Contributing Author: The Tortoise
As an autism spectrum individual, the Tortoise experiences and understands the frustration of not getting things 'right' or 'perfect' enough. While 'perfect' implies that nothing more can be done to something to increase the quality or impeccability of its shape, sound, look, position, etc, and hence is an entirely subjective term, it also refers, at least in this individual's case, to a personal bar of acceptability, a clear mental and sensory point which divides "not good enough: carry on" from "good enough: stop now". Because this point is so definitive in its feel and presence, there is no question about discontinuing a (specific) task until the 'stop' signal has been triggered. This can generate huge amounts of frustration and anxiety if, for some reason, you cannot get something 'right' enough to suit you. On the other hand, getting something 'just right' can produce feelings of immense satisfaction and achievement. So how can someone prone to perfectionist tendencies help themselves?
Self-confessed perfectionist,1 clinical psychologist, and executive director of the International OCD Foundation Dr. Jeff Szymanski says perfectionism can be a strong suit or a stumbling block, depending on how it is channeled.2 He explains:
The core of all perfectionism is the intention to do something well...If you can keep your eye on intention and desired outcome, adjusting your strategy when needed, you're fine.... But when you can't tolerate making a mistake, when your strategy is to make no mistakes, that's when perfectionism starts veering off in the wrong direction.3
If unchecked, the urge for perfectionism can lead to the inability to complete any task for fear of making a mistake. To help perfectionists prioritise appropriately, Dr Szymanski offers the following exercise:4
Task: To identify projects and activities that are most important to you, and to keep your personal strategy in line.
Ask yourself: What do you find valuable in life? What would you want 50 years of your life to represent? If that seems overwhelming, think about where you want to put your energies for the next 5 years.
Think about your current goals and projects, and assign them priorities. Use the letters 'A,B,C,F' to help you decide where you want to excel (A), be above average (B), be average (C), or identify what you can let go of (F). For example:
- A (100% effort): This is reserved for what is most important to you. For example, if your career is most valuable to you, your goals might be to impress the boss, make sure clients are happy, put out good products at work.
- B (above average, maybe 80% effort): Reserved for things important but not critical. Perhaps you like playing golf or tennis or want to learn a new language. You enjoy these activities, but have no plans to go pro.
- C (average effort): Reserved for tasks that simply don't need to rule your life. Perhaps having a clean home is important... but how often does your home need to be cleaned? People are not coming to see it every day. Could you just clean up on the weekends? Or focus on a few rooms that get the most traffic?
- F (no effort): Reserved for time-consumers that do not advance your values or bring you pleasure -- for example, lining up all your clothes hangers or folding all your clothes in a specific way. Do you have any tasks, upon reflection, that don't really matter -- you've just done them one way for so long that you're on autopilot? These deserve to be pruned.
1 Learn the Art of being Practically Perfect, Dr. Jeff Szymanski
2 Trying to be perfect can cause anxiety, Harvard Medical School, Healthbeat
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