November 30, 2021

Episode 15: Perfectionism

I’ll start tomorrow! I will do exactly like this, I’ll do all the steps, I’ll stick to it perfectly this time, and it will feel great. If you tend to make grandiose plans to feel better when you’re not happy with yourself, you’re a perfectionist. Don’t worry, there’s a way out.

What you will discover

  • Why perfectionism is not about having high standards
  • What perfectionism really is
  • The nasty mechanism at play
  • What happens when reality “interferes”
  • The 3 thought errors we make from perfectionism
  • How to actually meet high standards consistently


Mixed and produced by Adrien Grenier

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Episode Transcript

We think that if we don't blame ourselves for our shortcomings or our failures or whatever we're not doing correctly. We're going to end up on the sofa, eating chips and watching Netflix for the rest of our life.

Hi and welcome to the Excellent Rider podcast. I'm Mélanie, I'm a certified life coach and I specialize in helping people like you get things done, find ease and motivation again and get unstuck when it feels like you've lost your mojo.

Come on, tell me the truth. Who here has never said, “I'll start tomorrow” or “I'll do it tomorrow”. You know: today I'm a big failure and nothing is working. But from tomorrow morning, I'm going to wake up at 5:00. I'm going to go running for an hour. Then I'm going to come back. I'm going to do meditation for half an hour. Then I'm going to make this green smoothie.

I'm going to drink only that, no other breakfast, no coffee. And then I'm going to get to work, it’s only going to be 7. I'm gonna be super refreshed. I’m going to be super focused, and everything is going to be perfect. Sounds familiar? Yeah. So today I want to talk to you about perfectionism, what it really is, and what it is not and what you can do about it.

So, on the surface, perfectionism and in the name itself sounds like it's all about having very high standards and trying to live up to them. So, it sounds like we're trying to do the task, or do the thing in a perfect way, right? I'll give you an example of, that illustrates that quite well.

I lived in Japan for a few years and there was this one time when I had a watch and the spring bars, the little thingy, you know, that hold the Wristband to the watch, one of them was broken. So I took my watch to the nearest department store and in that department store, there was a watchmaker or I don't know what is called. Somebody fixing watches.

And I showed him my watch and he said, okay, I'm I think I can fix it. Just you know, give me 20 minutes. Go for a round, see the other stores and come back in 20 minutes. So I did just that I went to check out some other stores and 20 minutes later I came back and he had fixed the watch.

So he shows me and he tells me that he's not going to charge me anything, that it's a, he does it as a courtesy, it's nothing. And then I look at what he has done and he tells me, I couldn't find exactly the same spring bar; so I took another one from another model and then I looked closer.

And I mean if you really looked closer, you could see that it was a different spring bar than the other one on the other side, but it was a very subtle difference. Right? So I take the watch. And I was very enthusiastic and I was very happy that he had fixed it and it was even happier that it was not gonna cost me anything.

And so I told him, I said, “oh perfect!” and the guy almost takes the watch back. Looks at me. There's like this pregnant, two second pause and then he says: “you call this perfect?” It was a very awkward and embarrassing moment because obviously it was not perfect.

And this guy had like it, you know, he really had this very, very high professional ethics and I had almost insulted him by telling him that when he had put like a plan B solution in place, it was perfect. So I thought it was a good illustration of what perfectionism is. At least this is the way perfectionism feels to me and to many of my clients when we describe it to ourselves.

Is that you have this very high ideal of how it's going to work out. And you hold yourself accountable to those standards until the moment when you actually don't hold yourself accountable anymore. So I'm going to tell you what perfectionism actually is behind-the-scenes, what it really is. And so perfectionism is just a fancy sort of fear.

I've heard it said somewhere in a very nice way that perfectionism is just fear in a mink coat and pearls. Perfectionism is just what we do to avoid taking the risk of putting our work out there and our work being judged and evaluated; and our work and therefore ourselves being rejected. So it's just fear of being rejected.

And the truth of a perfectionism loop as I call them is as follows: so we think that perfectionism is all about having high standards and trying to hold ourselves to the highest standards. But in fact, that's not at all what perfectionism is about.

Perfectionism is about, you do something and then you compare it to your very high standards and you're not satisfied by definition and then you blame yourself for not meeting your high standards. And then at some point the blame becomes so painful because you've been blaming yourself so much or you've been blaming yourself so long or sometimes both, that you need to distract yourself from that pain.

