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Positivity: the antidote to perfectionism

On Life

Ruminations and provocations.

Positivity: the antidote to perfectionism

Stephen H. Provost

For all the talk about positivity, bad news has a bigger impact – and sticks with you longer – than good news.

That’s why it’s important to be even more positive: because the alternative isn’t a whole lot of fun. Trust me, I know. That alternative, or at least one of them, is becoming a perfectionist, living your life in a minefield of hesitance and fear. That minefield has been my life for far too long, and I’m just now realizing why.

It’s no mystery why politicians use negative ads or the news media highlight negative news stories. They work. They attract attention. For all the hand-wringing about attack ads in politics and bloody car crashes on the 6 o’clock news, people still watch them more than the positive ads and feel-good stories they say they want.

It makes sense why they work, too. It’s evolution. Think of yourself as a gazelle at the watering hole. Are you going to be thinking to yourself, “What a nice day it is outside! The tall grass is so wonderfully green and silky! The birds are singing such a lovely song!” Or are you going to be thinking. “There’s a pride of lions around here. Somewhere. And if I don’t pay attention, I’m going to end up as someone’s lunch meat.”

Right. This is why political ads aren’t just negative, they’re scary. The scarier the better, to appeal to your internal gazelle. Hordes of immigrants are massing at the border, planning a full-scale invasion! If Goldwater’s elected, he’ll get us into a nuclear war with the Soviets (cue video of H-bomb exploding)! Dukakis let a convicted murderer out on furlough! They’ll take away your guns! Your health care! Your religious freedom!

On and on it goes. Whether there’s truth to any of this is beside the point. The point is what’s being emphasized – the negative – and why.

The fairness factor

All this fear and negativity will drive you crazy. So, as a would-be antidote, we came up with the concept of fairness. This concept, we tell our children, will insulate us to some extent from the mean ol’ world out there. The police will protect us. The courts will protect us. Our institutions will protect us. And if all else fails, we’ll get justice at the pearly gates or karma will kick in.  

Excuse me for being blunt about this but ... what a crock of bull.

Life ain’t fair. Police corruption is real. So is judicial corruption, gridlock and bias. Our institutions? They’d work a lot better if the people in charge would support them rather than trying to find loopholes and undermine them to further their own agendas. The hereafter may or may not exist, and it’s a bit long to wait for justice even if it does. As to karma, whether you believe in it or not, it has zero to do with protecting people, doling out vengeance or righting wrongs.

Fairness is, in short, a placebo we take to convince ourselves that life isn’t as dangerous as it really is.

(Hey, Provost, you talked about positivity. Hold your horses, I’ll get there. Eventually.)

The ‘perfect’ solution

If we’re paying attention, we realize soon enough that all these external controls meant to guarantee fairness are no guarantee at all. So, we take matters into our own hands by doubling down on something else our parents told us. Call it the Protestant work ethic, the American Dream or pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. Whatever you call it, it promises that, if you work hard, you’ll get ahead. If you graduate from college, you’ll get a good job. If you excel, you’ll get rewarded.

It’s automatic.

Pardon me if I repeat myself, but ... what a crock of bull!

Hard work can facilitate success, but guarantee it? Not in this world. You’re far more likely to lose your job because of the boss wants to pad his bottom line than you are for subpar performance. It’s far easier to lay people off because you want to make more (or lose less) money than it is for “cause,” which can precipitate lawsuits and cost the company even more! Perish the thought! Is it any wonder that some mediocre employees survive cost-cutting while some who excel are led to the unemployment line?

Oh, and if you embarrass the company publicly, it’s even worse. You say it was unintentional? That you’re an otherwise exemplary employee? It doesn’t matter. The minute some segment of the public starts calling for your head, you become the sacrificial lamb du jour. (If you’re lucky enough to have your faux pas featured on Twitter, you’ll probably get death threats, too.) Forgiveness? That’s for patsies. Zero tolerance is the name of the game.

The illusion of control

Still, as soon as you realize that the external “guardians of fairness” – ordinances, karma, the legal system, etc. – don’t work on any consistent basis, your only real option is to buy into the “hard work” approach. At least it offers you the illusion of control. And if you can just avoid making that one catastrophic mistake, then maybe, just maybe, you’ll survive.

