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The Vicious Triangle of Perfectionism, Anxiety & Depression

Four tips for conquering perfectionistic procrastination paralysis.

It's official. I have a healthy ... err, unhealthy ... dose of perfectionistic procrastination paralysis. Well that's my term for it. The inability to start a task or the consistent delay of starting said task because of the need for the outcome of that task to be perfect. (Don't ask me how long it took me to write that. I am still panicking because I know it could be better.) Current situation: fear of publishing an imperfect post.

I dealt with perfectionism in therapy many years ago. I should say for many years in therapy I dealt with perfectionism. But deep-seated issues tend to be, well, deep-seated. They come back to haunt and hunt us in many forms over the course of our lives. Think of it like the universe's video game levels, except we have to be a game player whether we logged on or not. Universe says: "OK, so you got the easy level of perfectionism licked. Let's see what you've really got. Here you go: try advanced."

My generalized anxiety disorder, and bipolar disorder (especially the depression side) co-mingled nicely, if not destructively with my need for everything to be beyond excellent. The result for me was horribly cruel self-talk, piercing feelings of inadequacy, constant free-floating worry and on-going depression that wouldn't lift even if I did complete something well. My mantra was "it's never good enough, it's never good enough, it's never good enough." But as I got appropriate and effective treatment in the form of counseling, medication, lifestyle changes, and my own wellness tools, my need for perfection diminished.

But perfectionism has greeted me once again and is preventing me from accomplishing tasks. See if you can relate. Please don't tell me if you can't because then I will also have an alienation identity issue.

I've been procrastinating writing a blog post because I want it to be perfect. The perfectionism fuels more procrastination which fuels more anxiety which fuels perfectionism which fuels the procrastination which ... etc., etc. You get the picture.

My solution? Look at two major elements of perfectionism and use methods to counter them.

Elements of Perfectionism:

  • The 'What Ifs'
  • The Menacing Mantra

Methods to Counter Perfectionism

For 'What Ifs':

  1. 'Name That Fear' tactic
  2. Then What? technique
  3. 'Good What Ifs' redirection

For the Menacing Mantra:

  1. Practice a New Mantra

Take my current issue: putting off writing this post.

1. 'Name That Fear' tactic

What are the 'what ifs'? Don't worry if they aren't rational. 'What ifs' thrive on irrationality. By listing my 'what if' fears, I make them concrete and not just a vague feeling of foreboding. With this, I examine how likely they are to occur and if needed problem solve.

What if:

  • I write my blog and nobody likes it?
  • This post isn't as good as my others?
  • I offend my readers?
  • People laugh at me, ridicule, and ostracise me?

2. Then What? technique

How likely is it that these fears will occur? Not very. But if they do, then what? Take the fear to its very end and look at how I would deal with it. Because the good news is I have coping skills.

What if I am laughed at and ostracised?

As unlikely as this will happen, what if people do laugh at me? Then what? I will feel sad, perhaps lonely. Then what? Well, I can call a friend who does care about me. Then what? I likely will feel less alone. Then what? I won't care as much that people laughed at me. Then what? If I still feel upset I can talk with my counselor, write in my journal, get a hug from my husband, go for a walk, breathe. These are things I am capable of doing that will help me cope if my worst 'what ifs' come true.

3. 'Good What ifs' redirection

My tendency (if you haven't already noticed) is to anticipate the worst. I'm just wired that way. So I need to consciously redirect my thinking to what if good things happen? What a concept.

What if:

  • My post is well received?
  • I get lots of positive comments?
  • I feel good about my finished product?

Perhaps not so surprising, positive case scenarios are more likely to happen.

What about 'The Menacing Mantra: It's never good enough, it's never good enough'?

4. Practice a New Mantra

I learned this from a counselor I worked with in my early 20s and it was one of the most liberating realizations I've ever had: Good enough is good enough. Good enough really is good enough.

I can't say it enough. Literally. To this day, I say it to myself (out loud sometimes) when I am paralyzed by perfectionism, anxiety, and worry. It's a reset button on my brain. Like rewiring my neural circuitry and rerouting my synaptic pathways and entire body to absorb that good enough is good enough. I can stop at good. Phew!

Well, there you have my post that is, well, good enough. What if you don't like it? Well, I can cope with that. What if you do like it? Well, I can cope with that, too.

So, let me know what you think—good or bad. Really. Remember I can handle it.

© 2012 Victoria Maxwell.

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