Abandoning the Alter of Perfectionism

By Tanya Ruckstuhl-Valenti LICSW, MSW

 

Being a recovering perfectionist, (my motto: cultivate mediocrity one day at a time) I’ve had my problems with this disease.  It shows up in the darndest places!  For instance in addition to being a psychotherapist, for the past many years I have been writing in my spare time.  With two decades of practice one might think I was published in more than just a handful of mostly unknown newspapers and magazines.  I’m not.  But the thing is I am still writing. 

In the past I rarely sent out work beyond family and friends because receiving those thin envelopes months later in the mail bearing misaligned Xeroxed rejection form letters or the slightly less crushing personalized rejection letters would send me into a funk for days, lamenting my Dyson-like suction at this craft that I so love. 

This year, I’m applying my exercise philosophy to my writing.  I work out even if I don’t feel like it because it’s healthy and I always feel good afterwards.  So I’m sending out articles and essays with that same commitment.  I’ve decided to tell myself,

“Someday I will look back at these rejection letters with humor and compassion for the arduous path my writing took.  I will feel pride for remaining committed to something I love and finally finding a measure of success.”

A possible lie, one might say.  Ah yes, perhaps, but so what?   If it makes me feel better, and it keeps me doing something I love, that is frankly more important than the mere accuracy.   This is called positive self talk. 

“But that’s not true!  I just don’t believe it,” some of my clients lament when I tell them to say kind and loving things to themselves.   This kind of perfectionist concrete thinking begs for a magnifying glass. 

Accurate, factual information can be vitally important in some circumstances.  Knowing who has the right of way while driving springs to mind.   The importance of reducing our carbon footprint in the face of global warming does as well. 

But empirical truth is not only irrelevant it is downright toxic when we are reaching for an intended truth, one that is not currently obvious.   This is the creative spark behind every human invention.  Religious people call this faith.  Therapists call this learned optimism.  

If we didn’t grow up in a family which nurtured our hopes, we can learn how to in therapy.  Positive self talk is one way to develop learned optimism. 

Here’s is the miracle of positive self talk:  the more we do it, the truer it becomes!  The more we are kind, loving and generous to ourselves, the more we are able to tolerate and gain traction around our own and other’s shortcomings. 

Negative self talk is the product of perfectionism.  To put it in fancy clinical language, perfectionism is a big fat liar with its pants on fire.  Perfectionism will amputate your life and then make you resent your lost possibilities.  If perfectionism were a mother, she would smother her own babies to “protect” them from being hurt by others. 

And so, let us all worship at the altar of perfectionism less and wellbeing more! 

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