And so, what you do is that you start imagining how tomorrow you're going to start this perfect plan, and it's going to be amazing, and you're just going to follow all the steps and you're immediately going to be able to deliver at the highest possible rate, right? And that fantasy feels very, very nice, as you're telling it to yourself.

And so for a little while it relieves you of the unpleasantness of all the blame that was going on in your mind a moment ago. And you can live in that fantasy for a few more hours, maybe until the end of the day. And then tomorrow morning comes and usually what happens is that something unplanned happens.

So maybe I don't know, your kid is sick or you forgot to put in the alarm so you don't hear the alarm or maybe, there's something that happens at work and you cannot put in those two hours of uninterrupted work that you had planned to do to work on that report or whatever. Anyway, life happens, reality interferes with your perfect plan.

And so you fail even more, because not only can you not meet your perfect plan. But on top of this, you had such high standards and such high ambition for yourself, that you have not planned any sort of deviation. You have not made any margin for error in your perfect plan.

And so, you completely fail. And then what you do is that you abandon your perfect plan instead of trying to do what you actually could do, out of the plan, you abandon it all together. And so you start to blame yourself again. And you blame yourself for not meeting your high standards. And then you've guessed it, at some point it becomes too difficult, too painful to blame yourself like this.

And so you go in into the next perfectionist fantasy loop, etc. So that's basically what perfectionism is. Perfectionism is the fear of being rejected and because you're so afraid that you're not going to be good enough in the eyes of others and that you might be rejected, you're rejecting yourself constantly all the time and you're blaming yourself and telling yourself that you're not good enough all the time.

And when we behave like this, when we are under spell of perfectionism, we make several errors in our thinking, we make several incorrect assumptions. So the first assumption we make is that we think that if we don't have impossibly high standards, we're going to be mediocre. And that's completely inaccurate. You can have very high standards and be mediocre.

You can have normal standards and be outstanding. I mean the two things are not correlated, right? And what's most likely, at least, that's what I believe is that you start with having reasonable standards and then over time you perfect yourself and you become better and better and better and you can raise your standards as you go along.

So that's a way to always meet your standards or come close enough to your standards that you sustain your motivation over time and it's a much more realistic way, I think, in my opinion, at least to look at what really happens. It's very, very seldom that we are immediately very good at something. It can happen. We are all skilled in one thing or another.

But in most cases in life, you actually have to put in some effort to learn how to do the difficult things that we are interested in doing. So this assumption that we are making, it's very much a fixed mindset assumption. Is that we assume that if we're not immediately good at the thing, we're never going to get good at it.

It's either raw talent, basically, or mediocrity, or failure, right? There's nothing in between. And what's more interesting is to cultivate a growth mindset, which is the one I was just explaining, which is that there is room for improvement in everything. And if you put in the effort, of course, you're going to improve and of course, over time you're going to get better.

So, so it's another way to look at the situation. The second incorrect assumption that we make when we behave in a perfectionist way is that we think that if we don't blame ourselves for our shortcomings or our failures or whatever we're not doing correctly. We're going to end up on the sofa, eating chips and watching Netflix for the rest of our life. So we're not going to do anything of any sort of value. We're not going to push ourselves.

We're not going to explore life, and we're just going to be a huge failure and filled with regret and disappointment. And in fact, of course, it's the opposite. If you imagine a child who is learning how to do something difficult. Like for example, you imagine a small child who is learning how to tie their shoelaces.

That's a difficult task to learn when you're when you're small, if you keep on yelling at them and blaming them and being unpleasant to them and tapping your watch and telling them chop-chop we have to go, you know, there's no time, whatever; you're just stressing them out and you're making the learning so much more difficult. But if you’re supporting them.

If you're giving them a little bit of time, if you're showing them again, if they need to be shown again, if you're giving them the example, if you're encouraging them, they learn and you're actually shortening the learning curve by being supportive. So notice that I didn't say that the opposite of blame is to be permissive and to say, oh, you don't need to learn how to do your shoelaces.

It's useless. And I'm going to do your shoelaces for you all of your life. That is not at all what I said. I just said, you can be supportive, and when you're supportive, of course, you cut down on the learning curve. And then the third mistake that we make when we when we think like a perfectionist is that we think that the plan is achievable in its perfect state as if reality would never interfere.

And the reason we do that is that we are under the delusion that the perfect plan is actually what we aim to do. But the perfect plan is just there to relieve you temporarily of the unpleasantness of the blame. But the whole thing is a loop, right? Your brain never has the intention of letting you follow the perfect plan anyway.

