S1E6 Perfectionism

Do you consider yourself to be a perfectionist? Dr. Rubin and Dr. Pete reframe the idea of what being a perfectionist is, and discuss whether or not every human is actually a perfectionist in some way. Tune in to learn how they redefine perfectionismget ready, they even offer a new definition (linear-ness).




Nikki: We are talking about perfectionism today.

Pete: I am a recovering perfectionist.

Nikki: So am I, though I don't even want to say recovering, because I think…

Pete: Still with me.

Nikki: Yeah, same here, and I'm going to say something about perfectionism that I already know that Pete disagrees with, though I think it's important to start with, because this is a big thing I focus on when I'm talking with patients is, I actually think all humans are perfectionist in some way.

Pete: I think maybe there are humans that you interact with, that I interact with most, but I do think in general, there's a lot of people who don't, failure to thrive. This is a concept within psychology, where there are some people who don’t actually achieved much, if anything?

Nikki: That's where I want to reframe the idea of what being a perfectionist is.

Pete: What is it?

Nikki: Well, let me tell you, Pete, because what you're describing is I think what most people think of as a perfectionist, somebody that is very overtly rigid about things. Maybe the way that they dress or do things, their house is super organized. To be honest with you, if you came to my house, not my office, my office looks very neat. But if came to my house, I can struggle with keeping things organized.

Pete: Not if you came to my house.

Nikki: This is why Pete and I are different.

Pete: We call my brother's house the museum, because of the genetic piece of some of his behaviours, but anyway,

Nikki: I think maybe some people would be surprised if they heard me say I think that I can be a perfectionist about some things. What I really say is, humans really err on that side of wanting things to be linear or go a certain way. That, lots of times when I'm working with people, I'll say, it's like a tendency to be a perfectionist to be like, “No, I'm not a perfectionist, I'm messy, I'm disorganized”. I'm like, “yeah,” though, we all have certain expectations of how we think our life is supposed to go, how other people are supposed to act, how things are going to turn out. And it's this really narrow view of our lives. And I would argue that that's a form of being a perfectionist.

Pete: Yeah, I think it's working primarily with athletes and high performers.  think even being a professor in graduate school, most graduate students are perfectionist in some form. How else can you get to that level, you have to get all these assignments done, you have to really organize your life in a way that requires perfectionism. Maybe what we're saying is we have to deconstruct the stigma around that ‘it's almost a bad thing’, because I'm like, “call me a perfectionist. Thank you.”

Nikki: You're like, “bring it on.” Well, I think I'm saying something a little different. Well, I agree, decreasing the stigma around it, because I think we all tend that way. The way the human brain is wired is towards this all or nothing black and wait thinking, which is really linear, really narrow. I would ask listeners to think about what are the things that you believe in your life should be a certain way? Is it that I…

Pete: ‘Should’, cognitive starts with ‘should’.

Nikki:  Cognitive starts with ‘should. Or as the Albert Ellis family famously said, “People ‘should’ all over themselves”. Which I never get tired of hearing. But think about what do we ‘should’ about and I would say that that's the type of perfectionism, is expecting that things have to go a certain way, when in reality; life never goes the way that we expect. That in fact, if we were to actually expect that, we're going to get off track from where we expect to go that that actually makes things a lot easier.

Pete: Well, student athletes, I immediately thought of, many of them will come with a 4.0, and be so stressed out and be like, “well I work, I got this, I got that” and I’m like, “go get a B.” And I do that in a provocative way, but, what does it actually matter? Truthfully, if you graduate to 4.0 that in a nickel gives you a nickel. I mean, honestly, I'm sorry, and this is coming from a professor, you know what I mean?

Nikki: No, I say the same thing to students that it's not going to massively change the outcome of life. In fact, having these off track experiences, dare I say mistakes sometimes are errors, that's actually where we do most of our learning? You know, something that I like to share with students is that in behaviourism, of course, I'm pulling the behavioural science card here. That when something doesn't work, there's an outcome that we don't want, for whatever reason; we make a mistake, something happens to us that we don't like. In behaviourism, that information is just as important as an outcome where something works the way that we want it to. It’s just like, this works, this doesn't work, and then that informs what we do next.

Pete: It’s about the process not the outcome. I think it's such a cliche thing, and I think that's gotten over-utilized. But the truth is, it's about the process, and the process is not always winning, or not getting things that you think they're going to be.

Nikki: Well, I'm wondering, how do you then help people to buy into this idea that it's the process, not the outcome, because I love that expression as well, which, by the way, I don't think it's overused out in the world, I think in our third wave community,

Pete: In our offices.

Nikki: Yeah, in our offices. Yeah, but how do you do that?

Pete: Buying for me is usually through some mindfulness practice. when you get to this idea of acceptance. For me, when I first started teaching, I would not eat two hours before class, I wanted to have all the information prepared for class, I wanted to have everything aligned, just in case a student asked a question, or I don't want to have to go to the bathroom. And the truth now, it's like all that has gone to the wind, because I'll eat, prepare, not prepare, just get in front of class. That I learned through my Zen practice, or mindfulness practice, through this acceptance base of, I'm totally okay with being imperfect. I've been writing a book for a long time in my head, like we all have. And it's about perfecting imperfection.

