My last column explored how to challenge perfectionist thinking. Changing your thinking is great, but the way to lasting change lies in changing perfectionist behaviours.
People often think all perfectionists are workaholics, but that’s not true. For example, someone who is socially anxious might rehearse every conversation in advance; after a social event, they might spend hours ruminating on what they said or didn’t say. Be aware that this is perfectionist behaviour underpinned by perfectionist thinking. In other words, many people who do not consider themselves perfectionists do in fact adopt perfectionist behaviours.
The obvious place to start is by listing your perfectionist behaviours. Active perfectionist behaviours include:
- excessive checking;
- excessive preparation;
- organising and planning;
- writing long to-do lists;
- spending excessive time editing short emails;
- ruminating on things you could have done better, amongst others.
You should also look out for avoidance behaviours – for example, chronic indecisiveness and procrastination because you cannot decide if one option is better than another, or avoiding things that you feel you cannot do well enough. Such behaviours are a more subtle form of perfectionism, but the underlying motivation is the same – fear of not reaching your own elevated standards.
Aim to cut back on or eliminate perfectionist behaviours. You may feel conflicted about changing certain behaviours. If so, behavioural experiments can help.
Repeating the same behaviours prevent you from learning whether your perfectionist beliefs are true.
For example, someone might believe they must stay behind at work for two hours every day to do their job properly. They might also believe that if they went home on time, they would feel tense and worried; thus, working long hours is the lesser of two evils. A behavioural experiment here might involve not staying behind one week and working extra hours the next week.
Similarly, you might not delegate tasks to others, as you believe their work will fall short of your standards. Again, the only way to see if this belief is true is to test it.
Maybe you always arrive early for appointments, leaving 30 minutes before you need to. You believe others would think badly of you if you were late. The experiment here would involve leaving at a more appropriate time. You might learn you still arrive on time, despite this later departure. And if you do arrive late, you might be surprised to see that others take little or no notice.
Behavioural experiments can be devised for all of the aforementioned perfectionist behaviours – the checking, the planning, the organising, the procrastination, and so on.
Prior to your experiment, firstly identify the belief to be tested and make a prediction (for example, “I will worry less if I check my report for errors five times”, “My friends will be put out if I don’t have the house looking perfect when they call”). Rate the strength of your belief between 0 and 100%.
After the experiment, record what actually happened, reflect on your old belief and give it a new 0-100 rating. Write down what you have learned from the experiment.
Another related behavioural technique is to expose yourself to feared situations without performing safety behaviours. For example, you might tell a lame joke, making sure not to apologise or laugh off your poor sense of humour.
You could have lunch with someone that you don’t know very well, making sure not to rehearse conversation topics in advance.
You could ask someone to repeat themselves at a meeting, making sure not to apologise as you do so.
Similarly, anything that involves practising imperfection is a good exposure, so aim to deliberately make some mistakes. For example:
- “Forgetting” your wallet in a supermarket and not telling the cashier until they have scanned everything in your basket;
- Showing up for a haircut on the wrong day;
- Dropping something in front of others;
- Sending an email with a typo in it, and so on.
Finally, aim for more balance in your life, focusing more on enjoyment than achievement.
Like the aforementioned exposures, this may initially feel uncomfortable, but that’s OK. Remember that perfectionism is exhausting and imprisoning; choose to be less stressed and more free.
(First published in Southern Star on 09/09/2021).