May 30, 2016

How Perfectionists can Tame their “Inner Taskmasters.”

perfectionist girl

In order to have a balanced life, we must learn how to tame that sense of perfectionism that we often push ourselves toward.

This is the part of us that’s addicted to workaholism, rushing, and going nonstop until we drop.

If we don’t put in a ten-hour day, we get anxious.

We may feel guilty relaxing or taking time off from work or solving emotional problems.

To feel calm is to feel guilt.

This is a connection that we must first notice and then reprogram.

Our “inner slave driver” shows no mercy.

Left unchecked, it can whip us into an anxious state of physical and emotional collapse.

To transform anxiety, we can learn to rein in our “inner slave driver” by treating ourselves with more compassion, turning down the tension, and regularly planning stress-free interludes.

Once, during an anxious period when my inner taskmaster took over, I dreamed that a ceramic mug I loved with “Dance-Sing-Play” on it, cracked. This upset me because I couldn’t drink tea from it anymore. Upon awakening I got the message: to have more fun and put less pressure on myself so that I didn’t crack.

Similarly, you can oversee your inner taskmaster. Staying mindful of this voice and saying an emphatic “no” to it is important.

Perfectionists are ruled by their inner taskmasters. They hold themselves to impossible standards, beat themselves up over mistakes, and are unforgiving when others make them. Perfectionism can motivate us toward accomplishments, but these are often hard to enjoy because, in our own eyes, they never seem good enough.

Perfectionists aggravate their anxiety with all-or-none thinking, a list of “shoulds” about how life must be led, and fear of not measuring up.

See if you find something of yourself in any of these traits:

  • You believe you must always be “perfect” to be considered likeable or worthy.
  • You find it hard to compromise or tolerate shortcomings, yours or others’.
  • You keep your home spotless in case a neighbor drops by.
  • Your outfit and make-up must be flawless even if you’re only going to the car wash.
  • You get a B on a test or a performance review and see yourself as a failure.
  • You say or do something you regret, and can neither make amends nor forgive yourself.

In my book on how to achieve Emotional Freedom I suggest refocusing on our positive traits—what do you have to be grateful for to counter perfectionism?

The inner taskmaster is obsessed with perfectionism, and gratitude can help it relax.

With patients, I work with perfectionism in two basic ways. First, I advise that they take the pressure off themselves by setting realistic goals and affirming those successes. For instance, with a patient who was chronically anxious because she couldn’t complete her never-ending “to-do” list, I suggested aiming for only two tasks per day, then telling herself what a great job she’d done. This is a behavioral way to scale down excessive expectations and practice positive self-talk.

Second, I help patients discover what’s motivating the anxiety of perfectionism so that it can be re-programmed, asking questions like: Did their parents equate success with perfectionism? Were their teachers intolerant of mistakes? Did they lack role models for self-compassion?

Knowing these answers pinpoints where their anxiety began so it can be replaced with new beliefs and behavior. Unless you are aware of these psychological influences, it’s easy to click into automatic with perfectionism. Then setting realistic goals to combat workaholism or other over-conscientious habits may feel intolerable. Instead, try to catch perfectionism by seeing what motivates it and showing yourself compassion so that real change is possible.

We’re all imperfect; that’s part of the beauty of being human. I’d like you to try to see it this way. Learning tolerance and self-acceptance, particularly when confronting limitations, fosters calm.

When it comes to our inner taskmaster, finding internal calm is predicated on finding self-worth through love—and this means not beating ourselves up or working all-nighters.

Such self-care is a way of honoring ourselves.


This article is based upon Dr. Judith Orloff’s New York Times Bestseller, Emotional Freedom: Liberate Yourself from Negative Emotions and Transform Your Life, Harmony; Reprint edition (December 28, 2010)



Author: Judith Orloff

Editor: Renée Picard

Photo: LaVladina at Flickr 

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