Perfection Paralysis – The Fear Factor

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Are you a sufferer of this modern affliction? Perfection Paralysis… I’m pretty sure you won’t find this diagnosis in any medical journal, and your health insurance company is sure as hell not going to cover treatment for it. However, if you are like me and many of my clients this affliction has probably impacted your life in a negative way.

Perfection Paralysis – A complete or partial loss of function brought on by a mental construct that whispers, ‘you can’t start this unless you know it will be perfect in the end’. Boom!!! Your plans to try oil painting, clean the junk drawer, try the new diet, take up the piano again, start a meditation practice or any of the million things you want to try comes to a screeching halt, because before you start you don’t know that it will be perfect.

When you write it down in back and white it sounds absurd. How could anyone expect to know that the outcome of a new venture, new hobby or anything new will come out perfect. And even the expectation that we would be perfect the first time we try something is equally absurd… but in the inner workings of our minds it is a common expectation of ourselves.

I’ve never kept hard statistics on this phenomenon among my clients, but I’m guessing at least 90% exhibit some level of perfection paralysis. I work with high achieving and accomplished adults, who are well grounded, and intelligent and maybe their achievements make them more susceptible, but whatever the reason it causes my clients a great deal of pain and frustration.

So how do you cure yourself of this affliction?

The first thing is to even be aware that you are suffering. Perfection Paralysis can show up in several different disguises. In this series of blog posts, we will look at the top 5 manifestations, and what to do about them.

The first one we will examine is the way perfection paralysis often shows up for me and many of my clients.

What if I look dumb or don’t do it right?

When you start thinking about trying something new, do thoughts of ‘I won’t be good at it’ or ‘What if I try and it’s ugly, silly or stupid’? or ‘What if I don’t do it right?’ popup in your mind?

This form often shows up in things that have some public exposure. You want to get back into piano, you want to learn to knit, you want to take on a new responsibility at work. Basically, you are trying something that you are not already an expert, and other people will be able to see your performance, your scarf or that important business report. The public exposure triggers fear!

What if I look dumb or don’t do it right?’ is a classic example of a fixed mindset. The focus is on the outcome, everything rides on the successful outcome. There is a fear or disdain for the work that it takes to master a new skill. Our self-worth is wrapped up in the outcome. A poor outcome will reflect badly on me as a person.

So, if this is how perfection paralysis shows up for you, what do you do?

First and foremost, know that you are not alone, and you are not the first person who struggles with fixed mindset thinking.

The first step is to recognize it for what it is, it is a thought about a project or a task, and not a fact, or prophecy.

To regain your forward motion, it is a perfect time to flex your growth mindset muscles. Connecting with why you want to do the new thing can help you see that the process and not just the outcome have value.

If you want to start playing the piano again, why?

  • Maybe you love music, the complexities and the beauty
  • Maybe it helps you destress
  • Maybe you want to be able to help your child with their lessons
  • Maybe you just miss it

Connecting with your why can certainly help get you moving again.

Checking in with your expectations of perfection. When thinking about it we all know that mastery takes time; great painters are terrible then mediocre then passable then decent then great… no one starts out great!  Learning something new will take time, and there is no shame in it.

The self-worth connection. No one likes to look dumb or do something wrong, however even when you really mess up there is always a chance to learn and grow. Extending a little self-compassion here, recognizing that it hurts when we fail, but in truth we are brave and strong for trying, choosing to learn and moving forward. I also like to turn the tables and consider how I would feel and my reaction to the ‘perceived failure’ if it was done by someone I love. Of course I would be compassionate, and kind… so I should act that way towards myself, right?

When facing this fear foe it can be useful to make agreements with yourself about how you will process challenges and mistakes. If you have a plan to act with compassion when something goes wrong it will lower that fear factor.

Fear will keep us stuck; it is our choice if we allow it that power.

In the next blog post we will look at another way perfection paralysis shows up…. Not fear, but guilt.

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