Lockdown Lounge #7 – Finding Peace with Perfectionism: Demand or Desire?

“Well – nobody’s perfect…”

Perhaps the most perfect ending to perhaps one of the most perfect films of all time – Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (not the most perfect film, obviously – that’s Casablanca).

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If you haven’t seen the film already, I beg you to. It’s almost perfect.

Which, sadly, none of us are. So why do so many of us find ourselves trying to achieve perfection, or find ourselves unsatisfied – we’re just never quite good enough?

We were three days away from August, well into the fifth month of lockdown and it was time for the 7th meeting of the Lockdown Lounge.

Nobody’s Perfect

Welcoming visitors to the Lockdown Lounge was our host, Jane. The Lounge was set up by the Guildhall Coaching and Mentoring Faculty with the idea of meeting fortnightly. Every meeting, we’d take a model from coaching and use it as a new lens through which to observe and learn from our experiences in lockdown.

Today, Jo was here to focus on perfectionism. She was going to offer us a refreshing concoction of ideas that would enable us to live better with perfectionism, or how to tame it or perhaps, even, to rid ourselves of it.

In attendance were her kitchen staff, PatCarlosTrevor, and Chris, all Guildhall Coaching Associates, all well-versed in the flavoursome brew that Jo was to mix up for the Loungers.

Jo began by outing the obvious elephant in the room – we weren’t here to confirm how wonderful and helpful perfectionism is.

However, it’s not all bad.

Perfectionism, Shame and Fear


In her book Rising Strong, author and research professor Brené Brown comes up with this telling metaphor:

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And we all know that nagging voice in the back of our minds…

“but I strive to achieve perfection – even if perfection seems impossible – and it has enabled me to work hard and productively; to succeed, to make progress, to get work.

So what’s going on here?

Is perfectionism good or bad?

Jo invited us to identify what the object of the perfectionism is.

Self-regarding perfectionism

You might be looking for perfection in things to do with you – wanting to perform perfectly in the things that are important to you; or gain the affections or approval of people that matter to you. Perhaps you want to behave in a perfectly moral way at all times or maybe you always want to be perfectly in control of things – both for yourself and for those you care about.

Other-regarding perfectionism

You might be looking for perfection from other people – wanting your colleague or child or student to perform perfectly – or wanting others to share your world views, values and beliefs – or wanting others to treat you properly or fairly.

World-regarding perfectionism

You may want the world around you to be perfect – whether that’s your perfectly organised desk; or you may want your child to be educated in a perfectly fair educational system. Perhaps you want to be perfectly certain that bad things won’t happen in the world.

None of these are bad things, of course!

Strivings and Concerns

Two important pillars in the way we regard perfectionism were put in place in the last 50 years.

In 1978, Don Hamachek wrote a paper entitled Psychodynamics of normal and neurotic perfectionism in which he differentiated the two styles of perfectionism. “Normal” perfectionists set realistic standards, enjoy their work and, when necessary, can choose to change their standards. “Neurotic” perfectionists, however, often unattainable levels of performance, feel that in falling short they are not good enough, and cannot allow their standards to drop.

Building on this and other research, in 2006 Stoeber and Otto made a distinction between “perfectionistic strivings” and “perfectionistic concerns”.

Perfectionistic strivings on their own can be wholly positive.

But when perfectionistic strivings are coupled with perfectionistic concerns, they become problematic.

There was a lot of spice and zest in the brew that Jo was mixing. Time to take our first sips.

Getting personal with perfectionism

Jo invited us to get up close and personal with perfectionism. Carlos organised the cabaret seating and we were sent into our breakout lounges to consider these two questions:

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It’s usually the case, in previous Lockdown Lounges, that once the Loungers get conversational, the topics spin and flow in several different directions.

This time, however, there were a few common themes that kept resonating.

“Perfectionism takes over my life – it’s so stressful!

“I’m not a perfectionist as an artist – I understand things go wrong – but it’s real life that’s the challenge

“It’s paralysing

“Perfectionism is a 20 ton shield that blocks me from stepping into the arena

Other Loungers commented on the link between perfectionism and people pleasing, while the positive effects of anxiety as a motivator was mentioned – but that it had to be balanced. There’s value in giving yourself permission to make mistakes, and to see that as an essential part of reaching your potential.

