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Why Perfectionists Struggle with Habits

 

Recently I woke up in a bad mood. I was grumpy about ‘having’ to do things, like get up and keep going with my new morning exercise and Nutriblast habit. I was also feeling really overwhelmed with my To Do list and had that stomach-churning feeling that I was slipping behind with admin, family stuff and life – and I just wanted to run away from it all and do nothing. (Great solution Thea)

Then, while journalling, I realised that the overflowing To Do list has nothing to do with my new habits, but I was expecting them to solve it. 

I’d chosen ‘Energy Habits’ as my focus for the month and they were actually going well. 

But I realised that I was doing what Perfectionists are really good at: expecting ONE thing (one habit, insight, piece of knowledge, achievement) to SOLVE EVERYTHING. We are constantly searching for the Holy Grail that will make everything slip into place. 

As Jeff Olson writes in The Slight Edge, we are expecting a Quantum Leap in results without putting in the daily work.  He argues that what we think of as Quantum Leaps only happen as a result of a lengthy, gradual build-up of consistently applied effort. While we are looking and hoping for our big break many of us don’t take the daily actions that will actually get us there.

This, in my view is why habits are so hard for Perfectionists. We’re impatient. We want the magic solution NOW. The paradox is that while underneath it all there’s a part of us that feels we are not good enough, we still EXPECT ourselves to be perfect tomorrow. It’s crazy.

Another reason Perfectionists struggle with habits is that they feel hard and bring up uncomfortable or negative emotions. Many Perfectionists fear emotions because they make us feel out of control. We want the comfort and safety of KNOWING we can do this, that we can cope with it. Hard stuff challenges that. The fear of not coping and losing control makes us talk ourselves out of hard challenges that we might fail at, kidding ourselves that this is really what we want. We change the goalposts and prioritise short-term feelings of safety over long-term progress and fulfilment. 

(Note: We don’t fear all hard work; only the hard stuff that we’ve failed at before, have limiting beliefs about, and around which we’ve built up our perfectionist armour.)

Say you decide to give up alcohol for a while, or on weekdays and then when 6pm comes around after a hard day at work, an argument with our partner, or a week of sticking to new habits the urge to pour a large glass of soothing wine rears its ugly head and we get scared.  We don’t like that uncomfortable feeling of not being able to have what we want. What do we do with it?  How do we let it be?  How do we resist it?  We end up feeling that it’s too hard. We’ve failed before. What can we do? It’s useless.

We’ve spent a lifetime training ourselves to get rid of unwanted feelings. We’ve got a massive rulebook packed with strategies to avoid negative emotions, and one way of stopping them is to cave in and justify that glass of wine.

And sometimes that’s OK. Sometimes a glass of wine is not the worst thing in the world to do to yourself. But over time we don’t push ourselves to be uncomfortable in the pursuit of what we know our future self will thank us for, and our faith in ourselves is undermined. We don’t trust ourselves to set personal health goals because we don’t really believe we can achieve them. This then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  It doesn’t work because we don’t really believe it. Our heart is not in it.  ‘Oh well, I’ve failed at this before, nevermind’ we say to ourselves before we uncork the bottle, grab the chocolate bar, skip the gym.  It’s only afterwards that we feel the pain of giving in. The disappointment, the lack of alignment with our values, our self-hatred of being so weak and it breaks our hearts – again and again. 

The way out of this is to take the following steps (and this will take longer than you think!) 

  1. Convince yourself that the way to living with integrity and getting the results you want in your life, is via consistent habits NOT the Big Break, Magic Bullet or Quantum Leap. Read the experts and learn how your brain actually works. Try these books for starters:
    • Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones, by James Clear.
    • The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg.
    • The Slight Edge, by Jeff Olson.
  2. Design and create small, easily achievable habits that are aligned to how you want to live and who you want to be. Create them to be so easy you can’t fail. Once these are established you can build up. This will reduce the uncomfortable negative feelings that lead to you thinking that “It’s too hard” or “I can’t do it.”
  3. Be smart when creating your habits and base them on the science. Incorporate what James Clear calls The Four Laws of Behaviour Change:
    1. Make it obvious.
    2. Make it attractive.
    3. Make it easy.
    4. Make it satisfying.
  4. Build your faith in yourself as you maintain these small easy habits and see the compounding effect it has over time and how it builds momentum, belief and confidence in yourself.
  5. Review your progress daily and weekly (use a tracker app or notebook) and celebrate each small step you make. Perfectionists are rubbish at acknowledging their successes, preferring to focus on failures or what still needs to be done, so please DO NOT miss this step out. Dial in your love of ticking boxes and celebrate each daily achievement – even if the end goals still feels miles away.
  6. When you do ‘fail’ (because we all will fall short at some point), dig deep and identify what’s stopping you. You might have some deeply embedded unconscious beliefs that need unpicking with a coach or therapist. If so, find one and book yourself in. Sometimes we need support and external accountability to get us going, or help us through a plateau.

Are you a perfectionist who struggles with establishing and sticking to habits?  Do you have a part of you the rebels against being told what to do? Do you hate committing to new habits because you’ve failed in the past?  Would you like to develop the freedom that comes with the discipline of good habits?

If so, maybe it’s time to get support and accountability from someone who has felt your pain, understands the barriers holding you back and can help you set up the habits and systems that will support you and your goals. 

Book a free discovery session with me to discuss how your perfectionism holds you back and how I can help you retrain your brain and establish the habits you need for a happy life.

 

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