectionist, and I don't think that just accepting shitty or mediocre jobs is a great plan or something I could acclimatize myself to. Plus, I didn't want to: I found value in it, despite its discomforts. But I still fail sometimes, so I have learned to deal with that failure by conceiving of it as part of doing a good job: you can only learn if you fail and this failure is part of learning to win. That may be a bit more appealing than totally redoing her conception of the worl, but it may not.
posted by dame at 8:54 AM on March 14, 2007

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