“Perfectionism means I miss opportunities – while I’m busy trying to make something perfect, someone else has got in there first

Easy as ABC

Jo was preparing our next tasty treat.

First, she asked us to consider this quote from the Stoic philosopher Epictetus.

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(This resonates with the quote from Hamlet that Trevor offered in Lockdown Lounge #6 – “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”)

Jo introduced us to Albert Ellis, the founder of Rational Emotive Behavioural Therapy (REBT), the pre-cursor to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).

He re-formulated Epictetus’ quote to this:

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(Incidentally, in a 1982 survey of US and Canadian psychologists, Albert Ellis was voted the second most influential psychotherapist in history – ahead of Sigmund Freud!)

Ellis came up with the ABC model.

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At A we have an activating event, which we might assume triggers emotional and behavioural consequences at C.

Jo gave us a real-life example – an event that made such a deep impression on her at the time that even as she was talking, she could still feel the tremors from that seismic event.

“I’m about to walk on stage to play a concerto…”

(the Activating Event – Jo is also a professional horn player) 

“… and the Consequence is I’m emotional, feeling anxious and maybe even fear. My mouth is dry, my legs are shaky. I have thoughts running round my head – am I up to the job? Will my lip hold out? What will the audience think of me – including my parents who have driven all the way from Dorset? What about the fixer? My behaviours hadn’t been helpful – I hadn’t eaten because I’d felt sick, I hadn’t checked the programme so I was warmed up far too early…”

According to Ellis’ ABC model, Jo’s emotions and behaviours at C were not a consequence of the Activating Event at A, but of her Beliefs at B.

What were those beliefs?

“I must perform perfectly. I have to impress the audience and if I don’t, I can’t bear it. It’s awful. I must be a pretty rubbish musician.”

Those beliefs are what Ellis called ‘irrational beliefs’, which Jo reframed into ‘Goal-blocking beliefs’. They result in goal blocking emotions (fear and anxiety), thoughts (what if I fail?) and behaviours (not eating, not checking the programme order).

If the goal is to ‘play perfectly’, that’s unlikely to happen with that stew of unhelpful and goal-blocking beliefs choking the thought processes.

Even if on that occasion Jo had played perfectly, there’s nothing to stop the beliefs being activated next time – and the time after that, on and on in a cycle, possibly even leading to depression or chronic anxiety.

Goal enabling / Goal blocking

Ellis discriminated between healthy negative emotions (or goal-enabling emotions) and unhealthy negative emotions (goal-blocking emotions).

Behind every unhealthy negative emotion is an irrational or goal-blocking belief.

The primary goal-blocking beliefs are DEMANDS. Demands on ourselves, on others or the world. Jo had talked about the mustshave-to’s and shoulds in Lockdown Lounge #4.

Those with perfectionistic concerns are more likely to be making demands of themselves, others, or of the world, to be perfect. And when that doesn’t happen…

Awfulising – “if I don’t play perfectly, it’s awful”

Low Frustration Tolerance – “If other people don’t treat me perfectly fairly, I can’t bear it”

Self / other / world downing – “If bad things happen, the world is a terrible place – not worth living in.”

So where does this leave us? How does that knowledge help us?

Jo was ready to add a little more spice to the mix. Just two more letters.

There’s more than three letters in the alphabet…

The aim of REBT is to surface our unhelpful beliefs at B and to Dispute them.

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Dispute them in three ways:

Empirically:

What’s the evidence that I have to perform perfectly – and that if I don’t, I’m a rubbish musician? Where is the law that says I have to perform perfectly? Who says that I have to impress my parents?

Logically:

Is it logical that because I would prefer to perform perfectly, therefore I absolutely must perform perfectly?

Pragmatically:

How helpful is it to believe that I must perform perfectly? What are the emotional and behavioural consequences of this belief? How does it help me to achieve my goals?

So the work here is to dispute the beliefs and to come up with new Effective beliefs.

Ellis called these new, effective beliefs Rational beliefs (hence Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy) – or Goal-enabling beliefs.

