Wednesday, August 15, 2018 | ePaper
When nothing is perfect
When I first started teaching, I compared my performance in the classroom to that of my colleagues. I even graded myself - a solid B+. Although I had many colleagues who rated lower than a B+ on my scale, I didn't give them a second thought. All I cared about were those whom I thought were better teachers than I was, and I judged myself negatively for not being in what I considered to be the A range. This was a source of much suffering for me. I even considered leaving my position.
One day I shared my unhappiness with my friend who had no connection to the law school. She looked me straight in the eyes and said sternly: "There can only be one Beatles. That doesn't mean other people shouldn't make music."
It's amazing how a casual comment made by someone at the right moment can be life-changing, but at another moment, the same comment can go in one ear and right out the other. Thankfully, this comment from my friend was life-changing for me. Now, years later, the truth of it seems obvious. At the time, though, I was a perfectionist.
If I couldn't do something that rated 10 out of 10 - or at least close to that, I didn't want to do it at all. Being a perfectionist was an ongoing source of suffering and unhappiness for me. I demanded it of myself at work. I demanded it of myself during my leisure time, whenever I'd engage in artistic endeavours or in activities that are supposed to be fun, even if we're not that good at them.
Unfortunately, many of us have been conditioned to hold ourselves to impossible standards. This is a stressful mind state to live in, that's for sure.
This leads us to engage in comparing mind, where we rate or grade ourselves in comparison to others in almost everything we do. And you know what happens then: We almost always come up short in our estimation. I'm not suggesting that we can't learn from others, but we need not believe that nothing less than perfection on our part will do.
After my friend's comment, I felt okay about the quality of my teaching. As an unexpected bonus, my teaching improved. I've been encouraged in my effort to change this stressful habit by modern neuroscientists who tell us that our habits are not set in stone. The mind is pliant. We can change the way we think and act. We can, in effect, rewire the brain.
One way to rewire your brain to overcome your perfectionist tendencies is to stop always comparing yourself to others. Instead, start forming a new habit in the brain, such as becoming your own unconditional ally. To me, this means never siding against yourself.
Changing a habit takes practice. The first step is mindfulness, that is, becoming aware of a painful habit such as always comparing yourself to others. The good news is that every time you stop engaging in this habit, it gets easier the next time because you're forming a new habit - one that won't be the source of unhappiness, or even misery at times.
Two ways to overcome perfectionism are mindfulness and self-compassion. First, work on not letting comparing mind take hold. When you become aware that you're comparing yourself to others over something you're doing, stop this stressful habit by bringing yourself to the present moment. To do this, take a couple of conscious breaths and switch your attention to the sincere effort you're putting into the activity - and maybe even to how much fun it is!
Second, a little compassionate self-talk can help here. I use it when I start evaluating myself against some perfectionist standard. I'll silently say: "Stop it. You're enjoying what you're doing. It doesn't matter if you excel at it."
Bottom line: Comparing mind feeds our perfectionist tendencies and almost always leads to negative self-judgment.
(Toni Bernhard J.D is former law professor at the University of California-Davis. Courtesy: Psychology Today)