Stopping Perfectionism Takes Time

May 14, 2008
It takes a long time for perfectionists to recognize they are going overboard.

Alarm clock with happy faceLast week I said I’d write about my latest battle with my perfectionism. Here it is in three parts.

It began when I looked at Inspiration.Moonfruit, a website by Paul Foreman, and noticed a feature that gave the day of the week, as well as the month, day, year, and hour. If you refreshed the page, the time would change. Clever idea, I thought, and decided I’d ask my trusty web guru, Thomas Garrison, for a script that would do just that for the Support4Change newsletter.

This was my first chance to realize that my perfectionist was rearing her fussy head.

My life is far too busy to take time to add little flourishes that aren’t essential to web pages I need to get done in a relatively short period of time. And the continually-updated clock wasn’t essential. It just seemed like a nice touch. Unfortunately, perfectionists tend to associate “nice touches” with “essentials.”

So I contacted Tom and he gave me a java script that would allow the viewer to see the current time where the server for my website was located, which happened to be Pacific Daylight Time. Visitors to the page would have to calculate their local time from the one on the screen, of course, but it seemed, as I said, a nice touch.

After a bit of more trouble than I expected (well, a lot more to be honest), I inserted the java script, which isn’t my first language and always takes some time to figure out. However, it wasn’t until after I had uploaded the newsletter onto Support4Change, where hundreds of people could see it, that I noticed the clock on the server that hosts my website wasn’t set correctly. Their time was half an hour off! (Tom wasn’t in charge of the server. He only used it.)

This was my second chance to defeat the perfectionist who was far too demanding of what needed to be done.

I should have dropped the whole thing at this point and simply put on the page a picture of a clock, like the one above, and said: “Take a look at your clock right now. That time is NOW.” I could have then made a few more comments about the fact that time on the clock may be different around the world, but at any given moment we all have that same minute in which to live. A few more etceteras and my purpose of mentioning the clock would have been served.

Instead, frustrated, I went back to Tom for a different time script. This new one reflects the current time of the computer on which the page is being read. Of course, if your computer’s time is set incorrectly (like the clock on the server), the time on the screen will be wrong, but at least it would have been a better code than the one I was trying to use.

A word here about Tom, who offers more help than I’ve gotten from others who have hosted my websites in the past. He will give me code I need, tell me how to use it, and insist I simply follow the instructions. Put this code here and that code there and DON’T TRY TO UNDERSTAND IT, JUST DO IT! Like perfectionists everywhere, I want to understand what I’m doing, event though simply following the instructions should often be good enough.

I will point out, however, that it’s easy to skip over a detail in the instructions and leave out a line of code. But in any case, I tried. I honestly tried. And even though I got a little frustrated in trying to figure out exactly what part of the code went here and what part went there, I was determined not to call him, but to work it out myself.

That was my third chance to stop my perfectionist and move on without her.

As you may guess, it took more time to insert this new code than it should have. True, it didn’t take all afternoon, but it took longer than the “nice touch” deserved. As before, I could have added the picture of a clock and gotten on with the job of finishing the newsletter. Instead, I was determined to prove to myself (as well as Tom and you) that I could do it. That was because I had convinced myself, as I said earlier and which is typical of a perfectionist, that the newsletter would be so much better with the active time code.

Eventually I got the java script correctly placed in the newsletter and this time it worked as it should!

I finally made it!

This morning I noticed I had switched to the correct java code in the newsletter, but not in the related website article, for which the code seemed especially relevant. But after only a few minutes of trying to get it to work (because that page used a template), I decided to tackle that later, if at all. A few comments at the beginning of the page and I’m satisfied it’s good enough.

The reason I add this experience to my lessons of a recovering perfectionist is to show you how trapped one can become in the determination to do something perfect. It helps to get a perspective on the situation before you get to the fourth, fifth, or sixth opportunity to drop unreasonable expectations on yourself.

Why do perfectionists allow themselves to get into such positions in the first place? As I write in the first chapter of my new book, Ask Yourself Questions and Change Your Life, our brains are designed so that we interpret what happens to us because of early experiences. And because of the experiences of perfectionists, our brains are programmed to feel good when we are complimented on our hard work. We have come to believe that unless we work hard, unless we give everything our absolutely top effort, we won’t be loved and appreciated.

However, if we eventually get tired of working hard all the time and never feeling quite good enough, we may be able to see that others do love us and appreciate us even if we don’t do the best possible job we could do in every situation. When we open our hearts to accept the love that is out there, we can FINALLY begin to accept ourselves just as we are. We can stop trying, at least some of the time, to work so hard to please others. That’s when we become a recovering perfectionist. That’s when we realize that we are good enough even if we haven’t added java script to a page that would be plenty fine without it.

One more word. If you’re a dyed-in-the-wool perfectionist and this article has caused you to realize you often do more than necessary, you’ll probably want to be “cured” of that tendency right now. Sorry. Your brain has gone down the perfectionism path too long to stop immediately. It’s like an oceanliner that reverses engines and takes more than two miles to stop. Actually, that’s a fact on which I’m unclear, but I’m not going to take the time to check it out. You get the idea.

What have been your lessons about perfectionism? I’d love to hear from you.

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