How to Escape the Hell of Perfectionist Paralysis
As people with anxiety, it's easy for us to succumb to the idea that everything we do has to be perfect. Think about it. It makes sense. If you believe, as I often do, that you're a failure, that people just generally don't like you, and that you're basically incapable of doing anything right, then why wouldn't you become a perfectionist? It's an understandable, albeit maladaptive, response to feelings of fear, loneliness, and alienation. But, there are three big problems with trying to be perfect: it's impossible, it paralyzes you, and it makes your life a living hell. Here's how to escape the hell of perfectionistic paralysis.
Perfectionism Is Its Own Special Form of Hell
Trying to be perfect comes with some serious drawbacks. First of all, you can never be satisfied with anything you accomplish. How can you be? You're operating via an impossible standard, one where you're always going to fall short, because, whatever you do, you will never do anything perfectly. You will always make mistakes; you are human and all humans make mistakes. Hey, I don't like it either, but that's just the way it is.
Secondly, the fear of failure can become so big, you can end up being too scared to do anything, too afraid to experiment, try new things, and explore. In short, you're too afraid to live. And when you're too afraid to live, you often settle for just existing; and a life spent merely existing is generally not worth living. I've endured many periods like this in my life and I can say that sitting paralysed, in a bubble of fear-based perfectionism, too afraid to move, watching as life passes you by, is absolutely a type of living hell.
Here's How to Escape the Hell of Perfectionist Paralysis
"Fear is inevitable, I have to accept that, but I cannot allow it to paralyze me." -- Isabel Allende
- Accept that whatever you do will be imperfect. -- As the above quote indicates, we first have to accept that we will make mistakes and that will make us feel afraid. It's inevitable and there's no way around it. But, I find that when I'm able to accept that I will never do anything perfectly, when I can start from that place, tasks become a little bit easier. At the very least, I'm operating within a paradigm that's more in touch with actual reality.
- It doesn't matter where you start, as long as you start somewhere. -- I recently blogged about planning my day with anxiety disorder, and how living with anxiety is a lot like exercising. Actually doing the exercise isn't the hard part, the hard part is getting myself to the gym. It gets easier once I've gotten myself over that hump. If you're sitting in fear, paralyzed by whatever you need to get done and unsure where to start, then just start somewhere. Start with the easiest thing on your list if that's what it takes, but start. Getting started, even if it's on something very small, is always better than doing nothing.
- Break big tasks down into smaller steps. -- There's a concept in computer programming called "granularity." Basically, it just means breaking a complex task into smaller, easier tasks. This is useful when you're facing a big project that you're too afraid to get started on. Instead of trying to tackle one big, scary task, break your project down into smaller and smaller tasks until each smaller chunk feels manageable. This is how I write all my blog posts.
- Focus on one thing at a time. -- Once you've gotten a list of manageable tasks together, try to focus exclusively on the task at hand, almost as if the others don't exist. You won't be able to do this perfectly (see the first bullet point), but, with practice, you'll get better at focusing on what you're working on right now. String enough small tasks together, and you'll actually start getting things done, without having to do it perfectly.
- Use time boxing. -- No, you don't actually get to punch time in the face, attractive as that sounds. Time boxing means working on something for a specific amount of time, then taking a break. It's a way to make staying on task more manageable, because you know it's only for "x" amount of time. I generally use time boxing in 30 minute intervals, spaced out with planned breaks.
- Reward yourself for staying on task. -- I take regular breaks when I'm working on something, and I generally reward myself in small ways while I'm on a break. For example, I tell myself that if I work for 30 minutes, I get to take a 15 minute break and have a cup of coffee. The way you reward yourself (see: Don't Miss a Step: Celebrate!) may be different from how I do it, but it doesn't matter what it is as long as it's something pleasant that you can look forward to. The work-break-reward system sets up a positive feedback loop in your brain, plus it makes doing something more manageable when you know there's a time limit on it.
Learning how to escape the hell of perfectionistic paralysis is, itself, an imperfect process, which is kind of the point. Perfectionism is driven by a distorted, black-and-white type of thinking that's a direct outgrowth of anxiety disorder and depression. The good news is, we can learn to let go of perfectionism and get on with this strange business of being human. And, when you think about it, that's what living is really all about.
Weber, G. (2015, March 11). How to Escape the Hell of Perfectionist Paralysis, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2023, February 3 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/treatinganxiety/2015/03/how-to-escape-the-hell-of-perfectionist-paralysis
Author: Greg Weber
Thank you so much for this article. I think finally after reading this I might be able to start to live and break these chains. Thank you
I'm a recovering perfectionist. It's so easy to justify perfectionism by hiding it under the term "high standards" because it's easier to swallow than the term "afraid of doing it wrong". I did that for years. This post was spot on. Thank you for writing this.
This article helped me so much. After years of struggling endlessly with anxiety, and not fully understanding it, the past few months of reading articles on this website has been liberating. It's encouraging to read blogs from people who understand and have a real grasp on this debilitating illness. The insight you bring is so valuable and encouraging. The helpful tips made me smile because they are things I already do, and it makes me feel less alone to know others are dealing with the same thing. Thank you, and keep blogging!