The Upside to Being Highly Sensitive…
You wanna know something cool about being a “Highly Sensitive Person?” – You tend to pay attention to details. It’s why people who work with you come to you for assistance. They know you probably won’t cut corners.
The Not-So-Upside to Being Highly Sensitive…
You knew there would have to be a downside. So what stinks about being a “Highly Sensitive Person?” – You tend to get lost in the details of a thing and fall into a perfectionism trap.
But why wouldn’t that be a good thing? Aren’t perfectionism and success highly correlated?
Nope. Not even a little bit. In fact, in most cases, they are inversely correlated. That is to say – the more perfectionistic a person is, the less likely they are to advance in an area they truly care about. This is especially true in the realm of health and wellness.
Why are highly sensitive people more prone to perfectionism?
As I said in the beginning, highly sensitive people pay attention to details. But that’s not all. In addition to that, they also…
- REALLY don’t like conflict. So they’ll avoid standing up for themselves in a relationship in favor of looking like the “perfect” friend, partner, daughter, sister, brother, son or parent.
- Are sensitive to criticism. So they would prefer to stay in areas that they feel comfortable in. That way, they avoid the discomfort of being “bad” at something and receiving constructive feedback.
Why is Perfectionism a Problem?
To answer that question – let me first cover the definition. By definition…perfectionism is “the inability to tolerate any standard short of perfection or flawlessness.”
On paper, that would seem like an asset rather than a liability. Who wouldn’t want to produce something flawless and “perfect?”
The problem is that we aren’t wired that way. That’s not how we learn stuff. We learn by trial and error. We learn by making mistakes. We learn experientially.
So if we spend our lives trying not to make a mistake, what we tend to do is stagnate. We stay in jobs we know how to do (even if we hate them) rather than venture into something new we might like…but aren’t good at, yet. We don’t challenge ourselves to try anything new, because doing so would inevitably reveal that we are not, in fact, flawless.
Or…if we do decide to embark on something new, we try doing an all-or-nothing approach. You know the kind…
- You have every intention of writing a book. But you get trapped re-writing the same page over and over again so that every word on every page is perfect.
- You know you should exercise an hour every day, so unless you can do the full 60 minutes, why bother at all?
- You know you should eat better, but if you’re not on a pristine paleo diet, f**k it. How could adding one cup of vegetables make any difference?
- You want to find a new job. But you want to wait until you have a block of several hours to find a solid 10 jobs to apply to. And then you’re going to apply to all 10 of them and wait.
- If you cannot meditate 20 minute each day…why do any sitting at all?
- You go on an online dating site with preconceived notions about what your partner should do for a living, how they should look, and the hobbies they should have. Or you go on a first date and start checking off a list. If they don’t meet every item on your “list” then you dismiss it as a no-go.
You See Where This is Going, Right?
Basically, what perfectionism does is keep us cornered in areas that are “safe.” If I can’t do it “right” then I’m not going to do anything. Obviously, it just wasn’t mean to be. I’m not any good at it. So we never improve our diet, because the “right” time never comes. We never exercise, because we never have “enough time.” So we keep doing the same things.
What can you do about it?
You’re always going to have a keen attention to detail. You’re always going to want to do things well. And you know what? That’s perfectly fine. Great, even. You just want to find a way to use your gifts while keeping perfectionism on a leash.
- Focus on just ONE thing. If you’re going to be paying that much attention to details – then work with that tendency rather than against it. Don’t try to clean up your diet, start a meditation practice, and start a workout program all at once. You’ll drive yourself crazy. Pick ONE thing you want to work on. And once you’ve selected one area…pick ONE thing WITHIN that area. You want to clean up your diet? Then add one serving of vegetables each day. Make it as specific and singular as you can. Don’t believe this could help you? Don’t take my word for it. Take the word of a successful real estate investor, Gary Keller. He wrote a whole book on the importance of focusing on just one thing.
- Once you pick your “one thing” learn the art of under-promising and over-delivering. Don’t start out of the gate imagining that you’re going to run five miles every day during a given week when you haven’t been running even one mile for years. Start with where you are. Maybe start by saying “I will walk at least XXXXXX steps every day. Or perhaps you might say “I will promise to do 15 minutes of cardio every day.” Nothing breeds success like success itself. And nothing promotes the cycle of stagnation better than setting our goals too high to reach on a consistent basis.
- Create systems that promote consistency above perfection. Susie Moore speaks to this topic beautifully in her article “How to Create a System That Will Help You with Any Goal.” The basic idea is this: it’s better to create a system that you can sustain on a regular basis than it is to create lofty goals we can only hit every-so-often. Examples she gives include: write 15 minutes every day (even if you don’t feel like it), replace your goal to “lose 5 pounds” with ” I will cut out soda in favor of water.”
