Starting a new school semester? Perfectionism loves to show up at this time of year to create impossibly high expectations, unrelenting anxiety, and debilitating self-criticism. Here are three ways perfectionism gets in the way — and what you can do about it.
1. Fantasizing about perfection.A new school year means a whole lot of things starting — classes, sports, friendships, activities. It’s natural to imagine what these will be like and how you will perform. If you are a perfectionist, you may find yourself daydreaming about performing flawlessly in all these realms. While it’s great to think positive and visualize success, you also need to be able to feel genuinely satisfied when things fall short of perfection. If you notice you are feeling disappointed all the time simply because life doesn’t turn out like your fantasies, your inner perfectionist is definitely getting in your way.
What can I do? See if you can catch yourself in the act of fantasizing about perfection. You can certainly allow yourself daydreams about making the winning shot, getting the A, or falling in love, but see if you can expand your fantasy to include some other scenarios as well. Imagine yourself getting into a jam and getting out of it. Try envisioning small mistakes or missteps and then learning something unexpected. Better yet, daydream about how enjoyable the process will be, rather than the outcome.
2. Not trying new things. There are a lot of opportunities to try new things at the start of a semester. If you are a perfectionist, you might hesitate before signing up for a sport, academic subject, or activity you haven’t tried before, worried you won’t be great from the get-go. Even though you know rationally that you probably won’t be good at something the first few times you try it, your inner perfectionist freaks out at the thought of being less-than-awesome. Your inner perfectionist convinces you that being a beginner is too scary or humiliating, so don’t even try.
What can I do? Sign up anyway! Pick one or two new things and try them out. When you encounter the normal bumps of learning something new, try to be gentle with yourself. Imagine what you might say to a friend who is a beginner and talk to yourself with the same kindness and compassion you would show them. And make sure you also have some activities and classes you are confident about, so you get a break from the stress of being a beginner!
3. Feeling “not good enough.” When you are having all those “what did you do over the summer” conversations, it’s tempting to compare yourself to everyone else and judge yourself as “not good enough.” Your inner perfectionist might criticize you for not being ambitious or productive enough, not having enough fun or adventure, not being creative enough… the potential for self-criticism is nearly endless!
What can I do? Before you have any how-was-your-summer? conversations, take a few moments to sit and review all the good stuff about your break. First think about everything that was fun, even the small moments, and write them all down. Think back to all the activities that were relaxing, list those too. Write out all the things you accomplished as well. Make lists for any other categories that matter to you…feeling connected to friends, creative pursuits, saving money from a job, etc. You’ll probably notice your inner perfectionist interrupting you during this process, trying to point out all the things that were “wrong” or not perfect. Try saying “not now” or something similar, and return to making your lists of good things. When you are done, reread your list and let yourself feel happy, proud, and content for at least 30 seconds (I’m serious, set a timer). You don’t necessarily have to share all or any of these things with other people who ask about your summer, but it’s important for you to have a sense of everything that was good about your summer — and everything that is good right now.