Perfection Paralysis and the Big WHY
So…How’s Therapy? Podcast Episode 001: Perfection Paralysis, Hosted by Karen Conlon, LCSW
We push beyond the traditional therapy format to demystify, debunk, and destigmatize therapy. Hosted by Karen Conlon, LCSW, CCATP.
Perfection paralysis tends to visit some of us more than others, but it’s probably something that we can all relate to.
It’s that nagging feeling you have when you’re working on something productive, but you know you should be working on that task you’ve been putting off. Or delaying a task because you don’t think you’ll be able to execute it well enough – you just need a few more hours of research and then you’ll get started. It’s avoiding tackling the work at hand, and reasoning with yourself as to why you shouldn’t work on it yet.
Perfection paralysis is avoiding tasks, even though you know you should be making progress on them. Maybe you’re worried about what would happen if you fail. Or perhaps you have negative emotions around the person or thing you’ll need to work on to complete the task. Maybe you’re concerned about what would happen if you succeed.
No matter the reason, perfection paralysis can have a negative effect on our lives and cause us to delay, avoid, and procrastinate. So what do we do about it? We look deeper into why and how we are experiencing perfection paralysis.
After all, delay, avoidance, and procrastination are rarely ever about lack of time, but rather your feelings and emotions about the task at hand.
What You’ll Learn
- First, the usual suspects when dealing with procrastination, including fear of judgment, anxiety around imperfection, imposter syndrome, and how to deal with each of them
- How delay and avoidance are symptoms of the real reasons we experience perfection paralysis – our emotions
- How I struggled with perfection paralysis and imposter syndrome, and how I overcame it.
- Learn to tackle perfection paralysis head-on, so you can finish that task that is taking up too much headspace and achieve your goals
- Lastly, My big why for starting this podcast, and how your big why can help you succeed in moving past perfection paralysis, too.
Overall, while perfection paralysis may tend to visit some of us more than others, it’s probably a feeling we can all relate to. By leaning on your support systems, doing enough research to feel confident (but not too much that it becomes its own delay tactic), knowing that it’s okay to fail, and just starting, you can overcome those fears of judgment, anxiety about not achieving perfection, and make progress towards your big dreams and goals. After all, if you let perfection paralysis keep you stagnant, you’ll never know what you could have accomplished.
My Invitation To You
What is the one thing that you’ve been procrastinating, avoiding, etc.? Challenge yourself to think about what it is that that means to you. What are you anxious about?
If you feel so inclined, DM me your thoughts with over on Instagram @so_hows_therapy_podcast, or send me a quick note at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to hear from you.
Hello, and welcome to the ‘So, How’s therapy?’ podcast.
This is a podcast where we push beyond the traditional therapy format to demystify, debunk and de-stigmatize therapy.
I am Karen Conlon and I’m a licensed clinical social worker in New York City.
In today’s episode, we are covering perfection paralysis and how it can get in the way of our dreams and even in our day-to-day tasks.
I wanted to start this very first episode of this podcast talking to you about perfection paralysis.
What exactly is perfection paralysis? Well, I mean, if we take the two words just separately on their own, perfection and paralysis, and put them together, it’s pretty clear. But what does that translate in terms of our lives? What does that look like and what is it exactly?
Well, I’m going to talk to you about it today within the context of even my life and how perfection paralysis got in the way of me doing this podcast for a few years actually.
One of the things that perfection paralysis does is that it really gets in the way of your perspective. You lose focus and you are so in tune with what you think needs to happen in order for your outcome to be perfect that you lack the perspective, you start losing focus on what you originally wanted to accomplish.
For me, in this particular podcast, and I’ll talk a little bit more about this later, but with this particular podcast I started out doing a bunch of research about, “What’s a podcast? How do I do this?” and listening to tons of people who I thought were fantastic in their podcasts. Then, before I knew it, I was doing more research and other research about, I don’t know, technical stuff that really, I don’t really care about. Microphones and webcams and I don’t know what.
