On the final day of our 12 Days of Self-Care series, Take This clinical director Dr. B reminds us to move away from unhealthy perfectionism as we enter the new year. For more helpful tips on coping with common stresses of the holiday season and the transition into the new year, check out the full series.
As we wrap up Take This’ 12 Days of Self-Care series, I can’t help but think of how to start the new year and how to apply all the thing from these articles. It reminds me of a question occasionally posed by a former supervisor I describe as one-third Mr. Rogers, one-third Sigmund Freud, and one-third Mr. Miyagi: “Is a painting ever finished, or does the artist simply walk away?”
This was the preamble to a lecture I heard him give many times to many students with the goal of instilling two wonderful words in his students: “good enough”. He reminded us that our aim should be to improve ourselves and do our best work, but that perfection can also be the enemy of progress. The goal is to be able to walk away with the idea that we did our best within the realm of being practical. It’s not perfect, and that’s okay. We know we did our best, and there’s room for improvement in the future. This is a tricky balance to maintain, and it’s almost contradictory in tone (hence, why I describe him as partially Mr. Miyagi).
In the late 1970s, Don E. Hamachek proposed a distinction between what he termed normal perfectionism and neurotic perfectionism. He argued that the difference between the two is that someone with more normal perfectionism seek perfection without sacrificing their self-esteem and gets pleasure from their efforts, while someone with more neurotic perfectionism has unrealistic goals and their self-esteem suffers when they can’t reach those goals. Since then, others have argued for different, expanded classifications, but the idea of healthy versus unhealthy perfectionism is a useful idea for our purposes in moving forward with self-care in the new year. But how do we keep ourselves from veering into the lane of unhealthy perfectionism?
Lose the “success or failure” mindset
If you’re a fan of Will Ferrell movies, you probably remember the line from Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, “If you ain’t first, you’re last!” This is often a garbage mindset called dichotomous or all-or-nothing thinking by professionals. Success is on a continuum, and this kind of thinking gets in the way of recognizing progress. Let’s say you finish your first eSports tournament in 15th place, practice hard at your chosen game, and you finish your next tournament in 5th place. That’s a remarkable improvement, and if you really believe that anything short of 1st place is a failure, you’re going to miss how remarkable it is. Going from 15th to 5th is worth celebrating!
People who have this all-or-nothing mindset can also believe that a little failure is the same as a big failure, and it’s tough to recover from that if all self-evaluations are unrealistically harsh. As an example, maybe someone is on a diet, and they eat a small cookie that was off their diet. Because they think all failures are the same, the person would use the same level of self-criticism as if they blew off their diet for days. Eating one cookie on a diet is hardly a major setback, yet the person beats themselves up the same way. Don’t do this. Not all setbacks are the same. Remind yourself of this.
Don’t be a “But”-head
Irrational perfectionists often do something called minimizing, which is a bias where we ignore or reduce the value of positive achievements or successes. Don’t do this, either! Recognize your successes for what they are, even if they aren’t perfect. An easy way to practice this is to replace the word “but” with the word “and” when you are evaluating yourself. It’s a subtle, yet important, way of changing your self-talk and self-perception, since “but” often minimizes success. In the above example, instead of saying, “I practiced hard, but I only made it to 5th place,” try, “I practiced hard, and I made it to 5th place.” You see how that changes the tone while still being realistic?
There’s room for everyone!
This combines the above ideas of replacing “but” with “and” as well as success being on a continuum. Instead of looking at your successes and failures like you can’t have them both, challenge yourself to look at your accomplishments as a combination of the two. There is nearly always room for improvement, and there are nearly always successes. Make a list of things what you did well, even if they seem small. Then make a list of ways you could have done better.
It’s a Process, Not a Destination
Self-care is not a goal line we cross or a singular achievement we unlock. It’s a process, and one that is constantly evolving and changing, just as our lives evolve and change. What worked for me in college is not the same as what worked for me now. As long as we bear this in mind, we can be more compassionate with ourselves when we experience a temporary set-back.
So move forward with the new year, dear friends and supporters! Be your best selves in success and your best selves in your setbacks. Know that the challenges are there to make us stronger and make the successes even sweeter! Be there for each other, and remember it’s dangerous to go alone!