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The most recent article on Narc Wise explores negative perfectionism, and how this is prevalent in codependency, and in those who have survived narcissistic abuse How narcissistic abuse causes perfectionism: Silence the critic now. In this piece we briefly recap what it is, and how to remap your thinking to ditch this way of living.
Self and other-oriented perfectionism are both maladaptive used to avoid negative outcomes (e.g.: punishment in abusive relationships, critical feedback from others, a sense of failure etc.). Self-oriented perfectionism relates to the drive to achieve coming from within you, whereas other-oriented perfectionism reflects motivation stemming from the belief that others expect you to achieve. These are known as negative perfectionism and contrast with positive perfectionism that pursues positive outcomes for the joy of this alone.
If you are a negative perfectionist, you will be familiar with the high costs to yourself (and to those around you – sorry, true story though) including:
- Exhaustion and burnout
- Depression, anxiety, shame
- Loss of capacity to feel satisfaction or happiness
- Indecisiveness, reduced ability to prioritise, procrastination
- Black and white thinking
The perfectionist endlessly chases impossible ‘perfect’ standards. The belief underpinning this is that self-value will increase by reaching exacting expectations, and that risk of rejection from others will decrease. Both are necessary for the perfectionist to feel worthy due to conditioning in abusive relationships.
These dizzying heights of faultlessness are of course, completely unrealistic. By setting the bar where you can’t reach it, the absurd thing is, you ensure you constantly need to cope with “failure”. This gives voice to the mantra within that ‘you are not good enough’. Rather than actually increasing your self-esteem and self-efficacy, you are hamstrung by the idea of perfection. Until of course, you beat the curse.
Awesome thing is. You can.
Just be you
These hacks are tailored for you if you experience codependency and/or narcissistic abuse. First, we look at silencing your inner critic which is really the imprint left by your abuser, and bringing the voice of your true-self out. Then we short-circuit the overwhelm which happens as a side effect of negative perfectionism.
Often, sense of identity gets a little lost from narcissistic abuse and/or codependency. The abuse leaves you questioning everything and everyone. This also extends to losing trust in yourself and uncertainty about who you are.
One thing you can always rely on are your core beliefs which are tied to your values. You can count on your sense of what is right, what is important to you and what works for you, being your compass when rebuilding your sense of self. For more about mapping your values see How to reclaim your boundaries after narcissistic abuse by using your values.
Perfectionism tends to be indiscriminate. EVERYTHING is as equally important, and EVERYTHING must be done perfectly. This is programmed surface level thinking. Practise consciously questioning whether this is true to reveal your values.
For example, when spending hours ironing that underwear to creaseless glory, stop and ask yourself whether this is as important as spending time enjoying whatever is bringing forth such uproarious laughter from your children or friends in the next room.
If pausing long enough to consciously think on this you will probably choose time with precious ones over the undies. The reason is because of your values. Your loved ones and their joy will matter to you more than mindless hours spent on the undies.
Tapping into your values when tackling a task helps you prioritise and whittle down to focus on what really matters to you, and where you choose to invest your time and energy.
As a negative perfectionist, you possess an internal voice that continually chants ‘you are not good enough’.
Hang on a minute…
If you are codependent and/or have lived through narcissistic abuse, let’s face it. What you’ve been through is unimaginably tough.
Many people don’t make it out alive. This isn’t hyperbole. This is fact.
But you know what? You are here. You did make it. This is what makes you a survivor.
And do you know who you have to thank for this: no one but yourself.
Frankly, surviving hell is no mean feat. To my mind, this means you are MORE than good enough. You are in fact extraordinary.
Take time right now to recognise this in yourself. To thank yourself. To have gratitude for the warrior that you are.
Let’s go back to those crinkled undies. Kinda pales in comparison doesn’t it? Being grateful for life, and how you have survived, is another way of reprioritising where and how you focus energy.
In addition to this wake-up call reminder of how amazing you are (let alone, ‘good enough’), and how little those undies really matter, integrate practicing gratitude every day.
