Do you feel anxious and get mad at yourself when you fall short of perfection? Striving for high quality work is admirable, but if you fall short and cope with emotions using self-criticism, you’re not coping well. First, you’re teaching yourself to be self-critical, and you will never be satisfied with your work, even when it’s good. Second, self-criticism ignores the fact that striving for perfection is usually better than being sloppy and uncaring. Finally, self-criticism treats your emotions like your enemy, and that is denying who you are.
So, you messed up. How should you handle your frustration and anger? We have noted in other entries that emotions can be channeled into working for you if you accept them and think about them a little differently.
If you’re mad at yourself for being overly perfectionistic, pause and consider the positive aspects of this trait: First, you’re less likely to make foolish mistakes; second, you are showing others that you care about the quality of your work; third, you are more likely to seek creative solutions to a task; fourth, you are less likely to depend on others for completing a task; fifth, you demonstrate how your actions are consistent with your values. For instance, you can remind yourself that your perfectionistic tendencies are consistent with how you were raised and taught by role models you respect. “I was always taught that I must act in ways that make me proud of the result. If I’m going to do something, do it right. That’s my value and it’s the principle I live by.”
In general, I’m saying instead of criticizing yourself for who you are, accept who you are and examine the benefits of your traits. Such a critical examination can often increase your sense of control, personal empowerment, and autonomy.
Here’s another example: Suppose you’re anxious and fearful about something going on in the world. Someone tells you, “Don’t be afraid. Everything’s going to be fine.” Does that comment make you feel better? Suppose you say to yourself, “Yeh, I shouldn’t be afraid.” Does that make you feel better? In both cases, I bet the answer is, “No.”
Notice in this second example that once again, you are being asked to deny a part of yourself, in this case, the part of you that is anxious and fearful. Don’t deny how you feel! That denial will lead to self-criticism and the negative consequences we noted earlier.
Instead of denial, accept your fear as real. Also accept the fact that you can use your fear to your advantage. Just as we noted above how being a perfectionist can work to your advantage, so can being fearful and anxious work for you.
Accepting the reality of your fear as a part of who you are can have a calming effect that keeps you in a steady frame of mind. Also, your anxiety can help you stay alert and focused on developing plans to attend to the fearful situation. Finally, your concern can help you stay vigilant and monitor the effectiveness of your plans as you implement them.
The result is that your plans are more likely to be successful because you are operating with a positive sense of independence and empowerment that emerge from acceptance. Remember, acceptance of who you are is a fundamental step in coping with stress. Always work from that foundation of acceptance. Denial of the reality of who you are will be self-defeating and toxic for your coping efforts.
Also, take note that whether or not you like your trait is not the issue. Once you accept it and find ways to make it work for you, more effective coping will be the result. It’s like telling someone, “Yes, I’m too much of a perfectionist…,” or, “Yes, I tend to be overly anxious in most situations…,” “…but it’s who I am and I make it work to my advantage.”