When High Standards Attack!

Most people agree that having high standards is one of the keys to success. It’s easy to see why. In today’s world where people frequently seem to be late, unprepared, unmotivated, and unreliable, simply doing what you said you would do sets you apart. When you do even more than people expect, they are blown away. And when you continually exceed people’s expectations, you are in high demand.

So what is the downside of having high standards?

“A downside, you say? Impossible, there’s no downside!” But to answer that question, we first have to look at why you have such high standards. When high standards are value-based, they tend to be healthy. But when high standards are born out of fear, they typically lead to problems like perfectionism, procrastination, double standards, chronic second-guessing, etc. These are all behavioral manifestations of the belief that you are not enough. Not smart enough, not good enough, not talented enough, not experienced enough, not prepared enough, not attractive enough.

Let’s look more closely at some of these problems, and then I’ll describe a technique for overcoming them.

Perfectionism

What’s wrong with striving for perfection? Doesn’t that mean that you will always do your best? But are those two standards-“be perfect” and “do your best”-really equivalent?

In his 27 years of coaching basketball at UCLA, John Wooden had one standard that he taught all of his players: Do your best. He is famous not only for his incredible record at UCLA, but for his philosophy of success. According to Coach Wooden, the scoreboard did not determine who won or lost. Only the player himself could know that. If he played his best, he won. If he slacked off, he lost, even if his team’s score was higher. Sounds a bit like an aphorism we know: It’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game. Most people scoff at such a sentiment these days. But it’s impossible to argue with Coach Wooden’s results: he led UCLA to ten NCAA Championships in his final twelve years as coach. He is considered to be the most successful coach in college basketball.

Notice that Coach Wooden’s philosophy was not “be perfect.” Nor was it “be better than the other team.” Can you see how “do your best” is fundamentally different? It’s a matter of perspective. And as with the proverbial glass of water that is either half-full or half-empty, perspective makes all the difference.

“Be perfect” measures your performance by your mistakes and shortcomings. “Be better” measures your performance by someone else’s performance. But “do your best” measures your performance by your effort and preparation. Why is this distinction so important? Because effort and preparation are the only things you have any control over.

When you try to be perfect or to be better than someone, your focus shifts away from what you can control to what you can’t. This creates stress. You worry about what you might do wrong, what obstacles you might encounter that will hinder your performance, or whether the other person will “beat” you. Afterwards, you second-guess your decisions, and you dwell on If-Only’s. If only this hadn’t gone wrong, if only they hadn’t been so lucky.

But when you focus on doing your best, you don’t worry, you act. You look for ways to improve, not ways to avoid mistakes. You look for ways to succeed, not ways to avoid defeat. You are energized but at peace, knowing that what you can’t control (other people or circumstance) is not relevant to your self-esteem or the quality of your performance. And afterwards, when you know that you did the best you could do, you feel good about yourself. You’ve measured yourself by the only standard that’s meaningful, the only standard from which you can learn and grow.

When you relinquish your perfectionist standards, you’ll find that you actually get much more accomplished. The universe rewards action, not perfection. Now is better than perfect.

Double Standards

The double standard is the brother of perfectionism. Some double standards are obvious. When the judge sentences the movie star drug addict to rehab and the inner-city drug addict to jail, that’s a clear double standard. But what I’m talking about are the invisible double standards that many of us use to criticize ourselves.

You’ve probably heard the following saying: “If you treated your friends like you treat yourself, would you have any?” Why is it that we can forgive our best friend a flaw or a mistake, but we won’t forgive ourselves for the same? The cruelty of perfectionism is most evident when we hold other people to that standard.

A great way to boost your productivity and self-esteem is to treat yourself like you’d treat a best friend. When you’re feeling down, give yourself encouragement. Use examples of success from your past to pump you up and boost your confidence. Become an ally to yourself instead of an enemy.

Procrastination

Procrastination is the cousin of perfectionism. Procrastination is sometimes the unconscious acknowledgement that perfection is impossible. If perfection is impossible, why bother to try at all, right?

Procrastination can have many other causes like lack of desire, no clear benefit to taking action, passive aggressiveness, and more. It’s usually a combination of factors that result in procrastination.

The key to overcoming procrastination is to take some kind of action. Often the obstacles we’ve imagined in our heads are much more foreboding than reality. Once we see that the first step wasn’t so bad after all, we’re more likely to take the next step.

