Written by AnnaSophia Gouw 16/12/20
I don’t know the exact moment when I realised that my thinking patterns were a problem, that they were stopping me from doing what I really wanted to do. Sometime in my late teens or early twenties I would say, but it could have been earlier.
This year I got diagnosed with inwardly-focussed perfectionism,amongst other things, and during lockdown I’ve been on a journey to learn how to live with this, starting with recognising how it works and also simply accepting that this is a thing I do.
The way my thinking patterns work, there is actually no winning. If you have a look at the diagram I sketched up below, you’ll see that it’s either a dead-end or it keeps going in a circle. However, for the longest time I did not see this and I kept arguing with the thoughts in my mind, trying to find a way through. My initial thought would be that I really want to go to the gym (like the diagram shows) then, immediately my intrusive thoughts would pop up and try to save me from failing. Failing from going to the gym “perfectly”.
Fear of Failure…
Fear of failure is the other thing that I got going on in my head. To my brain, my personal failing at a task= me being a failure. And feeling like a failure about really mundane things, like baking a cake, is really hard on your self-esteem. The fear of failure made me stop attempting things I really wanted to do. If I were too unsure of a decent outcome I wouldn’t even attempt it. This has stopped me from doing a lot of things in life that I probably would have enjoyed a lot.
Dealing with it…
Luckily, I now have a few ways of dealing with my thought patterns. They come from my counsellor, who I regularly see remotely though Skype, and these two brilliant books: “Never Good Enough”by Monica Ramirez Basco, Ph.D. and “The Happiness Trap”by Dr Russ Harris.
The single most important bit of advice was to not wish the thoughts would stop, but simply to stop listening to them. To treat the thoughts like a badly tuned radio-station that spouted constant rubbish and noises, but that you couldn’t turn off. Or like stories that you have heard a billion times before but aren’t necessarily true. Like how I could call my automatic thoughts about going to the gym, the “Don’t go to the gym-story”. Treating the thoughts like this doesn’t make them go away and it doesn’t pretend that the thoughts don’t exist, but it devalues them.
The single most important bit of advice was to not wish the thoughts would stop, but simply to stop listening to them.
My thoughts would try and convince me that I should only go to the gym if I’m sure I’ll be able to do everything perfectly. If I wasn’t certain I would achieve specific workout to a high enough standard, then it would be best if I didn’t go- because failing at going to the gym, meant that I personally was a failure. Of course, doing every single thing in your life perfectly is ridiculous and to expect perfection in everything is simply unfair. We can only ask of ourselves what is fair to ask of someone else, and to try and do things as best we personally can.
I was tasked by my counsellor to have a good look at my automatic thoughts and how they work, so I made the diagram in this article. Writing them out like this really confronted me with the reality of how pointless it is to argue with these thoughts. So, next time I have the genuine desire to go to the gym, I will hear my automatic thoughts and thank them, but I will ignore their attempt of saving me from failure, because going to the gym doesn’t have to be perfect at all.
If you would like to read more about perfectionism and/or fear of failure, I highly recommend the books I mentioned before, or have a look at the following sources…