The whole point of the perfect plane plan is so that you will you will take the blame little bit longer, right? Because the whole point is to avoid the fear of actually putting your work out there. So your brain is keeping you entertained, dancing that little dance, you know, alternating between blame and fantasy, blame and fantasy, blame and fantasy.

All this while you're not putting your work out there. So, if you're going to plan something; amazing! Plan it! But plan it with a plan B, plan it with lots of room for reality to interfere, for the alarm not to ring, for the kid to be sick, you know, plan it and commit to it.

Make a real commitment. Meaning that, if you're not able to wake up at 5:00 and go running for an hour and do an hour of meditation and whatnot, when are you going to do your meditation for example. If you cannot do it tomorrow morning because you didn't hear the alarm, are you going to do it on Saturday instead of watching a movie.

There needs to be a plan B so that you're certain that you're going to deliver the results that you expect to deliver. When you start to plan like this, you will notice that you try to pack less things and you make your plan much more breezy and much more realistic. And there is a much bigger likelihood that you will actually achieve the plan.

And it's better to have a plan that is much more modest, but that you actually achieve every single day, then to have those grandiose plans that you never never achieve. And then the last mistake that we make, when we are in this perfectionist loop. Is that it's always about tomorrow. It's never right now. And this is the tell-tale sign of perfectionism, is that it always happens later.

It never happens right now. And so, that's the main thing if you want to stop being a perfectionist, is that you're going to have to start doing things right now. So I'm going to tell you the three things that you can do to break this perfectionist loop. It's a loop, a set of habits that are deeply rooted in fear and because of that, it takes a little while to learn how to stop being a perfectionist.

So you're going to need to be particularly kind and patient with yourself as you learn how to break out of this habit. All right. So don't be a perfectionist about stopping to be a perfectionist. So the first step that you can take, is that you can notice your fear.

So ask yourself what will happen if I put out my work as it is right now, you know, like without trying to improve it even more without doing a second take or third take or whatever it is that you're telling yourself is needed in order for you to actually put your work out there. And what if people actually do think that my work is not good enough.

How will I treat myself in that case? So, ask yourself that and decide ahead of time, how you are going to treat yourself, should that happen? And so, for example, you can decide right now that it doesn't matter what other people will think, or will tell me or how they will react. I will tell myself that I am proud for even trying, for example.

Or something that I tell myself quite often is that what's really difficult is to go from a blank page to a first draft; improving on the draft, that's way less difficult. And so, I'm very proud of being the one who goes from the blank page to the draft. And then once there is a draft, it's very easy or at least it's much easier for other people to react and to have an opinion.

So that's the first step to notice your fear and decide how you're going to treat yourself if that fear actually happens. The second thing is to do something right now. So maybe right now, you only have 5 or 10 minutes. Well, what can you do right now in those 5 or 10 minutes to go towards the goal that you have?

So if you are writing a report and you've been trying to make it perfect and even more perfect. Ask yourself, what is the goal that you're actually trying to reach and how can you work on that goal? And maybe it's just by putting the report out. Maybe it's by sending it for review to somebody else.

Maybe it's by sending it and telling people that you will include their feedback if they have any, what can you do to actually get closer to the actual goal that you have. And then, the third thing is whenever you plan, accommodate for last-minute glitches. So have a plan B. How you're going to make sure that you meet your target even if something goes wrong?

Are you going to work on Saturday instead of watching a movie for example. Figure out how you're going to handle the glitches in the plan which will inevitably come because reality has a tendency to not follow our perfectionist fantasies. If you like what you heard, go to my website, That's Excellent Rider in one word dot com and get the episode notes.

They're organized in a structured way that makes them easy to remember and there are additional exercises and illustrations that you don't get in the audio. And if you really liked what you heard, go to your podcast platform and leave me a review. You can Google how to do that if you're not sure. This helps the podcast be more visible.

It means that it will be easier to find for other people who need to hear exactly this message, and it's also a great encouragement for me. If you felt that this information was valuable, it's the absolute best way to let me know. I personally answer everyone who is kind enough to leave me a review. Thanks a lot for listening today.

I hope to talk to you again very soon, because you my friend, even when you cannot get yourself to do what you want; even when you're stuck in negative emotions and unpleasant thought loops; and even when you don't believe it, especially when you don't believe it, you absolutely rock.

And you'll soon be an excellent rider because there's no bad horses. Only untrained riders.

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