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Is perfectionism making you procrastinate?

Updated: Jan 26, 2023

Do you find that you experience brain fog, self doubt and procrastination when doing tasks like writing essays, emails and completing job application forms? Problematic perfectionism may be at the root of the problem.

Perhaps you regularly find yourself staring at a blank screen watching the cursor winking, hoping desperately for that flash of inspiration that will lead to a flow of superbly crafted sentences to impress your intended audience. Maybe you find yourself experiencing a sense of paralysis and rising panic and a sudden urgent need to organise an untidy drawer or check out the latest posts on your social media.

If this kind of experience is impacting negatively on your life, perhaps it is time to reflect on the role that a perfectionistic coping mode is playing in your procrastination issue. Schema therapists are interested in the different "modes" or "parts" of you that your mind is populated with. If you aren't familiar with this concept, you may want to watch the Pixar movie "Inside Out" which dramatises the concept in an entertaining way.

Most of us are familiar with the experience of self criticism but we are not always so aware of how emotionally impactful this is and the coping modes we use to fend it off. Perhaps your inner critic is very demanding in nature, warning you how others will do better than you, or reject you, if you are not always at the top of your game in everything you do. Maybe you also experience your inner critic as disparaging and cutting, never losing an opportunity to put you down and so leaving you feeling anxious and full of self-doubt.

Confronted by such inner critics, we inevitably develop coping mechanisms. Commonly, we attempt to pre-empt our own self-criticism and our fears of other people's negative judgements by using what schema therapists refer to as an "over-compensating coping mode". When we are in this mode we set the bar very high for ourselves - endeavouring to produce something that is beyond criticism so that it will placate our inner judge. However, setting a very high bar inevitably comes at a cost. We are approaching the task from a state of fear and anxiety. The higher the bar, the more demanding the task and the more likely the chance of failure. This creates an uncomfortable, aversive emotional state - we are essentially in "threat mode" before we even start.

Unfortunately, a state of heightened threat and anxiety doesn't help us to think effectively or to be creative. Perfectionism creates impossibly high mountains to climb. Faced with a difficult task, we may also remember previous experiences of being in perfectionistic over-compensator mode. Memories of exhaustion, anxiety, frustration and feelings of helplessness arising from our perfectionism mode can become associated with doing these kinds of tasks.

In such a state of emotional discomfort, we may then switch into another mode - the "detached protector" - a mode that endeavours to switch off the emotional discomfort by focusing on other less demanding tasks or by zoning out. This procrastination habit can unfortunately give our inner critic more ammunition to throw at us and has very real impacts upon our ability to be productive.

Some hints and tips that my clients find helpful are:

  • Consciously "lower the bar". Recognise where your standards of perfectionism are unhelpfully high, inflexible and unrealistic. Write down what your perfectionistic standards consist of (in relation to this task) and decide what new standards you will work to that are more flexible, achievable, pragmatic and realistic. It can help to think about what standards you would value and recommend for a loved one or friend.

  • Think about your values - what matters to you ? Why are you doing this task in the first place? How might this task contribute to you building a life that is meaningful and purposeful to you? Try to use these values as a more prominent guide to what you say and how you approach the task and give less importance to what you perceive to be the evaluation and judgements of others.

  • Make sure you invest your energies and self-evaluation into a broad range of areas of your life - for example, family, social life, hobbies and interests as well as work. Having all your eggs in one basket means that the stakes are high when anything in the work-related aspects of your life don't go so well

  • Pay attention to the part of you that is on the receiving end of the inner critic's demands and put-downs. Think about how sad or scared this part of you is. Try naming the feeling ("scared" "anxious" "sad" etc); validate the feeling ("of course I feel this, who wouldn't be anxious with all this pressure and criticism being put on them?") and make a commitment to support yourself through come what may. Such self-compassion has been linked to resilience and more robust mental health.

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