But the point is that I lost my perspective, because I was so focused on trying to be perfect before I set things up that I got lost in the weeds.
In terms of getting lost in the weeds, the second thing that happens in perfection paralysis is procrastination. I start off saying, “I want to do this podcast, and yeah, I’m going to set some time aside to really learn about this and what it is that I have to do and what this looks like.” But things got in the way. Other things became more important. And that time, that Friday at 1:00 that I had set to do some research on this and then actually do it, oh, you know, “I have to make lunch. I can’t do that at 1:00 on Friday. I have something else to do.”
And I would continuously procrastinate rather than do what I had set out to do, which by the way would have been the thing that would have gotten me closer to my goal.
And in avoiding that, which is the other thing that perfection paralysis is so good at doing, in avoiding that I also avoided all the underlying stuff that was really going on.
Let’s talk about avoidance and procrastination and lack of perspective, and what does that look when we actually experience perfection paralysis?
Fear of Judgment
Well, fear. Fear of judgment. When I think about this podcast, and I think about what it meant to put myself out there and talk to more than one or two people at one time, I thought about the judgment. I thought about, “Well, if I don’t say things perfectly, if my message isn’t a hundred percent clear, it’s going to reflect really poorly on me. It’s not going to be well-received. Nobody will ever listen. There’ll be zero value.” Right?
And so really focusing so much on that fear of the judgment that other people will have on me was one of the things that really kept me in this place of trying to find perfection in what I was doing.
But here’s the deal, folks. I got to tell you something. Okay? When people judge you, they are not just judging you for what you say or the image that you’re presenting. It doesn’t matter sometimes how clear it is, because people’s judgments are informed by their own experiences and their own judgments and their own perceptions and their own experiences from their own lives.
And so sometimes you can do the most outstanding job of ensuring that that message that you want to put out there, or that image or whatever it is that you’re working towards, is as perfect as it can be, and how deflating and disappointing is it when somebody says something that is totally misaligned with what you expected or what you intended?
It’s really important that we realize that judgment from other people comes informed. Those lenses that we see the world through and how we see ourselves, and the same for other people, are colored by experiences.
So, trying to control the outcome of how you will be judged is futile. And not because you can’t do the best job possible, but because other people’s judgments are anchored in their own experiences as well.
Anxiety Around Imperfection
The next area that was a really, really big area for me was the anxiety around imperfection. There’s the fear of judgment and then there’s this anxiety around imperfection.
Man, I got to tell you, the standards that I set for myself are impossible. I mean, they’re ridiculous, right?
So, I set these standards for this podcast and they’re so high. By the way, you know how I set these standards? I listened to people who have been doing this successfully for, yeah, 10 years, and I’m like, “Yeah. Do you hear? I mean, are you kidding me? If it’s not like that, it is not happening.”
So, I set these standards and of course they’re impossible, because number one I am not that person. I’m not those people. Right? And number two, if I really listened to it, they’re imperfect too. By the way, what I like about them is they’re like regular people. They’re not sitting there like, “Yes,” and sounding absolutely perfect like this. No. They’re making mistakes. They’re saying um a lot like I am right now, right? The um, right? You feel the um, for anxiety? They do that. And it’s amazing, right? And I love them. I love them and yet I am unable to see their imperfections. Why? Because whatever it is that they’re talking about is talking to me so much, I feel like I’m the only person in the room because they get me somehow. And they’re imperfections are like, “Oh my God, they made me crack up. They’re so awesome.” Right? But yet when it comes to me, “Oh, girlfriend, you better reach those standards.”
So, anxiety around imperfection keeps you in that space of perfection paralysis. And then the next thing, which is my biggest nemesis ever, imposter syndrome. Okay? I’m going to say it again, people. Imposter syndrome.
Perfection Paralysis and Imposter Syndrome
Whoo. Okay? Let me tell you something about imposter syndrome. When you experience imposter syndrome, you do not take credit, you do not believe that you deserve your successes, that you are responsible for your successes.
