I recently took a training on Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy where the trainer told an insightful story about starting where you are, and accepting where that is even if it’s not ideal:
There was once a man who was lost while looking for a remote town. He ended up in a completely different town in the middle of nowhere, and stopped a local man in the road to ask for directions.
“Excuse me, sir,” he said, holding out a piece of paper, on which he had scribbled the name of the town he was searching for. “Do you know how to get to this place?”
The local looked at the paper and furrowed his brow. “Yes,” he said tentatively, “I know how to get there, but honestly, if I were you, I wouldn’t recommend starting from here.”
No matter the goal or project, everyone wants to start out on the right foot. If you’re starting a business, remodeling your home, changing your career/education path, or working on personal self improvement, you do some level of research and preparation before starting. This is great for preventing avoidable missteps that could potentially create major problems for you in the future.
The problem with starting to work on goals and projects as a perfectionist, though, is that it feels like any and every hypothetical misstep is a major problem for the future, and should be avoidable through simple overthinking. Progress, from beginning to end, must be perfect.
Sure enough, this mindset leads to ‘perfectionist paralysis.’ Your mind doesn’t want you to move forward with anything until all worst case scenarios are properly solved in its imagination. But its imagination is limitless! And with every creative scenario it gives you, the underlying belief is, ‘It’s not okay to start from where you are right now.’ It’s another way your inner critic says that it thinks you’re not enough. Believing this message shuts you down even more.
But just like the story about the man who’s lost trying to get to his destination, it’s not actually helpful to focus your energy on fighting the reality in front of you; that you’re starting from where you are, as you are, with what you have. Period. Even if you have your eye on a place just one step in front of you, you still have to start where you are–limitations, imperfections and all– in order to move forward. And where you are is not supposed to be perfect if your whole intention is to make a change for the better.
Stepping out of perfectionist paralysis is first and foremost an internal transformation. Before an outside observer can see you move from paralysis to action, your mind must do the work to practice an essential skill that’s often referred to as radical acceptance.
What is radical acceptance?
This is a term used a lot in the group therapy program I work for. Radical acceptance means fully accepting the reality you face in the moment, regardless of whether it’s a comfortable or uncomfortable reality. It’s looking honestly at your realistic strengths and limitations without cursing yourself for not having more strengths or less limitations. It’s looking honestly at your situation without resisting the fact that you’re in it, or fighting past events that led up to it.
Though this may sound like a simple idea, a number of fears often get in the way of radical acceptance. If I accept something that’s bad, aren’t I just making light of it and ignoring the reality that something needs to change? Aren’t I approving of something that should be unacceptable? Am I just giving myself a participation ribbon and resigning from putting forth any real effort?
This is what’s commonly misunderstood about acceptance: It doesn’t mean throwing in the towel, or allowing bad things to be as they are without caring about making a change. It doesn’t mean approval of anything, or forcing yourself to like something that you don’t. It’s acknowledging what you’re dealing with, in that moment, just as things are, rather than spending your mental energy on feeling frustrated about what is, and wishing it were different. It’s about allowing the current reality to be part of your experience, so you can focus more on what your next move is, instead of dwelling on the “should’s” (I should be further ahead by now! Things shouldn’t be this way! That person should have done this or that!) . It’s getting the local to accept that you’re starting in the town you’re clearly already in, so get to the directions already!
Rejecting the reality of your realistic strengths and limitations leads to frustration, blame, and shame; things that turn off the brain’s centers for problem solving and play a major role in perfectionist paralysis. Rejecting your reality doesn’t change it. Accepting reality at least opens the door for change, making it essential for moving from paralysis to action.
How to practice radical acceptance when stuck in perfectionist paralysis
1. Recognize when you’re stuck because of unrealistic expectations.
Common thoughts that go hand in hand with perfectionist paralysis relate to efforts to avoid the fact that imperfection is part of your journey. I shouldn’t make any mistakes; if I do, I’m dumb. Everything has to go smoothly; if not, I’m a failure. It’s all or nothing! Done well or not done at all! People will think I’m incompetent if I can’t do this right. So-and-so is already so far ahead; it’s too late in the game for me.
What thoughts run through your mind when you’re hesitating to make a move on something important to you? What self criticism gets amplified the longer you stay in procrastination mode?
You may also notice certain physical and emotional ‘tells’. Some describe it like a fog; having spent so much time not physically doing anything, but feeling like their mind was so busy that they’re burnt out before truly getting started on anything. Some people notice irritability first. Others have a sense of restlessness, nervousness, or agitation.
What are some of your ‘tells’ that you’re spending more time brooding over how to avoid imperfection than taking action on your goals? What does it feel like, in your emotions and your body sensations?
2. Give yourself realistic reminders
This can be as simple as reminding yourself, “This is as prepared as I can get right now. I’ll do my best. It’s an imperfect process. I’ll probably hit some snags but I’ll handle them as they come.” Make it your own.
Throughout college, I had perfectionist paralysis for literally every single paper I had to write. Those things were all done last minute. One of my professors for my master’s program warned us that as therapists, we have to get used to writing a LOT throughout our career, and we can’t get hung up on things being perfect. So he made us time ourselves for each paper, and record how long it took us to write on the back of our assignment. If the number didn’t go down from the previous paper, we’d lose points. His tip for us was: “It’s easier to edit a bunch of shit than it is to fill a blank page. So just write a bunch of shit.” It helped. Henceforth, whether or not my goal is related to writing, my personal anti-perfectionism reminder is, ‘Just write a bunch of shit.’
Another reminder can be acknowledging the history that took place to get you where you are today, making your current situation inevitable. These are reminders to help you realize that you’re exactly where you’re meant to be. I’m not as advanced as so-and-so because we took different career paths for a few years. I don’t know how to embrace imperfection because striving for perfection was taught to me throughout my upbringing. I don’t know how to start a blog website because I’ve never done it before!
It may also be useful to remind yourself that unpleasant emotions will arise as you seek acceptance. You may feel sadness, anger, disappointment, fear, or grief as you face your own limitations and imperfections. Allow unpleasant emotions to arise, and remind yourself that the limitations and imperfections do not define you or your journey.
These reminders won’t make you necessarily happy or erase the discomfort of facing imperfection; they’re just brain tricks required to combat shame and re-open those problem solving centers.
3. Change your body to change your mind
The ‘radical’ part of ‘radical acceptance’ means that your acceptance is whole and complete, felt throughout your mind and body. There are numerous studies that show how changing our body impacts how our brains think, such as this one on posture and confidence.
Imitating acceptance with the body can be finding those muscles in your body that tense up when you’re getting sucked into rejecting the reality of imperfection, and coaxing them to relax. It can be holding a posture that reflects acceptance such as turning your hands so your palms are facing up. It can be breathing deeply so your belly rises with each inhale, rather than your chest. Whatever perfection tells you to do with your body, do the opposite. Make a weird face, I don’t know, you can be creative.
You could fake it ’til you make it by somehow pushing yourself to take action in the midst of perfectionist paralysis, but until you practice acceptance within yourself, perfectionism will always create a barrier between you and your goals. However, these steps on changing your internal reactions to perfectionism take practice before they become second-nature.
Part 2 of Recovering from Perfectionist Paralysis will focus more on the logistics of ‘pushing yourself to take action’, such as goal-setting techniques and more brain tricks to stay motivated. Best served after digesting a bit of radical acceptance.
If you haven’t already, follow this blog to get weekly updates on new posts and resources, including when Perfectionist Paralysis: Part 2 is up and running!