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The Vicious Cycle of the 3 P’s: Perfectionism, Procrastination, and Paralysis

May 16, 2012

Perfectionism, procrastination, and paralysis –one often leads to the next, in a vicious cycle, especially when it comes to large, long-term projects with no clear deadlines.

My next few blog posts will focus not only on the cycle itself, but also on how you can FINALLY disrupt it!

Let’s begin with perfectionism.

First let me say, that we all can be perfectionists over some things.  This is not an all-or-none label.

We are more prone to perfectionism when we are involved in any creative activity or product of our labor that demonstrates to the world (and ourselves) what we are capable of achieving.

Perfectionism can be defined as striving toward impossibly high goals. Note the word “impossibly.”

Now, there is a perfectionism continuum. I know people who are slightly perfectionist… and others who are over-the-top perfectionists.

There is a huge difference.

“Aiming high” CAN help you become successful. Most successful people set high standards for themselves, and they meet those high standards. There is nothing wrong with pushing yourself to attain excellence. In many cases, the right amount of perfectionism can be partially responsible for helping you achieve the goals you have, up to this point.

However, it becomes a problem when the goal is always set beyond your reach.

After all, nobody’s perfect… but the goal of a perfectionist is to be perfect. In other words, the goal is to do the impossible! The perfectionist is caught in a trap – he or she can never be good enough.

This in itself causes a “perfectionism/anxiety vicious cycle”.  Anxiety about revealing one’s abilities to the world and appearing “not good enough” causes perfectionism.  But the striving to be absolutely perfect creates more anxiety!

An Imperfect Graphic of The “Perfectionism/Anxiety Vicious Cycle”

The perfectionism/anxiety vicious cycle referred to above causes perfectionists to cringe when even thinking about working on their next task.

[Note that I talk about perfectionists as “they,” but we all know that we can become perfectionists at a moment’s notice!]

Never feeling satisfied with their work or performance causes perfectionists to continue delaying their project.  Their expectations for themselves are so high that they are difficult to meet. And guess what happens?

They procrastinate.

It’s so easy for them to say, “I’ll get started this weekend.”  “I’ll start it after my in-laws leave.”  Or maybe “I’ll do it next summer.”  Unfortunately, by that point, they’ve completely lost touch with their goal.

But more about procrastination in my next post.

Perfectionists are not aware of their anxiety.  They feel that it’s normal to want to do a good job, and often don’t realize that they constantly set unattainable goals.

Perfectionists engage in rigid, black-and-white thinking about their own performance.  There are no gray areas: if it isn’t perfect, it’s horrible. They are always letting themselves down, disappointing themselves, or living with the fear that they are about to do so.

Perfectionists often fear that they are just about to be exposed as not good enough – and this manifests itself in the NEED to prove that they actually are good enough, even to themselves.  Remember, black-and-white thinking leads them to believe that if they are not the best, they’re nothing.

When people are being perfectionists, they fail to realize that perfection itself IS a myth. It’s unobtainable.

You may have recognized yourself in some of these descriptions.  And you’ll be happy to know that there really are techniques to help quell your perfectionism when it rears its cute little head.

  • You need to do it badly before you can do it well.  Try to do a “rough draft” of whatever you’re working on.  It doesn’t have to be good!  You can fix it the next day when you gain a little distance from your work.  After all, if you’ve read this far, you know that there are a couple of misspellings in this post, and we all survived.
  • Become aware of your critical thoughts.  Come on, you know they’re in there, just below the surface.  If you tune in, you can hear them. Write down those critical thoughts.
  • Don’t stop there: answer those thoughts with positive counterarguments.  Not with airy-fairy, pie-in-the-sky, Pollyanna, “You’re going to win the Nobel Prize, you’re so wonderful” kind of responses.  More what you would tell your friend if they were sharing such negative thoughts with you.  Show yourself the same kindness as you would show to others. Example:
    • “You idiot, you wasted all that time and only worked on your project for 10 minutes!  You’ll never get anywhere, and you’ll end up homeless under a bridge.”
    • “Well, at least I did 10 minutes.  I now realize that I should have started my day with 30 minutes of work.  I’ll try that tomorrow.  And don’t call me names.”
  • Create more realistic expectations for yourself. Start with your daily goals, and focus on only giving yourself DOABLE tasks, each day, by breaking your work into tiny pieces.  Avoid the feeling of being overwhelmed, and congratulate yourself when you achieve each small step.
  • Make your long-term goals realistic and doable.  If you tend to be overly optimistic about what you can accomplish, assume that you really can only do about a quarter of it in that time frame.  So if your first thought is I can write a book in 6 months, multiply it times 4.  I made that number up, based on many years of working with perfectionists and seeing how far off they generally are in their estimates for their long-term goals.
  • Progress toward your project or goal within the context of a supportive, open group.  The more you find out about others’ struggles and fears, the more you will feel encouraged to keep going and not worry about your results turning out perfectly.  A group reminds you that you’re all imperfect, and yet you’re all still OK!
  • Remind yourself repeatedly that even if the worst happens and you fail miserably, you are still a worthwhile and loveable person.  You’re not the sum total of what you DO, but who you ARE as a person.

Take the first step toward ending your procrastination habits for good: conquer your perfectionism!

Join me next week, when I focus on the second “P”: Procrastination itself.

Do you ever catch yourself being a perfectionist?  What effect does perfectionism have on you?  Can you think of a time when it actually slowed down or hindered your performance?

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