That A that you got on that paper, on that project, on that master’s thesis, that amazing grade. You’re elated when you first get it, but then imposter syndrome, Miss Imposter Syndrome or Mr. Imposter Syndrome comes walking in, waltzing in, and plants this little seed of, “Yeah, you got an A but you’re always really nice to that professor and maybe you got that A because of that. I don’t know. What do you think? I mean, are you smart enough to really get that A? I don’t know. I mean, yeah, you put in 55 hours of work into the paper, but I don’t know.”
Or, “Did I deserve that job promotion? Did I really deserve that job … Can I do this? I don’t know. Man, I know I talk a good game,” or, “I know that that presentation was da bomb, but if people ask me questions afterwards am I really going to know what I’m talking about?” Okay?
Imposter syndrome is one of the things that gets in the way of you doing what you want to do, because you are afraid that if you are seen, if people really see you, they will discover that you’re not as smart or as talented or as skilled or as whatever, fill in the blank. And there are ways of dealing with Mr. Or Mrs. Imposter Syndrome, which we’re not going to necessarily get into today, because right now we’re just talking about the experience. We’re just talking about the experience.
Now, delay and avoidance and procrastination. Okay? We’ve talked about fear and judgment, we’ve talked about anxiety around imperfection, we’ve talked about imposter syndrome. Let’s talk about the delay and the procrastination and avoidance, shall we? Let’s talk about those three. The big three.
I waited to launch this podcast for years because the perfection paralysis made me avoid and delay taking action in the areas that I needed to in order for this to happen.
Here’s the deal with delaying and avoidance and procrastination. It is rarely ever, it is rarely ever about not having the time to do things. It is mostly always related to how we feel about that task. Okay?
I’m going to say that again because this is … Oh man. This is the nuts and bolts right here. Right?
Procrastination, Avoidance, and Delaying
Procrastination, avoidance, delaying, is rarely about having the time and it is mostly about the emotions or feelings that we have about that particular task, or person or situation.
If I do this podcast, then people will hear what I have to say. If people hear what I have to say, and maybe like it, they might Google me. And now they’re seeing me. I don’t know if I want to be seen because Miss Imposter Syndrome keeps talking to me and saying, “Hey, if people reach out, if you say something that makes sense and they reach out, yeah, they might want to know more.”
So, what do I do? I procrastinate, I delay, I avoid. But if I really think about it, it’s not because of the time. It’s because of the fear and the anxiety in relation to what could happen if I do this.
I’d like to challenge you all, or encourage you, whatever feels better for you. If challenge feels better for you then take that, if encourage feels better for you then take that. Okay? But I’d like to invite you. How’s that? That’s nice. I’d like to invite you to think about an area, a goal, something that you have been delaying, avoiding, procrastinating on. And rather than focus on, “Oh, I should do this, I have to do this, I’m going to put this on my calendar,” no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, I want you to put that all aside. And I want to invite you to think about how you feel about that task and what happens if you actually do it.
What is your mindset around that task? Is this something that you actually want to do, or are you doing it because you feel obligated, guilted? Do you see purpose in it? Is it something that inspires you but scares you, or are you, if you’re really honest with yourself, bored, bored by the thought of doing this?
I invite you, encourage you, challenge you to think about something that you have been meaning to do but you have been avoiding or procrastinating, delaying about, and see if you can tap into your feelings about it.
Anybody who’s ever worked with me will absolutely have heard this, have heard me say this. You cannot address what you do not notice. If you’re not aware of it, if you do not take notice, how do you address it? How do you change it? You can’t.
So, if you have been struggling to do something, to accomplish something, or how about we take a step back and even create a goal for yourself or something? Right? I’m going to invite you to stop trying to schedule it for a second, and just think about how you actually feel about it. Is it purposeful for you? Is it important to you? What’s your why? What is your big why as to why you’re doing this?
