In one of my earlier posts, “Fear of Failure” I discussed perfectionism briefly. It was a short post, and a couple of the feedback I received was that I should write in detail about it.
Perfectionism strives for you to be better. However, unrealistic perception of this trait leads to distortions in our thinking and behavior. The cognitive (relating to thoughts) distortion associated with perfectionism is all-or-nothing. I briefly discussed this in my post, “Fear of Failure”. At the cost of repetition, “all-or-nothing” is a cognitive distortion that makes you see things in a black or white manner.
There are two types of this distortion: (a) Positive all-or-nothing thinking, and (b) Negative all-or-nothing thinking. In the former, you feel that everything is always going to be wonderful, and when something happens to the contrary, you feel like your world has crashed and this could lead to depression and anxiety. In the latter, one believes that if they don’t perform or achieve what they have set out to in the exact manner as they have perceived, then they are an utter failure.
In this post, I will be dealing with the negative all-or-nothing distortion and my experience with it.
I am part of a family of high achievers. Consequently, from my childhood, I have observed and been exposed to achieving nothing less than the “best”. This striving for excellence was reflected in my academics and career. I still do not think there was anything wrong with my aspiring excellence. However, this drive to be the best should not put unnecessary pressure on you and lead you to extreme disappointments.
Once the mind is wired to believe that your goal is to be ONLY "perfect", it won't be able to deal with instances of any change to this situation. Failure will be inconceivable and will crush your spirits and could lead to mental health conditions like depression and anxiety.
I was at the peak of my performance when I had to take a break in my career due to the diagnosis. I struggled a lot to deal with that reality. It affected me the most when I tried to get back to work. I was unable to perform at the same level of excellence and efficiency as earlier (in the beginning) and therefore, I decided to quit or didn’t start multiple jobs. My mind was not willing to accept that it will take time to reach the same level of performance as earlier.
“Negative all-or-nothing” distortion made me believe that since I did not perform in a manner that satisfied my idea of perfectionism and excellence, I was an utter failure.
The need for perfectionism was not confined to my career, it was there in any activity that I did, including cooking, dancing, or even getting dressed up for an event.
My biriyani is quite famous amongst my family and friends. Despite making it multiple times, I refer to the recipe and follow it to the t. There was a long phase of anxiety in Bangalore (refer post, “When the heart Races”), and during that time I decided to make the biriyani. My need to make it as perfect as my previous ones made me more anxious and I stopped the cooking mid-way as I thought it will be an utter failure.
Therapy (talk therapy & bibliotherapy) introduced me to the concept of “thinking in shades of gray”. This means to not think in extremes and to think in realistic terms. To take my example, if I had adopted this approach, then instead of thinking that I must ONLY be the best corporate lawyer, I would have told myself that I am returning from a break and need to give myself some time to get back, and in the process, it is ok if I am not the best. Thinking in shades of grey puts your perspective between 0% - 100%.
Similarly in other aspects, instead of thinking that my dancing is not perfect if I don’t get 1000 views, I could alter my thinking by saying that I have got x number of views and that shows that my dancing is being appreciated and slowly I will be able to reach the desired number.
Also, in the case of cooking, I should have proceeded with the cooking in a way that was feasible at that moment and appreciated my effort and I complete it despite being in an anxious state.
Does this mean that you should not aim for 100%? Absolutely Not. However, your aim should not be ONLY 100% or then nothing, and you should be realistic that there can be a situation where you may fall short of 100%. The realization and awareness that I should not feel depressed or hopeless when perfectionism is not achieved are half the battle won. The remaining is to know that there is a grey area, and it is not devastating to be part of it, because it reflects reality.