Superstitious Perfectionism

Here’s how it works. You have a big and important thing coming up… maybe it’s a project due at work, maybe an event you’re hosting, whatever. So you worry, you stress, you over-prepare, you criticize yourself for not working hard enough and not being good enough. And then…you succeed, usually knock it out of the park. And the critical inner voice says, “See? If you hadn’t worried, stressed, and over-prepared, you wouldn’t have done a good job! Good thing I’m here driving you through criticism and cruelty, otherwise you’d never amount to anything!”

This can become a vicious cycle, a “superstitious belief” that the worrying and over-preparing and negative thinking what caused the success. But this is specious reasoning — the truth is, we’re succeeding in spite of the worrying and negativity. And if we were to let go of that stress we would actually have more energy available to achieve and succeed. Worrying  keeps us in a state of low-grade chronic stress and sympathetic nervous system arousal, which is detrimental to cognitive functioning. Think of how much more you could get done and what a better job you could do if you didn’t have that anxiety and critical inner voice holding you back!

This critical inner voice is also self-reinforcing. It creates a perpetual cycle – negative thoughts engage the sympathetic nervous system, the sympathetic nervous system in turn primes the brain to look out for more threats and think more negative thoughts, and those negative thoughts fire up the sympathetic nervous system even more.

Next time you find yourself reflexively being hard on yourself, motivating yourself through stress and anxiety, try pausing a moment. See if you can experiment with a different way of relating to yourself. See what kind of work you do, what kind of motivation you have, when you are a little kinder and gentler with yourself. Do you really need to be so hard on yourself to get things done?