Goal-enabling beliefs are flexible and non-extremeconsistent with reality, logical and perhaps most importantly, goal-enabling.  In these new Goal-enabling beliefs, we lose the DEMAND and replace it with a preference…

The aim is not to get rid of the negative emotions, but to change them, by working on and changing our beliefs, from unhealthy to healthy negative emotions.

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Reframing the inner voice

Jo was again kind enough to offer an illustration from her professional life.

“I was in a recording session, we were running out of time and there was one more section to record – with an exposed horn entry. As we were about to record, I felt a huge rush of adrenaline and my heart started racing.

“I have to play that entry perfectly first time, or I’ll look like an idiot and the whole orchestra will have to go into overtime.

“In that moment, as I experienced the goal-blocking emotion, I recognised the goal-blocking demand. I needed a new, effective belief that would be more likely to help me achieve my goal. I replaced that demand with a preference.

“I really would prefer to nail that entry first time – but if I don’t, it’s not the end of the world. It’s annoying – but I can bear it. I am a fallible human being and whilst I would prefer to nail the entry first time, if I don’t – we can always give it another go.

That preference was transformational.

Jo’s breathing slowed, she focussed on how she was going to play the note, forgetting all distractions and trying to second guess the outcomes… she heard the note in her head and breathed through the sound.

Demands or preferences?

Time to let our Loungers off the leash. A rich and intoxicating brew had been marinating, and there was lots to talk about.

Jo asked us to consider three simple conversational prompts:

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Unlike the earlier discussion, this consideration brought out a wide range of thoughts. The key difference was between those creatives who work ‘live’, and those who present a ‘finished’ article.

One writer commented that ‘writers have a get out – they can always go back and change things’, while a recording musician said that ‘perfectionism gives me almost infinite energy – but it stops me from ever releasing my music’. Another Lounger commented that ‘recording encourages you to obsess’.

The demands and preferences were summed up by one Lounger (another recording musician) who said…

“It’s two sides of the same coin – you get better quicker if you actually release the music – then you get feedback that helps you grow”

Others commented on how the ABCDE model would help them to avoid a negative spiral of thinking, and how the differences between the healthy and unhealthy negative emotions was often simply the motivation behind them. Is it harnessing productive or unproductive energy?

Finally, one Lounger came up with this comment:

“It’s all about choice. Peace of mind is a choice. Work with what is”

Last orders

As the clocked ticked towards 5.30pm, Jo encouraged us to drain our glasses with this last thought.

She remembered that as she was growing up, her well-meaning and supportive parents brought her up with the phrase ‘Practice Makes Perfect’. And of course – as we all do – she had handed that on to her own children.

But taking stock of her own perfectionistic concerns, she’s now flexed the ‘Practice Makes Perfect’ mantra. Now, it’s…

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This mantra doesn’t prevent you from striving, but it will help with the rigid and inflexible demands we all make of ourselves.

Jo also pointed out that one of the key features of REB work is that homework is set. So the Loungers were sent out with one last piece of homework.

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And with that we were off, into this all-too imperfect world, but with new strategies and with rekindled energy to make peace with perfectionism.

As the Loungers left, they kindly dropped their farewells into the chat box.

“I make two lists: How I feel versus how I want to feel. Really helpful – thank you!

“Really great session! I have been struggling with perfectionism my whole life and it has been very thought-provoking! See you next time

“The divide between good perfectionism and damaging perfectionism requires frequent self-monitoring, especially in creative callings that elide separations between work and personal life

“So very useful, such useful strategies and phrases

“Thanks, really great conversations and lovely to be sharing this. Loved the replace demand with a preference

And for those of you who haven’t seen the final scene of Some Like It Hot, here it is. There aren’t any significant spoilers in it…

(and if you enjoy my writing, why not buy me a coffee at Ko-fi.com/chrisbrannick? It’s not expected or demanded, but I’d be really touched. I live on appreciation and coffee… in that order)

To find the date of the next Lockdown Lounge meet up and to book a place at the Zoom meeting, send an email to: coachingandmentoring@gsmd.ac.uk headed ‘Lockdown Lounge’.

Please note that numbers will be limited.

The exercises offered to our readers at home are sometimes slightly modified in the light of feedback from our Loungers.

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