I announced last week that I’m writing a book on Perfectly Hidden Depression. And this week, I had the ultimate honor of speaking with Dr. Gordon Flett, a leading Canadian psychologist and author, and an expert on perfectionism.
I didn’t know what to expect. I haven’t talked to too many people who’ve written a textbook on abnormal psychology before and I was nervous. But I’d read some of what he had to say, and knew his ideas on Perfectly Hidden Depression ® would be incredibly helpful. So I screwed up my courage and asked for an interview.
He was so nice. And boy, did he know a lot about perfectionism.
I loved his humor.
Me: “You’re my first official interview.”
Gordon Flett: “Oh! Uh oh. Set the bar low, right?”
I’ve outlined striving for perfection as the lead characteristic of PHD. Flett points out that perfectionism can be destructive, and is different from “drive” or a sense of wanting to achieve. Most of us would consider that trait worthy. If perfectionism is your goal, then there’s huge risk. Because perfectionism is impossible. There’s always going to be something that could be better. It’s a mental and emotional set up for shame — you’ve failed at something no one can achieve. Perhaps you secretly believe you should be able to pull it off. So you keep trying.
A cycle is set up. You do things very very well. People commend you, admire you. That’s when another problem begins to arise.
The fears of perfectionism…
Perfectionistic people feel increasingly burdened by the ever-higher expectations that others develop for them, according to Dr. Flett. The teenage quarterback who has led his team to three state championships and is being watched by not only college scouts, but professional ones. The young mother who’s promoted at her job for her outstanding contributions, but stays up until 2:00 am to get that very work done. The attorney who has an almost perfect trial record, attracting more and more difficult cases. All feel honored. But as Dr. Flett put it, “The better I do, the better I’m expected to do.” The pressure can be immense.
If what is motivating them is perfectionism, failing feels intolerable. Accepting less than their most perfect work — completely unacceptable.
Years ago, I told a therapist, “If I don’t keep my thumb at my back, pushing myself every minute, I”m afraid that I’ll become a slug.” Striving for perfection, at the time, was the goal.
Fear is what keeps perfectionism alive. Fear of not being on top — of being behind — of not looking like you’ve got it all together — of making mistakes that will be noticed — fear of rejection or judgment. Fear that you won’t be as good as you were last time. Fear that you have to hide what you know to be painful. And the list goes on.
Dr. Flett’s research (along with colleagues Paul Hewitt and others ) also reflects that what he terms “socially prescribed” perfectionism, or when you feel others expect you to be/look/act perfect, can be dangerous to the point of leading to depression and suicidal thoughts.
Five Ways to Work With Your Perfectionism
So what are you supposed to do if you’re caught up in perfectionism?
When I moved to Fayetteville, I loved theatre. I’d gotten the part of Emma Goldman in Tintypes, a musical in an old Vaudeville style. The character was an early suffragette and socialist, who gave frequent public speeches decrying the state of the politics of the US. She did crazy things like come skating onstage, while playing the violin… badly. (The second part wasn’t hard at all — the skating nearly did me in.)
I had lunch with a friend before I accepted the role, “Do you think I should do it? What will people think about their therapist quoting socialism and acting nutty?” She looked at me, calmly, and said, “There will be some people who would decide never to darken your door. ‘She’s one of those theatre people.’ And there would be others who would say, ‘Thank goodness she’s normal and has things she loves to do.”
I realized right then that she was right. Being true to my own passions — my love of music and theatre — was more important than looking like the perfect therapist to everyone — however that’s supposed to look.
That’s one of the steps — moving out of trying to morph yourself into who others need you to be.
Here are five steps you can take to do the same.
1. Confront your fear.
Ask yourself these questions. What will actually happen if you don’t do something perfectly? Maybe you won’t get that raise. Maybe you won’t win the game. Maybe you’ll disappoint someone. How will you handle that? What skills do you have to get through that? You may need help with this, because your fear can seem very rational to you.
2. Confront the idea that it’s possible to meet everyone else’s standards.
You don’t have control over what people think of you or what you do. You can be trying to live with integrity or do good deeds. There’s still no way you have control over what others think. Look instead for what you do have control over and focus on that.
3. Realize that the perfectionism may be, somewhat contradictorily, making it harder for you.
Here’s a simple example. I’m holding a pen in my hand, gently but firmly. And I ask the perfectionist in front of me, “Is the pencil being held?” “Yes.” Then I grasp the pencil very hard between two fingers — as hard as I can. “Am I holding the pencil?” “Yes.” These questions follow. Which way of holding it is sustainable? Which one will I be able to do consistently? Which one fosters flexibility? Which one, if there was an emergency, would allow me the freedom and the energy to respond?
The urgency and intensity of your perfectionism is hurting you.
4. Become more comfortable with knowing that others will see your flaws. And it’s okay because you’ve accepted them as well.
We talked about self-acceptance and self-compassion in podcast 033 and 045. But for this concept, I’d ask you to write down what you believe your strengths are. If you have trouble coming up with your strengths, then ask others that know you well. Of course, if you do, then that might be part of the issue itself.
Then write down your vulnerabilities — the things that you struggle with.
Do the same thing for someone you love. What are their strengths and vulnerabilities? Now, ask yourself, “Do my friend’s vulnerabilities define her more than her strengths? Do her strengths define her more than her vulnerabilities?” I think the answer is no. She’s a combination of assets and liabilities, of wonderful and not so hot. She’s defined or identified by both.
And so are you. You’re no different than anyone else.
5. Continue striving for excellence, yet accept you’re learning, and you can’t know what you don’t know.
In learning and living fully, there’s always risk involved. The process is about growing. Learning from mistakes. Being challenged by successes.
I’ve laughed reading some of my first blog posts. I went through a period when I thought sentence fragments were very cool. One lady on the Huffington Post called me out on it — “This woman can’t even write a full sentence.” She was right. But I was learning. I’ll look back five years from now, and laugh as well. But the learning is worth the risk.
Five things to try. You won’t be perfect. Be okay with that. Or begin to learn.
Begin to risk. Begin to accept. Begin to feel much more free.
Here’s a questionnaireto determine where you may belong on the spectrum of Perfectly Hidden Depression.
You can hear more about Perfectly Hidden Depression and many other topics by listening to Dr. Margaret’s new podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford.
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