Perfectionism: Is It Holding Us Back?

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Our latest special event was a jam-packed interview with Tanya Curtis from behavioural specialist centre Fabic, and Parents@Work founder Emma Walsh. Tanya delivered so many pearls of wisdom in the one hour teleconference that we struggled to fit them all in here. If you like what you read below and wish to hear the full hour of content please contact us for the audio link.

So, perfectionism: is it really holding us back – as parents, employees and managers?

Perfectionism is quite often hidden and rarely spoken about. Some people don’t even know they display behaviours around perfectionism until another person points it out. But as Tanya highlighted everyone she has ever met has displayed perfectionism in some form or another. In this interview with Tanya we explore what perfectionism is, why we do it, what the implications of doing it are and how we can support ourselves (and others – including children and colleagues) in a very practical way to reduce it.

When do you cross the line between attention to detail and perfectionism?

“Attention to detail is a highly regarded attribute and a quality that is very supportive to have and one that I encourage people to have as it brings love and the care to all that we do. To me it’s not an issue of having a high attention to detail but how that differs from perfectionism is when one starts to impact the quality of your life,” said Tanya

“All unwanted behaviour is proceeded by anxiety so we need to understand anxiety. The definition of anxiety is not feeling equipped to respond to what’s in front of you… what’s in front of you is life,” she continued.

The Body Life Skills Program that Tanya created is an exceptionally useful yet simple tool to manage any unwanted behaviour – which, as we discovered through the hour are often underpinned by perfectionism.

The program addresses how that from our behaviours come our thoughts and feelings – sometimes these are wanted, sometimes they are unwanted.

“When our body is using unwanted behaviours it is simply happening because there is a part of life that we don’t feel like we have the skills to respond to. As soon as that happens our anxiety levels increase. As our anxiety levels increase that changes our quality of life,” pointed out Tanya.

Using the Body Life Skills program scale that goes from 1 – 5 Tanya explained how we can measure how we are responding to life and the anxiety levels we are experiencing.

“How you distinguish between attention to detail and perfectionism is asking – how is this impacting on my quality of life?” said Tanya.

For example, when we are focusing on giving something our full attention to detail, and it doesn’t take us away from a level 1 state, we’re able to focus our energy positively to achieve a best quality outcome to a particular point; it doesn’t create anxiety – it’s just our natural way of being. We feel ‘in the flow’. The perfectionism comes in when we feel our efforts don’t meet ‘the picture’ we’ve created for ourselves of what is ‘good enough’. If our efforts don’t meet this ‘good enough’ image that I’ve created, “then my anxiety levels will increase and as a result the quality of my current experience is also going to decrease.”

When is perfectionism imposing on other people?

“The attention to detail that you have developed may not be the same attention to detail that another person has.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that we don’t need to not expect a certain level or standard of performance or behaviour of them, it just means that we need to observe, communicate expectations and allow others the space to be able to develop the skills needed to help them get to that level that’s required – but not demand it, not expect it, not reprimand or ridicule if that person.”

The implications of creating images or expectations for ourselves and others

The discussion lead into how we create pictures of what we would like our world to be – pictures that are basically the images we create of the future. Tanya explained: “Think of how you may have a picture of how a colleague should work or what you are having for dinner. When we set ourselves up with these pictures we can end up having smashed pictures.”

And why is this harming for us? As Tanya put it: “These pictures we are setting up are making us about our doing – they are saying I’m only perfect if I’m doing things perfectly. That is what is knocking our confidence and competence levels because we are setting ourselves up for a picture that is impossible to meet.”

“Whenever we think we can’t do something we’ve started this perpetual cycle of increasing our anxiety and we’re actually then choosing to decrease our skills and choosing to increase our anxiety just by that pure thought of ‘I don’t think I can do this’. The reality is all we can do is give it our best shot and manage or own level of attachment to the outcome appropriately. It is often the attachment to the outcome that is actually increasing our anxiety.”

What is the effect of perfectionistic behaviour on our lives and our relationships?

This discussion centred around the varying intensities to how perfection can effect people. From a child avoiding to draw because he doesn’t want to make a mistake to an employee getting anxious before a meeting with their manager.

Tanya also highlighted a few general ways perfectionism is affecting people:

  • Some people can’t loose without having a reaction in some way
  • Some people can’t receive corrections, feedback, be told they are wrong, be offered a different way to do things
  • Some people find it extremely difficult to make a decision

But, as Tanya pointed out, a more honest and useful way to approach any of these issues is to ask the question: what if my boss/colleague/partner/child is giving me a correction and it’s simply an opportunity to learn a new skill, to go a bit further?

What role does optimism have in perfectionism?

“Optimism is creating an image of how we’d like life to be rather than just going: ‘I’m just going to take me to life and whatever life presents I’m either going to have the skills already or I’m going to develop the skills I need. And I don’t need life to be a certain way. Some days it’s going to be sunny and some days it’s going to be raining. Optimism is saying: “I’m only going to be ok if it’s a sunny day.” But as Tanya pointed out it is going to rain sometimes, and that is ok.”

“We have two major roles in life: to be a forever teacher and a forever student. Life is giving us an opportunity to develop these skills all of the time. We are presented with new people, new locations, new tasks, new opportunities and new experiences all of the time. The fact is we either have the skills or we have to develop them.”

“We need to learn to embrace our weaknesses and appreciate the strengths that we do have yet equally appreciate our weaknesses and not judge those weaknesses to be wrong.”

“Life is going to present you with challenges but see them as an opportunity to say: ‘here’s a new skill I’m yet to develop’. Then we are able to embrace that and not feel like the world is on top of us when that new challenge is presented, ” said Tanya.

