It's a trap!
You know that part of a suspenseful movie when it seems like the characters have everything figured out and everything is resolved but then someone yells, "It's a trap!"?
As a viewer, this is what keeps me at the edge of my seat, simultaneously loving and hating the movie. I am waiting for the sweet relief I feel when everything works itself out and I can go home feeling satisfied with my movie watching experience. But, the other day, as I watched Princess Leia desperately warn her brother Luke, "It's a trap!" in Empire Strikes Back, I was stunned for a moment. I was hit with all of the traps that I fall for daily because of my anxiety and perfectionism. Just as Leia realized that trusting Lando to help out her crew backfired, my attempts to control my environment always seems to backfire on me as well. Let's take a stroll down perfectionism memory lane for a moment... Ahhh... I'm remembering all of the diets that I've attempted to get the "perfect" body so that I could find true happiness. Everything had to be just right- the right amount of carefully counted calories, the exact amount of exercise, the perfect combination of restriction and self punishment. Then that moment when I screw up and do something wrong and I'm more miserable than ever. It's taken me my entire life to realize that the next time I think dieting will lead to happiness, I need to remind my self that "It's a trap!".
Or how about my plans to be a perfect mother? This is one I am still struggling with. If I can get my kids to act a certain way, get the right amount of sleep or make sure that I never act crazy in front of them, then that means that I am an awesome mom and they won't have any problems, right? If I'm the perfect mom, then they can be the perfect kids! Umm, no that's a trap for sure. Although it's true that I need to do the very best for my kids, some days my very best is pretty abysmal. The irony is that allowing for mistakes and imperfection provides way more growth and life experience for my kids than trying to do everything right.
And balancing my home life and career? I wouldn't be a true perfectionist if this wasn't an issue. I often teeter between working around the clock both at home and on my business so that I can have everything in order in both places and completely shutting down from exhaustion and overwork. You know that saying "You can have it all"? Well I know for damn sure that Princess Leia would respond with "It's a trap" if anyone ever tried to convince her of that BS.
So, here I am, just a therapist keeping it REALLY real about the perfectionism trap.
Perfectionism can affect anyone at any time and often it is so sneaky that you don't know that it is what is making you miserable. What I can tell you is that as a therapist and as someone who believes in the power of therapy in creating change, perfectionism is a trap that you can avoid. In my own therapy (as well as my experience and training as a therapist) I have learned some wisdom in handling perfectionism:
Know yourself. Search yourself to find the source of your unhappiness and anxiety. What expectations do you have that are completely unreasonable and what expectations are unavoidable? Be able to answer the question, "Why do I believe that I need to perfect at this?". I'm sure you know as well as I do that perfection is impossible. It's important to be able to spot when you are setting yourself up for success or failure.
Challenge yourself. When you are able to spot signs and sources of your perfectionism, have a heart to heart with yourself. Sometimes it helps to consider if you would advise a friend in the exact situation as you to have same expectations. Would you tell your friend that if her house is a mess it means that she is worthless? Would you put your friend down if you thought she gained weight? If so, you seriously need to stop giving advise to friends. If not, perhaps you can manage to follow the kind and compassionate words that you would tell anyone else but yourself.
Laugh at yourself. Humor can be the best medicine in difficult situations. When it seems that nothing is going right, can you step outside of yourself and see the absurdity of the situation? This isn't always possible, but when it is, it can be incredibly therapeutic. Remember my struggle with wanting to be the perfect mom? I had no choice but to laugh on my son's first day of Kindergarten, at a new school, when in front of new friends and teachers he yelled, "Damnit!" when he dropped something. I was worried about what everyone would think, how this would reflect on me as a parent and how he would be forever labeled because of my inability to not swear in front my kids. I decided at that moment that I would just laugh (behind his back, he obviously didn't need any more encouragement!) because it was funny. It felt much better than worrying and beating myself up.
Work with a therapist. It can be very difficult to figure out how to spot perfectionism and what to do about it on your own. Perfectionism often stems from childhood experiences and developed as a way to cope with stress. Because perfectionism can be long lived and based in very deep beliefs about yourself, it is essential to work with someone who is trained to be able to help you with it.