The Perfectionism/Procastination/ Paralysis/ Imposter Loop
How familiar does the following scenario sound to to you?
Let's take Lisa, a self-employed London based professional who often creates quite challenging expectations for herself: neverending to-do lists, multiple complex projects and competing deadlines because " I can't say no, I owe them", " it is now or never for my career", "all the others manage so easily, why shouldn't I do it?" and all other very valid reasons. Most importantly, she must succeed in all tasks and get it this right time.
By doing that, Lisa inadvertently puts a huge amount of pressure on herself. When the times comes to "deliver" and tackle these tasks, it all feels too overwhelming, she feels anxious, she postpones until later, she cannot concentrate . A few hours or days later with the approaching of the deadlines, the pressure and the consequent fear of failure rise exponentially, proving what she thought in the back of her mind all along " I am not good enough, I shouldn't struggle like this, once again it is not gonna be good enough.
I should not even be in this profession. I am a fraud!".
What has happened to Lisa? She has been caught in the Perfectionism/ Procastination/ Paralysis/ Imposter loop.
This is a quite common vicious cycle to be caught in. Perfectionism is largely widespread in our society. It stems from early on in many people's lives and often rooted in parenting and education. How many times have we heard parents or teachers, meaning well of course, saying : " you could do better", "beware of slacking", " why stopping at A if you can have A+?". Media and social media also constantly reinforce the idea that success requires aiming to perfection. In the work environment, competition adds of course another thick layer of the importance of doing better and better in order not to be caught off guard or be left behind.
There is also another crucial element in perfectionism: the illusion of control. Perfection and subsequent success are related to my abilities only, it must be in my control to achieve it. If my work will not be "perfect", I will be the one to blame.
The first step to understand the loop and not getting caught in it in the future is trying to identify the perfectionism within ourselves. Many people caught in this loop are not aware at all that they are perfectionists. But what can be tricky about being perfectionists? In a few words? Constantly raising the bar so high that whatever result or achievement risks to be not good enough. As a consequence, perfectionists struggle to recognise their achievements, to celebrate them, to let them sink and strenghten their sense of self-esteem.
The other downside of being perfectionist is procastination. Having set that bar so high can cause high levels of anxiety that make people freeze. It is hard to concentrate, to think clearly, to be creative. Because they tend to push it for later, a sense of shame may arise which makes completing the task even harder. " I pushed it to the last minute and now I will fail. I am such a failure!'
But I would go a step further and invite you to look at this last assumption for a second. Is it procastinating always a bad thing? What if we asked ourselves: "Where does this belief come from? Do I really believe this or maybe this belief comes from somebody else.. maybe a teacher.. didnt Mr Jones use to say "dont leave things for the last minute, you won't manage it".. Is it the case for me? "
My point is that for example for some people, it may be easier to concentrate on exams or tasks in the last days, maybe they need that final adrenaline push to activate themselves and connect with their creativity.
Procastination itself does not mean that the person has done something wrong and that they will fail. It can cause and additional stress and pressure but it does not necessarily entail failure. It is also very important to differentiate procastination from laziness. It is much more helpful to see it as a coping mechanism.
For some perfectionists, may it also be an unconscious way to protect themselves from too much stress and anxiety?
In conclusion, what are some tips to come out of the the Perfectionism/ Procastination loop?
- Be curious about your reasons and meanings behind the push to be perfect (and about procastination). What does perfect mean? What evidences do I have for what is perfect? If I procastinate, does it mean I am lazy or going to fail?
- Does every task have to be perfect? Can some tasks be just "done"?
- Does every single task on the to-do list need to even be done?
- Challenge your beliefs about others such as "Others always seem to get it right. It comes so easily to them." This is what psychologists call "mind-reading". How do you know how others really feel? What evidences do you have that this is true?
- It is important to recognise a sort of "all or nothing" and "catastrophizing " unhelpful thinking habit which often starts with an IF. A few examples:
IF my work is not perfect, then I am a failure.
IF I push it for tomorrow, I am not gonna be able to do it.
IF I will not complete my task the way it should be, then I am an imposter.
Again, for every negative thought that you can identify, be curious about the reasons that support it and alternative explanations.