Nikki: I’d loved to read that book. I think I will benefit from it.

Pete: Probably it's in your head, too.

Nikki: Probably is.

Pete: Yeah, it is.

Nikki: There’s a saying that I really love, unfortunately, I can't remember where I read this, but I share it with people a lot, which is, “human imperfections aren't flaws, they're features.” I think the second part of the quote was like, “so get used to it”. But, this is actually built into our design, which I think a lot about in meditation, that I'm always coaching people. When you sit down, the idea isn't, you stay in the present moment, and the focus is that you actually go in knowing that your mind is going to get off track, it's going to wander places, and that the choice is to come back. And I think that's really hard for people to accept, that they're going to mess up or that things aren't going to go their way.

Pete: For me, it's liberating. I'm so thankful that I get to mess up.

Nikki: Well same, though to be clear, you and I have done that work for a long time. So for somebody listening that’s thinking, “Freeing? Why would that be freeing?”

Pete: Because you don’t need a 4.0.

Nikki: Say more about that. Help people understand why they don’t, because our culture is so built around…

Pete: I've had people come to the office, and I had one adolescent years ago, because I don't see adolescents. But I was doing an evaluation, and it was his birthday. I was talking to him about building relationship during the evaluation. I was like, “Oh, so what did you do for your birthday?” and he was like, “nothing.” He's like, “I have homework to do, and I have dance recital, and this and that,” So when I went out to talk to the parents at the end, I said, “For what it's worth, maybe allow this kid to be a kid today, on his birthday.” Obviously, I didn't want to, like insult their values, and also, the perfectionism that I just felt, was just leading to this really unhealthy living. For me, it's about early intervention, trying to catch these things early on.

Nikki: I agree, and it always breaks my heart a little bit when I'm working with adolescents or college students who they're telling me how, for their summers, they're going to load up on an internship and all this stuff. I literally say to them, “Would you like to know what I did during my summers, and my friends?” and they are like, “what?” I was like, “Well, I was a swim instructor. My friends were surf instructors, and waiters, and now they're psychologists, doctors, lawyers.”

Pete: You would do anything to get that time back.

Nikki: Yeah, totally.

Pete: But you know what that's like, you don't see that side of it. I had an athlete once when I was coaching, who wanted to be a real student? He didn’t want to be a student athlete anymore because he wanted to have the college experience, and he was so talented, a swimmer. He came to me, he's like, “I'm going to quit, I want to have two years of being a regular student.” I was like, “This is going to sound so annoying, and I'm sounding like just another old folk in your life, but you will not get these four years back. As an undergrad, four years as an athlete. Yes, I know you want to get to this end goal.” He ended up quitting, and we stay in touch via social media these days. I don't think he regrets his decision. I'm sure he doesn't, but I would wonder. That would be an interesting question to ask him, because I think looking back, like you said, I think I would have done some things differently. I think that's part of perfectionism. If we go back to that, because you’re judging.

Nikki: Yes, your judging, that it was the wrong thing to do. I think, it's worth bringing in here that part of amending, or shifting perfectionism is to help move towards being more flexible in our behavioural responses, and behavioural being how we think about things as well, our covert behaviours, what we're doing inside of our bodies. I want people to know that is a behaviour that they can learn to do, they can learn to become more flexible to let go of the rigid linear patterns that our brains are constantly telling us to stay.

Pete: They’d be happier too, when they do that.

Nikki: They will, and the research demonstrates that. It’s actually one of the most consistent things, that the more psychologically flexible person is the more psychologically well, they are. But again, our brains are going to default back to the perfectionism, and I think that's another funny thing I see a lot with people, which is, they get perfectionistic about not being a perfectionist.

Pete: I know.

Nikki: It's like, “Oh, I shouldn't get stuck on this”. I'm like, “well”, and then that's the thing that's going to keep happening.

Pete: Well, I think even parenting, you can see perfectionism, and even if it’s your dog, you want to have the best well behaved dog, which is often the case, but not always.

Nikki:  Not always. Well, certainly not my last dog, which we'll talk about in a future episode. So again, to come back to this idea as we're talking about it, Pete, I'm wondering if my theory that all humans are perfectionists in some way, I wonder if that's shaping you in any way?

Pete: I think no. I get it from a biological perspective-ish. But frankly, 1 area for me, that I struggle with clinically is severe depression. It's something that I don't treat very often, and so I would say that part of my experience with that is because of the behaviourism, where there's less activation. In order to be a perfectionist, you have to have goals; you have to have a plan to get there. You have to have a vision, and I think sometimes it's like a depression. Let's hear what you say to this.

Nikki: I do treat a lot of depression.

Pete: That was your dissertation if I’m not mistaken.

Nikki: It was, yes.

Pete: So I think for that, that's where I would say helped me, shape me more with that, because I think that there are people in my experience, where they were happy with negativity.

Nikki: Well, let me redefine the word perfectionist. Perfectionist, the way we use that out in the world is somebody who is very achievement oriented, who is very neat, who can't tolerate anything being at of place, and that is definitely a version of perfectionism.

