Perfectionism is particularly harmful because brain research shows that at birth, the brain is "wired" to track success and discard failure. But perfectionism focuses exclusively on failure–you didn’t do it right, you idiot–so we never learn and continue to create exactly what we don’t want to.
W. Timothy Gallwey, author of The Inner Game of Work and other books, notes that we can change any habit if we "take off our judgmental glasses" and simply increase our awareness of what we are doing. Awareness without self-judgment, he claims, creates change all by itself because the brain is a self-correcting mechanism. The more we just notice to ourselves, for instance, “Oh there I go again, being so worried about doing it right that I’m not doing anything at all,” as if we were a newspaper reporter objectively stating just the facts, the more the behavior will disappear. The trick is to do it without beating ourselves up.
Think of it this way. When a baby taking her first steps falls, she doesn’t say to herself, “Stupid baby, you just fell over.” Rather, she just picks herself up, incorporates the learning, and tries again. That’s why she learns so quickly. We can begin to get ourselves off the perfectionist meat hook by understanding that when we treat ourselves to the same encouraging manner we use with a child learning algebra or a new sport, we actually increase our capacity to do things well.
That’s how my friend Allison broke free. One day, she heard her five-year-old daughter cry out “I can’t do anything right!” after failing to separate an egg properly. Says Allison, “I heard myself, and I knew history would repeat itself unless something changed. I took her in my arms, dried her tears, and urged her to try, try again.” After that incident, she began telling her daughter, “Oh well, mistakes happen.” Soon she was saying it to herself as well.
PHOTO (cc): Flickr / Kayla C