Being Kind to Perfection

Usually I am a superb driver, but with my sister and my nieces in the car, my level of distraction and excitement is through the roof.  We headed to dinner Sunday night at our favorite burger place and were discussing a store that just closed on the opposite side of the street. I began to turn into the restaurant parking lot and was not paying full attention to my driving. I hit the median and busted up the bottom door paneling of my Volvo.

Based on my reaction, you would have thought that I had accidentally ran over a pedestrian. I went into total freak out mode and had worst case scenario brain emerge.  “Maybe I hit my radiator, I probably smacked my engine, my door will fall off now”, etc.  I laid on the asphalt in the parking lot looking aimlessly at the underside of my car with the help of my sister’s cell phone light. I had total fog brain.

After about 15 minutes, I recognized that staring at my car wasn’t going to fix anything, so I got up and went inside the restaurant. I felt like a zombie. I walked straight into the bathroom and locked the door. I looked at myself in the mirror and said the nastiest things to myself.  “Great job Hope! Way to screw up something else! It’s probably going to cost you a thousand bucks to fix this. You dope!”

Ouch! As I stared at myself making faces in the mirror, another tiny voice said, “Come on, you know what to do. Don’t be mean to yourself.”  I washed my hands in cold water, took a cool wet rag to my face and neck and asked myself an important question, “What the heck was that all about?” As I paused and waited, a thought emerged. “Oh right, this is about perfectionism. You want to be perfect and you just made a mistake.”

I took a couple of deep breaths thinking I was centered enough to interact with my family again, but as soon as I walked out of the door, my sister asked me, “What do you think you want to eat?”

I snapped, “I was in the bathroom! I didn’t look at the menu! Duh!”  Yep, nasty pants had come back quickly. Pausing again with another breath, I said more kindly, “Just pick for us, and I’ll get the beers.”  So she did and as I walked toward the table, I recognized I needed to apologize.  She was just trying to help me and I didn’t want to be acting like that.

“Sorry, I just get so frustrated at myself when I make mistakes. I’m sorry I snapped at you.”

She replied “I do that too.”  Phew, what a relief to have someone understand.

“Well, I can’t do anything about the car anyway. Let’s just eat and I’ll think about it tomorrow.”

As a Radically Open DBT therapist and self-identified overcontrolled person, perfectionism is something with which I’m well acquainted.  Overcontrol is both a biological temperament to see threat (or the worst-case scenario) in any given situation, coupled with the desire to not make mistakes, to be on top of my emotional response, and live up to very high standards I’ve set for myself. Most of the time, my control tendencies make me a very successful person, but other times, I can’t roll with the punches very well. I have to work to understand that my body and brain tend to react in very protective ways that may not always be very helpful and lead me to feel overwhelmed at times. In fact, many times my reactions damage relationships I care about deeply.

As I reflected on my reaction to this event throughout the next week, I recognized that I have a choice. I can allow myself to make mistakes with kindness, or I can make them anyway and beat myself up. Many of us might think that if we loosen our reigns on our perfectionism, that we will start to screw up more regularly. It’s just not true. The great task for a perfectionist is to recognize the tendencies to work harder and apply more control to our lives actually makes us more anxious and unhappy. The effort might be better spent learning that recovery from failure takes grace, kindness, and a willingness to accept our genuine self.

Possibly a true and honest reaction in the moment might have me to have pulled into the parking lot and just sat and cried in grief over my mistake. I was tired, hungry and had just had 10 little girls over at my house for an activity for a girl scout badge that night. Instead of being emotionally vulnerable with the three people I care most about in the world, I decided to act tough, and get angry. Not very authentic. I also didn’t give myself the grace to actually feel the disappointment until after I had my temper tantrum at my sister’s expense.

Even as I type this article, I can feel the disappointment in myself both at my mistake and then my subsequent mistake of being rude to my family. So I’m pausing and saying something kind to myself.  “It’s okay you made a mistake. You are going to make many more. Stop trying to solve an unsolvable problem of doing everything right all the time. You are one of many that feels like this.” I can soften to this emotion of sadness and recognize that it’s helping me learn something about myself.

As it turns out the repair was $150 and they fixed it the next morning. So rarely is worst case scenario brain the truth teller that we might suspect. A final comment to my perfectionism, “Let’s be buddies, not enemies.”

About the Author: Hope Arnold, LCSW, MA

Hope Arnold is the owner of RO DBT Denver and co-developer of the RO DBT App.  She specializes in treatment of OCPD, chronic depression and anxiety and female autism.