Responding to Cognitive Distortions

The good news is that there’s a very powerful technique you can use to treat such problems as perfectionism, procrastination, and double standards. Here’s how it works: If your high standards are rooted in fear, there will be evidence of that fear in your habitual thought patterns. You can learn to recognize these cognitive distortions (disempowering illogical or irrational thoughts) and respond to them with more rational, empowering thoughts.

Step 1: Describe the Problem
Step 2: Identify Your Distorted Thoughts
Step 3: Expose the Lie behind Your Distorted Thoughts
Step 4: Create an Empowering, Rational Response

Example

Step 1: Describe the Problem
What are the details of the situation? How do you feel as a result?

I have a big project due tomorrow that I’ve been putting off all week. I don’t know where to begin. It’s really stressing me out and I haven’t been sleeping well, I’ve been fighting with my wife, and I’ve been avoiding my boss. I feel anxious and irritable.

Step 2: Identify Your Distorted Thoughts
What are you thinking? What are you telling yourself? Imagine you were having a conversation with yourself about the situation. What are you saying to yourself?

My boss shouldn’t have given this project to me. I don’t know enough. I’m going to screw it up. Everyone will think I’m a hack. I’ll get fired.

Step 3: Expose the Lie behind Your Distorted Thoughts
Are these thoughts accurate descriptions of the situation? Is there evidence from your experience that contradicts these thoughts? Are you thinking in absolutes? Are you ignoring assets or opportunities that will aid you or boost your self-esteem? Are you assuming too much (or too little) responsibility?

“My boss shouldn’t have given this project to me.”
Maybe I’m the only person my boss felt he could count on. He’s a smart guy. He must have had a good reason for giving me this project.

“I don’t know enough.”
What is “enough”? Is anyone ever fully prepared? Maybe I don’t know as much as I could, but that doesn’t mean I can’t make a meaningful contribution of some kind.

“I’m going to screw it up.”
I can’t see the future. I don’t know that I’ll screw up. I’ve felt that way in the past and things have worked out just fine.

“Everyone will think I’m a hack.”
I don’t know what’s in people’s minds. Most of my co-workers really like me. Maybe they will be sympathetic, or maybe they’ll be impressed I had the courage to try.

“I’ll get fired.”
I can’t see the future. I don’t know that I’ll get fired. Even if I do a poor job, will they really fire me? Most people don’t get fired for one mistake.

Step 4: Create an Empowering, Rational Response
What empowering thoughts can you replace each of your distortions with?

The sooner I get started, the better the project will be. Sure, I don’t know as much as I’d like to, but I can seek answers to any questions I have as they come up, and the quickest way to discover the questions I have is to get started. My boss usually has a good reason for everything he does, so he must have given this project to me because he believes I can do a good job. The fact that I’m concerned that I’ll screw up means that I take this project seriously. It’s natural to feel some anxiety when you care about doing a good job. My performance is independent of what people think about me. The more I focus on what they think, the less I can focus on doing the best job I can. And even if I mess things up, it will be clear how much I cared and how hard I tried. I have a great track record at this job, and it’s unlikely I’d be fired over this one project.

The two keys to creating an effective rational response are:
1. Address each distorted thought, point by point.
2. Use accurate, empowering descriptions of the situation, not rationalizations.

A rationalization I might tell myself for procrastinating would be something like this:

I still have plenty of time. Besides, it’s my boss’ fault if the project doesn’t go well. He didn’t give me enough instruction. So what if he fires me. I don’t need this job. There are dozens of other companies that will hire me. What do my co-workers know anyway. I work harder than all of them put together.

Rationalizations are not effective because they are distortions themselves. It may take some time at first, but if you make a sincere effort you can usually find an accurate and empowering response to each distorted thought.

(This has been a very brief introduction to what is called Cognitive Therapy. In Classes #2 and #3 of the 10-part Turn On to Life! course, you learn several Cognitive Therapy techniques for identifying and responding to your distorted thoughts.)

Re-evaluate Your High Standards

Why do you have high standards for yourself? Is it because you value growth, learning, and improvement? Or is it because you fear failure, ridicule, or that you are not enough? For many of us, it is a combination of values and fear. The key to conquering perfectionism, procrastination, etc. is to emphasize your value-based standards as you learn to respond rationally to your fears.

Many people have accomplished this successfully on their own, but if you’d like to hire a coach to assist you, I’d love to be a part of your process. To see if Success Coaching is right for you, try a free sample session at TurnOnToLife.com.

©2005 Curtis G. Schmitt

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