- Whatever system you create – make sure you recruit support. I don’t just mean that you pay for a coach or recruit the services of a psychologist. If you would like that support, too…then absolutely take advantage! But I’m talking about a different kind of support. I’m talking about the kind of support from someone you love and who loves you…and who is capable of putting things into perspective for you. Ask them, if they would kindly be willing to let you know when you need to calm the f**k down. Ask them to say to you all the things you’re good at saying to others…but apparently not so good at saying to yourself. So many people think that success should be a one man boostrap sort of affair. Nope. Dr. Henry Cloud discusses the importance of having others in your corner in his book “The Power of the Other” In it, he explains why we were never meant to do things in isolation. We fair better when we have a witness to our struggles. A partner in it. This can be tough for highly sensitive types (70 percent of whom are introverts). But you might be surprised how much solace a simple “really? you don’t think you’re doing a good job? Do you mind if I tell you how you look from my perspective?”
- Know your WHY. Here is the thing…when you know why you are doing a thing, getting it done becomes far more important than doing it perfectly. If you have studied long and hard to be a doctor because you want to be a part of doctors without borders…you won’t care so much whether you pass your exams with an A- or a C+. C’s get degrees. And its the degree you need. Not a perfect GPA. Remember what you’re really doing this all for. And if you cannot find a why (say, for example, because you are working hard in a job you don’t believe in) then that’s an even BETTER reason not to be perfect. Why waste so much precious time on something that you, as Rhett Butler says “Frankly, don’t give a damn” about?
- Experiment with trying to fail. This is a great strategy to use in the realm of creativity. If you’re a writer, a painter…whatever. Schedule out time to play with your craft and say to yourself – during this 15 minutes, I’m going to try to do it badly. Do your worst. The worse it is, the better you’re “achieving” your goal. It can help shake things up. And who knows? Maybe when you let loose a little bit, you’ll find something of value in your experiment worth polishing later on.
- To avoid making “better” the enemy of “best” – create a system of tracking your progress. Part of the reason we can get so caught up in perfectionism is that doing small things over time doesn’t feel as important. We want to do it all right now. But, as I said earlier, that’s not how we learn. It’s not how we grow. That’s why putting systems in place is a much more productive idea. But doing that on its own might not provide much of a sense of accomplishment unless you can track your progress in it. Maybe mark off on your calendar every time that you sit down to meditate for only five minutes. Or every time you exercise for ten. Track your weight and watch the trends as it goes up and down. Small changes don’t look like much on their own. But their cumulative effect adds up quickly. You want a way to capture that information so you can see you’re moving in the right direction.
- Have a reward system in place. Taking on a new challenge is hard work. It’s even harder for those who have a perfectionistic streak built in. In his book The Power of Habits Charles Duhigg explains that we can only change our habits and/or our way of thinking when we learn how to set up rewards for the behavior we want to see in ourselves. I don’t just mean that you reward yourself with a cruise to Hawaii when you lose X pounds. I mean…EVERY time you engage in exercise or eat a vegetable, you want to have something you can reward yourself with. Maybe it’s a new song on your playlist. Maybe you put a dollar in a savings account every time you engage in food tracking and spend the money on something big later. Whatever it is, make a point of doing it every time you engage in this new activity.
- At the end of each day, write down three things that you did well. Highly sensitive people tend to be very skilled at figuring out where they went wrong. That can come in handy when trying to empathize with another person or polish a rough draft of a paper. It’s not particularly handy in the realm of self care. Self care and self-criticism are directly counter to each other. In fact ironically the more we shame ourselves for engaging in a particular behavior (like….eating cookies) the more our brains hardwire that behavior. Self compassion is a much more efficient path to positive change. Kelly McGonigal explains this in more detail in her book The Willpower Instinct.
- Challenge yourself to do just a little bit better tomorrow. I can talk all day about self-compassion. But let’s face it. That inner critic isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. And you know what? That’s okay. But the next time it surfaces, try a new response. For example, let’s say you wanted to exercise for 30 minutes every day. You only did 15. Then go back to your baseline and say “Okay…I was able to do 15 minutes of exercise today. What if I do that, tomorrow as well….and add one…more…thing to improve my overall health? Maybe you don’t actually increase the minutes. Maybe you just challenge yourself with a higher intensity. Or maybe you keep the 15 minutes and then just add 5 pushups. Maybe you keep the 15 minutes of exercise and add 1 minute more each day until you get to 30. Take it from writer James Clear – all you need to do is improve a thing by 1 percent each time. The accumulation of those efforts will astound you.
In sum…perfectionism is not an ally to self-improvement. Perfectionism is an antagonist to it. And failure is not the enemy of success – it’s a prerequisite for it.
What is something you would like to try? What’s worth doing even if you fail?