Noticing you’re “in it”: what does perfectionism look like?

This is the final post in my May article series on perfectionism and how it interferes with our creativity — and how we can recognize it before it has its way with us! There’s plenty more on this site about perfectionism, as well as its partner in crime, procrastination — just click on the Categories listing on the right.

It can be tricky to recognize when we’re in the grip of perfectionism, because we often applaud ourselves for the very behavior it creates. I struggled so much with overachieving as a child that by the time I was fifteen years old, I burned out and literally had no clue as to why I did anything at all — all I knew was that nothing I did gave me the sense of satisfaction I wanted it to give me for very long. The why beneath what we do is important; in fact, it’s essential.

Perfectionistic behavior is fear-based. We’re acting to secure what we think we’d be lost without. We do more because we fear that if we don’t, we won’t have enough.

When we take action from a place of wholeness and authenticity, we act based on the conviction that we are already secure. We do more because we enjoy it, because it enhances our lives. We stop when we’ve had enough.

So, how can you tell you’re in perfectionism’s clutches?

You can tell by the way you feel. For me, that’s often urgent, anxious, overly driven (I feel I can’t stop or slow down), a tight stomach, clenched jaw, contracted body, slumped-over posture. I physically “clench up”, become smaller than I actually am. Sometimes I feel extra-irritated and want to snap at people.

(Can you imagine the extra burden we place on ourselves when we sit down and try to create from this feeling, from this place?)

Sometimes, though, I’m not necessarily in touch with my feelings or my body. I’m totally in my head, and although I know lots of techniques for getting into my body, I don’t always do them because my mind is telling me I don’t have time, or there’s no point (tricky, tricky mind!).  This is when I can look to my behavior for clues.

For me, perfectionism manifests itself in the following behaviors:

* Going above and beyond just because I can; staying really, really on top of things (i.e. responding to emails immediately; setting daily goals that are way bigger than they actually need to be because my ego likes the way they look).

* Saying YES a lot, when I really mean maybe, or no. Often I do this to avoid conflict. Will saying no really create conflict? I can always say, “Let me think about that,” instead of “yes.”

* Finishing what I’ve planned to do for the day and then doing more, rather than, as we like to say in Jenna Avery’s Writer’s Circle, “declaring myself satisfied!” A similar version of this is sneaking “doing” into time I’ve set aside for “being.”

* People-pleasing and all its graspy little offspring. This can look like refusing to set boundaries around my time and energy, or affecting an “always smiling” persona so I don’t “upset anyone.”

* Cutting back on, or cutting out, fun activities until I’ve “gotten it all done.”

* Using the terms “should” and “have to” a lot.

Any of these behaviors are good pointers, alerting me that I’m “in it.” The value in noticing them is that when they go unchecked, I get further and further cut off from my true feelings, my true needs. Stopping them before they snowball can prevent the build-up that creates “the backlash” (a term I got from Cynthia Curnan, author of “The Care and Feeding of Perfectionists”), where I burnout, crash, and want to remain immobile for hours or days at a time because I’ve pushed and criticized myself for so long.

What behaviors alert you that you’re “in it”? Jot down a list of these (writing them down really helps you remember them) and the next time you notice yourself doing them, pause and course-correct until your actions stem from what you authentically want. It is so worth it.

If you struggle with perfectionism (or what can often be its flipside, procrastination), check out my one-on-coaching, here. I have a ton of tools in my arsenal to help you!

Image is PRICKLY PEAR CACTUS © Ronalesa Salstrand | Dreamstime.com

2 thoughts on “Noticing you’re “in it”: what does perfectionism look like?

  1. This is my life, summed up so succinctly that I don’t think I could have said it better or differently. I wish I could bookmark this post and the newest one, just to read it everyday, until it sinks in. I spend so much time in my head that I literally have to play tennis to remember I have a body, too. Jill, maybe you should take all of these insightful blog posts and turn then into a Self-Help book for writers and artists.

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    • I’m glad this one spoke to you too, Lauren! You know, I have various ideas for e-books on these topics and have even started working on one. And I totally hear you about being in your head. I need to remind myself I have a body as well! Thanks so much for reading and taking time to share your thoughts!

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