If you’ve ever been tormented by perfectionist worries and self-criticisms, you know how overwhelming it can be. You can’t escape your own thoughts and feelings, you feel consumed by the need to do or be perfect, and the imagined consequences if you don’t achieve that impossible goal.
Want to reduce that overwhelm? Try this: For the next few days, notice and write down all your perfectionist thoughts, emotions, and actions in a “perfectionism journal.” See if you can catch yourself in the act of criticizing yourself about a mistake or flaw, feeling an anxious need to get something just right, or avoiding/procrastinating. If you are having trouble noticing these things as they are happening, or if it is impractical to stop and write something down at the moment you notice, try setting an alarm on your phone for several times a day. When you hear the alarm, write down everything you remember in the previous hours.
You might be wondering why it would be helpful to pay more attention to perfectionist thoughts and feelings, when they are so painful and problematic. The key is the kind of attention you are paying to these thoughts. When you are noticing and writing things down, you are keeping one foot in experiencing your perfectionist thoughts and feelings, and another foot in observing them. This is, essentially, mindfulness. Developing mindful awareness of your perfectionism gives you the opportunity to gain some distance, so you don’t feel so overwhelmed and consumed.
Once you have a little observing distance, you can start to envision all these thoughts, emotions, and actions coming from a distinct part of you, your “inner perfectionist.”
Read over your perfectionism journal. Can you start to imagine the voice that is saying all those words, how does it sound? What do you imagine your inner perfectionist looks like? Does this part of you seem young or old? Do you have a sense that your inner perfectionist is always hanging out over your left shoulder, or stuck in your throat like a lump? Really flesh it out, let this part of you be vivid and real.
Seeing that your perfectionism is part of you, not all of you can be quite a relief. Just knowing that there’s another part of you that is observing your inner perfectionist can bring a real sense of freedom. You can start to realize that you don’t have to do or believe everything your inner perfectionist says.
Once you have a sense of your this part of you, it’s time to get curious about what your inner perfectionist wants. Why is it being so cruel and demanding? What is it so afraid of? Does it believe you will lose your job and starve to death if you make one mistake? Or that all your relationships will crumble if you are not perfect?
Understanding what your inner perfectionist is trying to do for you can open up new ways of responding to that self part. Realizing that your inner perfectionist is terrified about getting in trouble and losing love might bring up a feeling of compassion towards that part. Seeing it’s fears as catastrophic and unrealistic might bring up a logical and reasonable response from your observing self, or perhaps some humor. You might find your inner perfectionist quiets down with a little understanding.