Start shifting from survive to thrive mode by being grateful for what is. This exercise for you though is about noticing the things that you have had no hand in controlling, where the outcome just is without you having lifted a finger. Learn to be thankful for who you are, not what you do. Do this every day, at least 3 things, big or small.
You may analyse the importance of a task at hand in alignment with your values, and decide it matters. You’re going to get it done. That’s great.
Time to challenge negative perfectionism and combat ‘black and white’ thinking that comes with the territory. ‘I can’t leave/move until I get this done’, ‘I must try every possible permutation before deciding which way to go’ etc. Thinking this way ends up swamping you, and causes the dark side of perfectionism to take over. Exhausting stuff, that bluntly, is also unproductive. Practising these hacks short circuits this cycle.
At the outset of a project, envision what you want to achieve. Figure out how to get the overall job done, and break it down into smaller chunks. Methodically work through them. Use that excellent discipline you apply to pursuing perfection, and stick to one chunk at a time.
This will undoubtedly be challenging with procrastination a constant pickle. If things come to mind you hadn’t thought of before, note it down, and assign it as a new chunk, rather than adding on to what you’re working on at any given time.
Using a preset plan, with friendly doable chunks will counteract procrastination, and provide an easy way of tracking progress. Don’t just monitor your ‘progress perfection’ though, remember to pause and high-five yourself for what you’re getting done.
Conquer procrastination and indecisiveness using deadlines for completing each chunk. Not flexible ones where one hour suddenly becomes one week, but ones you stick to. In this instance, please do apply a little black and white thinking.
What doesn’t get done in the time provided, ask yourself whether it actually makes a difference to the overall goal if it remains undone. You may say ‘yes, yes, of course it does you fool, it’s a live or die situation if the bathroom floor remains unwashed’.
Step back and look at the bigger picture. Does it really matter? If the answer is it’s probably not that important, let it go.
Developing capacity to let things go is one of the greatest shifts you will make in recovering from perfectionism, codependency and/or narcissistic abuse. Give yourself this gift, start practising now.
When you notice you are procrastinating over a decision, stop, and give yourself a strict, short timeframe to make the decision – say 10 minutes. This is powerful, try it.
You may think, ‘I couldn’t possibly make a significant decision in that timeframe, I’ve been at it for two weeks and I still don’t know!’ The thing is though, if you have been procrastinating you probably already have all the information you need. Get stuck in and make the call.
Time to clear the mind-webs
Schedule in lots of regular breaks where you are spending time away from the project. These are non-negotiable. I know, I know, this will almost do you in. As a perfectionist, the first thing to be sacrificed in getting things done to the standard you require, is usually any ‘frivolous, non-achieving’ time. A.K.A self-care.
Rest time is so critical to pull out and away from the task to prevent getting stuck in obsessed land and regain perspective.
Of greatest importance, it ensures you build in time for living, where you are not achieving anything and simply being.
These anti-perfectionism hacks are about recovery, to support you in rebuilding and reclaiming who you are. Prevent overwhelm by circumventing thought processes that keep you ‘doing’ rather than ‘being’. Amplify your values and gratitude to free yourself from the brainwashing of your abuser who demanded perfection.
Mindful practice of these hacks have a snowball effect that will have you agreeing with me that you are indeed more than good enough. You are extraordinary.
Time to stand proud and share your true-self unapologetically.
Just be you. There is surely nothing more perfect on the face of this planet than you being really you.
Recommended reading on perfectionism
As with all Brene Brown’s work, The Gifts of Imperfection, is life changing, a true revelation. She has the unusual gift of having the mind of both the scientist and the story teller. Absolutely captivating, speaking right to the heart of what it means to be human. This one explains the tie between shame and perfectionism with the key to freedom being about unpacking/accepting what drives the shame. It’s not often I come across a take on ‘letting go’ that is based in science and data. If you also struggle with perfectionism, love a bit of logic, and stories that resonate with rare insight, read this now!
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Good insights and advice.
Thank you 🙂