How We are Programmed for Perfectionism – Schooling

In reading a discussion on a post, I further realized how we are programmed for perfectionism during our school years. In this post we will be looking at the role deadlines and tests play in creating and reinforcing this conditioning.

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The spark of realization

I’ve spoken a little bit before on how the public education I received played into my perfectionism. (You can read about it here.) But it wasn’t until I read a discussion spawned by Tracy Edwards (click here to read the original tweet) in which Cyborg-Alchemist on Tumblr (click here to read their post) linked the “unforgiving deadlines and single attempt high stakes tests,” as they said, to the “if I don’t succeed at this the first time, I’m a failure and it isn’t worth trying” facet of perfectionism.

Holy shit, was this a revelation!

How we are programmed for perfectionism

While I probably knew this on some level, because I’ve been skirting around the idea – seeing it laid out for me so plainly really caused it to click. This system that is built on deadlines with no leeway, no late assignments and one-shot tests that cannot be retaken – this is one system that contributes to how we are programmed for perfectionism. It perpetuates the pressure to perform.

The outcome isn’t actually about learning. If it was, there would be room to make mistakes and to learn from them.

While the assignments may lead up to the test and build upon knowledge over time, the fact that they are counted as part of the grade means that there is very little room for error or mistakes right from the beginning, especially when they cannot be redone or done over. Assignments aren’t always counted as part of the grade, but then it puts a heavier emphasis on the test. And when the test cannot be redone either – it continues to raise the stakes.

It becomes about surviving high-pressure situations and giving the appearance of learning rather than ACTUALLY learning.

Because we learn through our mistakes. We learn through experimentation. We learn through trial and error. And these “unforgiving deadlines and single attempt high stakes tests” do not support that.

So, I decided to figure out how I am replicating this pressure to perform in other areas of my life – business in particular.

Digging into perfectionism expressions

The one that stood out the most to me at this time is the abandonment of offers.

Tell me if this sounds familiar –
You launch a new offer. And you are going strong for about a week or so. You are excited to share it. But it doesn’t seem to be getting many bites. You try to keep going. But it is now 3, 4, 5 days out from the “doors close” date and you’ve maybe had a sale. You stop promoting. You stop talking about it. The offer gets put it on the shelf. It failed. It wasn’t good enough. Wasn’t astounding. It wasn’t a home run. And so, you begin thinking about what you could launch next, leaving this offer to gather dust.

I have done this. And I do, do this.

Here, the launch of the offer is recreating the high-stakes, single attempt situation. You have to get a 100%, or near 100%, on the first go – and when we don’t, it gets abandoned. Not because we don’t want to improve, but because we are conditioned to attempt things as a one-and-done. When that isn’t how life actually works.

For many people, this conditioning happens over years and years of schooling. I have a master’s degree, so for me, that means approximately 18 years of conditioning. (12 years of primary education, 4 years of secondary education, 2 years of post-secondary education.)

To decondition this, will take time.
To reprogram ourselves, will take time.

But let’s start looking at what we can do right now to get this ship sailing.

What can we do to combat this programmed perfectionism?

In no particular order, here are 3 things we can do.

1. Give ourselves grace, and hold onto hope.

Giving ourselves grace is something that can sound really good in the abstract, but can feel strange to implement. What I mean by it here is that when the launch or the thing doesn’t look like it is going right – it is okay. It doesn’t say anything about us. It doesn’t mean the project or launch is bad. Doesn’t mean it won’t sell. But also, it is okay to make mistakes. Making mistakes or missteps doesn’t mean that it can’t turn out beautifully or better than you hoped. But it is also okay if it doesn’t turn out in those ways. Release that pressure.

You also have the vision, so hold onto it. Be it a launch, a project, or some other situation or experience. You know what you are aiming for. Hold onto it. Maybe don’t death grip it, but remind yourself to not give up. To go as far as you can, and be okay with how far you do get. This isn’t a one and done sprint, it is a continual practice of building up your endurance, again and again and again. Nor are you starting from scratch each time – you are building upon what you’ve already done. Hold onto the big picture, your vision, and don’t get too caught up in the details.

2. Detach and treat it all as a learning experience.

Again, it doesn’t say anything about you or me. Nor does it say anything about our project. Especially in terms of “good” or “bad,” of “worthy” or “not worthy.” It just is. The 80%, 70%, or 60% on the test just is. And we are still worthy, good, decent people.

Once we reduce that pressure to perform, we can begin to treat the situation as a learning experience. So – what did I learn from this launch? What questions did I get wrong on the test, and why? How can I prepare or study better next time?

Sometimes this reflection can be difficult when we don’t know where to start. This is where it can be helpful to have a mentor, coach, or peer group you are able to turn to and receive guidance and feedback without judgement.

3. Figure out where else you replicate it in your life, biz, work, etc.

We’ve mainly been speaking about business and launching offers in a business, but how we are programmed for perfectionism can show up in other areas of our lives as well.

We may see this in cooking a new dish and it not turning out well, not taking on new projects, giving up on voting, not trying new hobbies as adults (painting, music, chess, etc.), applying for a grant, submitting for publication, and more.

Some are not always apparent at first glance, so don’t worry about getting to the root of all of it at once. If you are feeling that pressure, see point 1 again.

As we address each areas, it becomes easier and easier to address the others. But if they go unaddressed, it can make reprogramming a single area feel like an uphill battle.

Tell us – how do you deal with your perfectionism?

How have you been programmed for perfectionism? In what ways does it pop up in your life?

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