Pete: It's also O.C.D.

Nikki: Well one type of O.C.D. probably do a future episode on O.C.D.s as well. But I'm actually more interested in, and more concerned about, frankly, is the murky under the surface perfectionism that I see in everybody, including myself. Maybe we can replace the word with linearness, just being linear about things. I've never encountered somebody that doesn't come with some set of beliefs, that they believe are the right way to do things. In my work, and obviously my own life, I'm constantly trying to help others, including myself; get curious about that there's no one right way to be a person, there's no one right path. But human beings, I think the way we're wired, it's this way or that way, it’s up or down.

Pete: Yeah, as I said, all or nothing. I think in general, create flexibility. The truth is, if anyone is so rigid to get to the end line, one of the things I think I look at socially, is that oftentimes those unhealthy people have gotten to their accomplishments through that rigidity, but in a really unhealthy way. Sometimes I use the white knuckle metaphor, where sometimes they use the white knuckle to get to the end, or they just step out on people along the way.

Nikki: Right. Which often doesn't align with people's values, then we might be arguing that they don't connect to values at all. But, I agree with that, and that white knuckling that people do, I also like to say bulldozing. People will bulldoze their way through things. That to me, is the perfectionism that you can find in anyone's life, and beginning to let go of that is, as you were saying, there's a freedom in that, there's a spaciousness in that.

Pete: Liberation.

Nikki: Yeah. For you, what do you find in that space? When you're free of having to be perfect all the time, having to do it right all the time, saying I can make a mistake, and that's okay. What happens in that space for you?

Pete: Such peace. There’s just peace of mind, peace of self, you feel it physically, it's just this calming to say. I know I’m going to sound like a hippie a lot of the time throughout this podcast, because I think that's part of the Zen way, is that hippie thing. But I just think it's this freedom. I was talking with my partner, and he was saying something about feeling like he's really struggling with something, and I'm like, “You are.” And that's okay, because we do.

Nikki: What I would want listeners to get curious about too, is in that freedom, in that peace, that you feel, then what happens? What is that ‘open up space for’ for you?

Pete: Oh, yeah. It opens up for positive. So we try not to judge experiences or feelings. And it does open up for positive opportunities. I feel like we're writing a… what is that called? the horoscope? I feel like we're writing a horoscope right now, because the horoscope would say something like, “Hey there, Aries, you've been shown with something right now. Let it go, find some flexibility and you're going to have something good come out the other end.” That's for all of us.

Nikki: It's for all of us. Maybe we have careers as astrologers.

Pete: You might, not me.

Nikki: I think you could probably write some accurate and helpful horoscopes. That aside, it opens up these opportunities. I talk about this a lot, it's this fascinating paradox to know that when we let go of things having to be a certain way, and not only do we get that peace, and that freedom, which is in and of itself, reinforcing. There's actually literal space to try something a different way to make things better, and that's something that I wish everybody could access more. I think this is why mindfulness probably has spoken to a lot of people that have gotten interested in it, because it's not just about paying attention. It helps people create that space in those opportunities to react to what they experienced differently, which I would guess surprises a lot of people, frankly.

Pete: To that end, it's thinking about flying, so if you're uncomfortable flying, holding on to the armrest so tightly, and being so crazy, anxious doesn't change the flight. Or if I'm so want to win this World Series, that I'm just going, going, going, going, it doesn't change the outcome of the game.

Nikki: No, it doesn't. And it's interesting, as I think a lot of people can intellectually understand that. However, experientially, the letting go the allowing ourselves to mess up. It's pretty scary.

Pete: Oh, totally scary

Nikki: It's really scary, and it's really vulnerable, which I know we're going to talk about that as well, in another episode. Letting go of being a perfectionist, whatever you want to call it, or linearist.

Pete: Maybe we just rephrased it.

Nikki: We refrain it, we reclined that term, linearist. Yeah, it's scary to be fallible, it's scary to say, “I'm going to make a mistake”, or “I'm going to stick my foot in my mouth” or things are going to happen to me that I don't want to happen to me. It's scary to make space for that.

Pete: So I think we're challenging ourselves to think about creating space to go into these unknown territories, and to do things differently. That's often the way that I frame it, if you've done it one way, try it another way.

Nikki: Well, there’s infinite ways to try it.

Pete: There's infinite ways. I've had people that are like, “Well, I do cardio on Tuesday and weights on Wednesday”, and it's like, “well, what if you just switch”, they've been doing it the way for years. Or like, “we have the same breakfast every Saturday.” What if you have a different breakfast.

Nikki: Yeah. It's a space to change the path that you're on and then know that that path can change again at any moment.

Pete: We say, “crumble it up and throw it away.”

Nikki: That's what we're saying about perfectionism. Crumble it up, throw it away. This has been When East Meets West. I'm Dr. Nikki Rubin,

Pete: And I'm Dr. Pete Economou. Be present. Be brave. This has been When East Meets West all material is based on opinion in educational training of doctors, Pete Economou, and Nikki Rubin.

Nikki: Content is for informational and educational purposes only.