How do we parent children as they start to appreciate their strengths and weaknesses?

“Behaviour is not who you are, it is what you do. You and I will always be an amazing, lovable, awesome being… no matter what. The word ‘being’ there is important. Sometimes our doing is going to be thumbs up, sometimes thumbs down. So our ‘doing’ is never going to be perfect but our ‘being’ is always going to be perfect – 100% of the time.”

Whoops is one of my favourite words. So when someone does something that needs a correction you just go ‘whoops’ and follow it with what can I learn from this?” We are not going to do everything perfect but you, yourself, your being inside you makes you perfect ‘just for being you’. So your doing doesn’t make you a better or lesser of a person.

Some people become identified with their behaviours. Some people may be identified with being the A grade student, or the best soccer player or the good employee or the good mother or whatever the ‘good’ role it is we play.

“The word ‘good’ is actually very very harming because it creates so many images about the way we should be.”

Tanya went on to give examples of how this can play out. She explained how when we identify with these images we set ourselves up for a fall. If a woman is identified as being a ‘good mother’ they struggle in a big way when their child has a meltdown in a shopping centre because the image they have identified with associated with being seen as a ‘good mother’. All this is about being identified by what we do and loosing sight of who we truly are, Tanya explained.

How do you not impose your own perfectionistic behaviours on to your children?

In relation to imposing on another – observation and honesty are great starting points.

Tanya reminded us that it’s important to understand we all have choices and that there are certain things we have already mastered in life. When this is the case we become the teacher. But, as Tanya clarified, “we can only be a teacher when a willing student appears. A lot of teachers come in with the imposition of going ‘hey, I already know that so I’m going to teach you how’ but the student is not actually willing.”

“One of the best ways a teacher [which is all of us in different situations] can teach is to offer a student [may be our child, colleague, friend] choices.”

For example, if you choose option one it’s going to help you get back to a low level of anxiety. If you choose option two behaviours it’s probably going to take you to high anxiety. With option one we teach them the skills they need to develop, but we are also teaching them the natural consequences of their choices for both options.”

“As a behaviour specialist I’m not actually interested in the behaviour, I’m interested in why the behaviour is happening.”

Tanya went on to say it’s very important to clock the reason someone is doing a particular behaviour is because they haven’t developed particular skills in life. You then acknowledge that your job is to help them develop the skills, to help them develop an awareness of the outcomes if they choose to continue your old skills or develop their new skills, then hand it over to them choose for themselves.

How do we learn to embrace ourselves as a perfectionist?

“Develop your tools of appreciation. Appreciate who you are, appreciate the strengths you already have, appreciate the qualities you have – developing a foundation, a platform so that when life presents something we haven’t mastered yet are confidence isn’t knocked.”

“When we see life a an opportunity to learn things you haven’t mastered we actually welcome things and have more of a ‘bring it on’ attitude – ‘awesome, here I am as a student’. But that needs to have a foundation of appreciation and needs to be solid in accepting who we are first we can then welcome the challenge. If we don’t accept ourselves we see any mistake or weakness as a flaw.”

What are the practical strategies we can use ourselves and to support others with perfectionism?

Tanya’s super simple suggestion? Fingers, toes and noes. This practical tool as Tanya puts it, is the ‘best way to connect back to ourselves’. Feel your fingertips and toes and feel the sensations at the tip of your nose when you breathe. So anytime you feel anxious Tanya suggests bringing it back to feeling what’s going on for your body.

Another great tip is to embrace the word ‘whoops’. Tanya explains: “When most people receive a correction it’s the self-talk that bring us down – that is, anything that stops us feel the quality of who we truly are. But every time we simply say ‘whoops, what can I learn from this?’ we are more able to embrace the opportunity.

Start to live in a way where you start to celebrate the mistake and celebrate the correction that is coming rather than judging yourself on how you are doing.

Remind yourself: “I am perfect for who I am but I’m not perfect for what I do so show me everything I need to learn and how to develop the skills to embrace that.”

Remind people that you love them, adore them, appreciate them just for being them – never appreciate them by what they do because that’s when people become identified by what they do. We can celebrate and say ‘yes you did this one well, or this one needs correction – you can talk about the doing but don’t make it about who they are.

Introduce the language of “you are amazing just for being you. Sometimes you are going to do a great drawing and sometimes you’re not.” Say: “Look at me, I make mistakes all of the time”. As a parent Tanya suggested frequently making mistakes yourself and point out what you have done and simply follow it up with whoops what did I learn here? “So you are modelling that it’s ok to make these mistakes and it’s ok to have these corrections… in fact, it’s actually great to make mistakes because we get to learn something new,” explained Tanya.

It’s also about supporting people over time to develop a ‘new subscription’, as Tanya put it – a subscription to a new understanding of yourself or a breaking down of the old values and beliefs you had subscribed to that no longer serve you.

“Normalise the fact that no one in the world is perfect.”

To support with perfectionism, Tanya and her  colleague Desiree Delaloye have co-created a book called “Whoops Is One Of MY Favourite Words”  that is based on ‘defeating perfectionism before it defeats us’.

As a Parents@Work listener/reader Tanya would like to off her Whoops books for $12.00 instead of $15.00.  Simply download this order form and either send to contact@sunlightink.com or info@fabic.com. Please write on the forms “Parents At Work” to ensure the special price is honoured.

For further information about:

Fabic: www.fabic.com.au

Sunlight ink: www.sunlightinkc.com

Tanya Curtis.  www.tanyacurtis.com.au

 

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