If you can just be good enough, maybe you can rise above it all. Sounds a bit egotistical when you put it like that, doesn’t it? And really, even if you were to succeed (hint: you can’t), is that any way to live? Now, you’re not just a gazelle at the watering hole, you’re a deer in the headlights. Welcome to the continual stress and panic of perfectionism.

Truth be told, we don’t live at watering holes anymore. Life is still dangerous, but the dangers are different. Simple fight-or-flight responses don’t work as well in the modern world, where lions are no longer a threat, but stress-related illnesses such as strokes or heart attacks certainly are.

No matter how hard you try, you can’t control everything. You will make mistakes. And even if you lived a “perfect” life (whatever that means) the entire rest of your days, some external factor could bring you down. Even if you made zero mistakes, someone would always be there to accuse you of something you didn’t do, or blame you for their own mistakes and insecurities, because it’s easier than looking at themselves.

You don’t just stop being a perfectionist in one day, though. It’s a learned defense mechanism that you’ve reinforced over several years in your quest to survive. Ironically, if you were to demand this of yourself, you’d be setting the same kind of expectation that made you a perfectionist in the first place!

So, what’s a recovering perfectionist to do? If negative news takes a big bite out of our attention, the best possible course, it seems to me, is to overwhelm it with positivity. With appreciation. With wonder. With creativity. With beauty. This works, really, whether you’re a perfectionist or not. So do the following ideas for perfectionists and those who are around them.

Perfectionism is the placebo. Positivity is the antidote.

Tips for perfectionists

  • Let go of the expectation that hard work guarantees success. But don’t stop working hard. Pursue your dreams. Enjoy the process. Savor each moment as a success in and of itself.

  • Don’t dwell on past failures or past injustices. Process them, learn from them, then move on.

  • Focus on the positive. You don’t live at the watering hole anymore. You can afford to look around at the soft green grass and listen to the birds singing. That’s a great gift.

  • Remember that you are not your mistakes. They are not your identity. Don’t personalize them.

  • Acknowledge your inherent worth as a unique and gifted individual. Value yourself for who you are, not what you can do!

  • Instead of working to avoid mistakes, work to create beauty.

  • Embrace your sensitivity. Don’t apologize for it. Instead, make it work for you by creating empathy toward others and an awareness of the world at large.

  • Be thankful. Learn to appreciate the good things in life and focus on those. Since bad news makes more of an impact on us, overwhelm it with an avalanche of positivity.

  • Don’t expect others to be perfect. Some perfectionists direct their demands outward, but if they’re unrealistic for you, they’re just as unrealistic for others.

  • Stop worrying. Start living. Let the chips fall where they may.

Tips for dealing with a perfectionist

  • Focus on his or her positive attributes. Perfectionists become so committed to avoiding mistakes, they often define their self-worth based on what they do rather than who they are. Support them in turning that around.

  • Avoid nitpicking and micromanaging. Don’t look over their shoulder while they’re working. This only magnifies their fear of failure. Unless something’s important, don’t make a big deal about it.

  • Remember that it takes a lot of good words to overcome a few bad ones, so be effusive with your praise and selective with your criticism.

  • Keep criticism constructive; present it as an opportunity to improve rather than a condemnation for past behavior.

  • Don’t bring up past failures repeatedly. As a perfectionist, the person’s first instinct is to try to “fix” the problem, but since the past can’t be fixed, the person is likely to feel hopeless.

  • Don’t criticize the person for being too sensitive or call them names. And avoid making fun of them. Sensitivity isn’t a crime. Encourage them to use it as an asset.

  • Don’t project your own frustrations with yourself or unrelated issues onto them. They’re already their own worst critic; making them responsible for more things they can’t control can feel debilitating.

  • If they do something nice for you, thank them. Don’t immediately tell them how you think it could have been done better.

  • If you disagree on something, don’t be dismissive: Instead of saying the person is wrong, ask how they came to think the way they do. Show an interest and listen to the answer. Even if you still disagree, affirm the other person’s right to self-expression.