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Lessons for Life

Are you obsessed with being perfect?

Tips on overcoming the compulsion of perfectionism

Jen Weigel

Lessons for life

July 30, 2013

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Is failure not an option? Are you always trying to be perfect? According to therapist Ann Smith, author of "Overcoming Perfectionism: Finding the Key to Balance & Self-Acceptance," the need to be perfect can be both physically and emotionally damaging.

"The stigma of perfectionism isn't as bad as other compulsions such as smoking, gambling, or alcoholism, but it can cause someone to be physically ill, lead to depression, shame and in some cases even suicide," Smith said.

According to Smith, there are two types of perfectionism — the overt and the covert.

"The overt or the visible perfectionists are the ones who are very organized, put together and on time," she said. "Then there are the covert perfectionists, who may not look very put together, but their mental sense of themselves is very critical. Their self-talk is negative. 'I'm never enough. I can't do it right.' They compare themselves to others all the time. They will often have friendships with people who they perceive to be better than them and they try to live up to it, but they fall short. So it's perfectionist thinking rather than perfectionist behavior."

Smith said perfectionists are born with the tendency to want things to be in order, and that circumstances such as family trauma, addiction, marital troubles or poverty can magnify the compulsion.

"For children who are in these circumstances, they will often start to use order to comfort themselves," she said. "If they feel anxious, they will literally put things in order, line things up, make thing symmetrical. Then they will isolate and won't tell people that they are struggling or feeling lonely and exhausted."

Smith said a combination of awareness, balance and self-acceptance can help fight the need to be perfect.

Here are some of Smith's tips to overcome perfectionism:

Slow down.

"Do this right now," she said. "Walk slower, talk slower, be slower about accomplishing what's on your list. Act like there is no hurry to get there. Perfectionists are always thinking, 'After I get this done then I will breathe,' and they never get around to it because there's always something else to do."

Put people first.

"You could walk in your office and just rush to your desk and do your email. But if you could connect just a little bit to a person, and do this on and off all day, you will be better off. Focus on your relationships. Just say, 'Hi.' Then when you get home, touch somebody important to you. Check in with them. This will fill up your emotional bank account."

Downsize.

"We need to stop complicating things by bringing in people you don't really need to have in your life," she said. "This can be with things as well. If you are buying books that you never read and you don't get rid of the ones you did read. Things keep coming in but nothing is going out. Be more selective in every category."

Express your concerns.

"A perfectionist can't ask you to be perfect with them," she said. "If someone in your life is being compulsive about perfectionism, tell them, 'If this is how you need to be, then I'm not going to participate in it.' Tell them how it feels to be around them. Be honest. What makes people change is when they see their values are out of line with their perfectionism. That is why I see people making the change — when other people, especially their children — are being harmed by the behavior."

Love yourself.

"All of this pushing for approval is really about love. When you look at your child and you see the things that are unique to your child that are different from other children — his strengths and weaknesses and his cuteness and his way of thinking, even his appearance — you adore it all. That's his essence. We need to do that with ourselves. Find your essence or your temperament — and know that all those traits are unique. Everybody has different traits and some of them are easy to live with and some are not but you are who you are. You need to love all the pieces, because it's through the struggles that we discover our strengths."

jweigel@tribune.com

Twitter: @jenweigel