15. Perfectionism

Fear, as you now know, lies at the heart of many a procrastination problem. That fear frequently manifests itself as one or more of the Big Three obstacles: Perfectionism, Negativity and Hypersensitivity. When I ask people in my classes to raise their hands if they are prone to any of these dysfunctional behaviors, nearly every hand goes up. Conversely, I have never met a procrastinator who wasn’t prone to at least one.

Let’s take them one at a time, beginning with Perfectionism.

Perfectionism is the feeling that the things we do or create are never quite good enough. Perfectionists hold themselves to an unreasonably high standard, and then, when they fail to meet that standard, judge themselves harshly. They also often inflict that same behavior on others, holding them to an unreasonably high standard and judging them harshly when they “fail.”

Here is a list of specific mistakes perfectionists make in their thinking and behavior:

• They refuse to acknowledge the incremental nature of creation: that it happens in stages and that the early stages are likely to be rough and unsatisfying. In fact, they think their early efforts should be fabulous. They often don’t think this consciously—it’s a viewpoint, after all, that doesn’t make sense—but unconsciously or semiconsciously, they are thinking, “The first draft of this press release ought to be fantastic.”

• They underestimate the difficulty of their projects, e.g., “I’ll just make a few calls and hang up a few flyers and that will fill the room for my event.”

• They set ridiculously high or impossible goals, e.g., “I’m going to write a fifty-page grant proposal this weekend” despite the fact that they’ve never written more than ten pages a day and have numerous other obligations.

• As mentioned above, when perfectionists fall short of their impossible goals, they are extremely hard on themselves and on others, e.g., “I’m a failure, and this community is stupid.” (See, also, the discussion on Negativity in the next chapter.)

• They tend to see things in “black and white”: total success or total failure. They don’t understand that doing half of a job—or even one-tenth of a job—is far better than doing none of it. After all, even if you do just a tiny bit of a job every day, you will eventually finish it. But if you do none of a job every day, you never will. Emotionally, if not intellectually, perfectionists don’t get the difference.

Perfectionists, above all, see work as a kind of epic struggle. They don’t quite trust things when they come too easily. Because of that, they often do things that make their work harder, such as framing their projects in monumental terms, adding unnecessary tasks to projects, and over-reacting to good or bad events that occur throughout the workday (see Chapter 18, Hypersensitivity, for more on this topic). The result is that they frequently wind up fighting themselves every step of the way.

The truth is, activist work is often monumental and urgent. Failure to win a union vote or to get a factory to reduce its emissions can result in real suffering. This reality shouldn’t be used as a rationale for perfectionism, however, since perfectionism will almost never spur you to a better outcome, but only stand in your way. In other words, the more urgent your task is, the more you need to work to avoid perfectionism and other dysfunctional attitudes and behaviors.

Activism is a serious business, but its seriousness does not exempt it from the “work should be play” rule discussed in Chapter 9. Strive to step freely and lightly around your activism, to plunge into it and back out of it at will, and enjoy taking risks around it, knowing that some of those risks will inevitably lead to failure. Yes, there will be stress—an activist career is perhaps the most stressful around—but it is essential that you not only learn to handle that stress gracefully, but recognize that, at any given moment, you are making a choice as to how stressed you feel.

The Solution

Perfectionism, you recall, is a dysfunctional response to fear, so the solution for it is to replace your dysfunctional thoughts and behaviors with functional ones. For example:

How do you change your thoughts? There’s no special technique—you just catch yourself thinking the old perfectionist drill and consciously replace those thoughts with their more functional equivalent. At first, this may seem foolish or contrived—and you’ll probably keep forgetting to do it—but keep trying and eventually you’ll see that:

• Replacing perfectionist with non-perfectionist thoughts feels good, and doesn’t hurt anyone.

• The more you practice, the more automatic the process will become. (You’ll forget less often.)

You can get started doing this right now. Don’t set yourself an unreasonably high goal such as “I’m going to catch every perfectionist thought,” and don’t berate yourself harshly when you slip up. These are the very problems you’re trying to solve! Just start out a little at a time, and whenever you successfully replace a perfectionist thought with a functional one, congratulate yourself. Soon, the replacements will happen so often, and so automatically, that you won’t even notice them. And, eventually, your thoughts will generally become less perfectionist, so that you won’t have to do much replacing at all.