Perfectionism.  It’s a label I hear frequently self-applied by many going through the process of recovering from an anxiety disorder.  Labeling oneself as a perfectionist results in challenges that make recovery more difficult than it has to be.

Today I was able to spend time with Dr. Tara Sanderson, a licensed doctoral level psychologist practicing in Oregon.  Tara not only specializes in behaviorally oriented therapies for anxiety issues, but she has experienced the “curse” of perfectionism in her own life and has written a book on the topic.

Changing and challenging perfectionism requires an understanding of why you may be labeling yourself that way and attempting to make everything right and perfect in the world.  Are you bolstering your self-image by wearing perfectionism as a badge of honor?  Are you convinced that making everything perfect will make life better or easier?  In both cases, accepting the reality of a life where neither of those motivations is serving you is the first step toward changing things.

Dr. Sanderson writes on a few key core concepts in her book.

  1. Little t versus big T truths.  This is exceptional!  Little t truths are the things we tell ourselves, or have been told by others.  They are subjective. They are open to interpretation.  They are influenced by emotion, fear, and desire.  Little t truths are grandiose in their positivity or negativity, but they often do not jive with reality.  Big T truths are objective and verifiable.  They are measurable.  Most of us would agree on what the big T truths are in the world.  “That mountain is beautiful” is a little t truth. “That mountain exists” is a big T.  This matters because living based on little T truths fuels the cycle of perfectionism and black & white thinking. Learning to stick with the reality of the big T, even though it may be uncertain, fuzzy, or not guaranteed, is a vital step toward changing your perfectionist tendencies.
  2. Black and white thinking.  This is the idea that total perfectionism and total failure are next door neighbors.  They are not.  Tara talks about the bell curve.  The natural distribution of just about everything in nature.  Extreme levels of anything (success and failure) represent only 4 percent of the bell curve.  There’s a full 96 percent of reality available to you. Don’t stick yourself on the extreme ends of the curve for no reason.
  3. Changing assessment, judgement and action is a thing.  Tara talks about a technique called SOBER that comes out of addiction treatment.  SOBER stands for Stop, Observe, Breathing, Examine the options, and Respond.  Response must be based on being present in the moment, judgmentally, and on purpose.  The goal is to remove fear-driven, irrational evaluation and response. Learning how to be mindful, present, purposeful and objective in the way we evaluate situations and respond is part of enacting change in your life.  You can teach yourself to not think and behave like a perfectionist using tools like this.
  4. Being “worthy”.  Understanding that you have worth, perfect or not, is critical.  You are doing the best you can with the tools you have.  If things aren’t going as well as you’d like, we can always go get more tools and learn how to use them.  Life is often ugly, as if the process of recovery.  You are worthy, even when your recovery process is ugly and not “perfect”.
  5. Judge based on what you were trying to do rather than a specific outcome. There is no fail.  There is success or learning. Change your language. An exposure that didn’t go so well was not horrific, terrible, or a nightmare.  It was difficult, and maybe you made choices that could have been made differently.  Describe it objectively, use the new language to find the lessons, then learn them and incorporate them.

Tara was kind enough to discuss her own journey out of perfectionism.  Hearing her describe using new rules for thinking and behaving is worth the time spent on this episode alone.  Tara’s new rules are no longer rules of accomplishment and achievement.  They are rules of learning, adapting and growing.  What a tremendous difference!

Thank you to Dr. Tara Sanderson for taking the time for us today!

Find Tara On Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and on her practice website.

Find Tara’s book, Too Much Not Enough on her book website.

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Podcast Intro/Outro Music: "Afterglow" by Ben Drake (With Permission)



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Founder and host of The Anxious Truth podcast. Graduate student and therapist-in-training. Author and educator on the topic of anxiety disorders and anxiety recovery. Former anxious and depressed person.