When I say think about it, I’m talking about emotions. What do you f eel? “What happens if I actually do this?” Is there a fear about failing or making a mistake? Is there a fear that people will want to know more about you, or know more period? Whoa. Is there a fear of success? “What if I succeed? What if my whole life I have seen myself in a deficient way, in a limited way, and now I have an opportunity to succeed? I’m really comfortable in this skin. I don’t know.”
Fear of Failure and Fear of Success
Because believe it or not, people are always afraid of success. People are not just afraid of failure, my friends. Okay? They are afraid of success because with success might come attention, might come a feeling that you are not familiar with or even comfortable with. Success might mean that you are invited to take up space. If you’re not used to taking up much and used to going to the side, and you have success in whatever it is, experience success in whatever it is that you’re doing, people might want to know more and what means that you take up space. That might not be a place of comfort to you, believe it or not.
I invite you and challenge you to think about the one thing that you have been procrastinating on, avoiding, delaying, and be kind to yourself, have compassion for yourself. This is not an exercise in, “I should be doing that.” No, no, no, no, no. That’s not what I’m talking about here. I am talking about thinking about what it is that that means to you. “If I do this task, what does that mean to me? What am I anxious about?”
And if emotions drive behavior, we need to really start thinking about what are the emotions that are driving my behavior?
If you are so inclined, I want to know. Because I love this stuff. I do this work because I legit get happy and inspired. So let’s take this to the next level, and let me know. If you want to let me know what you come up with, what your big why is, share – you can go on Instagram, Facebook, www.cohesivetherapyny.com, the podcast…share with me! I want to know. Share with me! I want to know what’s going on with you, what you’ve been struggling with, and what you have identified as the feeling.
And just a quick reminder – this podcast is solely informational, it’s not intended to be a substitute for medical treatment by a healthcare professional. Do not rely on any information in this podcast for diagnosis or treatment. And lastly, my team and my practice and I are located in NYC and are also licensed in NJ and cannot provide any information on any practice but our own.
Emotions Drive Behavior
When I talk about emotions driving behavior, I want to now talk about what emotions drove my behavior to doing this podcast, what emotions I had to get through, which I’ve talked a little bit about, anxiety, fear, I had to push through to get to the point of doing this. Then also why? Why am I here putting myself out there? I mean, I got to be honest, as I do this my heart is probably … I don’t know if this is normal. I may have to go get my heart checked after this because it’s going really fast. Okay? I mean, this is true.
But why am I pushing through this? My big why. My big why of doing this podcast is because I have met so many amazing people who have been afraid of doing therapy in the past, have spent so much time, so many years procrastinating on going to therapy because … I don’t know. They’ve watched TV and they think that you’re sitting under a heat lamp and there’s a therapist behind you with a white coat, and you’re just talking out into the air into a dark room and silence behind you. Right?
Or there are other people that think that you only come to therapy when there’s crisis in your life, or that if you have a mental illness. I have heard people say, “Well, in my culture, only if you’re, quote, unquote, ‘crazy.'” That breaks my heart. It literally makes me emotional to hear that because it is so important for people to know that sometimes we all need a little help. You don’t have to have severe trauma or be in crisis or have a severe mental illness in order to seek out therapy.
I’m going to hope to blow your mind when I say what I’m about to say, which is you can start off coming to therapy in crisis, but it’s actually when you’re not in crisis that the good work starts happening. Because that is when you can see when you’re integrating, if you’re able to integrate, you go home and in between sessions and practice, practice what you’re learning. Okay?
Do You Have To Be In Crisis To Be In Therapy?
And so being in therapy when in crisis is incredibly helpful and important, when you’re hooked up with the right therapist, and we’re going to talk about that during another episode. But you can just be going through a life transition, trying to make decisions about whether to continue in a relationship, whether you studied to be an attorney and then you became an attorney and now you’re like, “You know what? I want to be a social worker.” This is a true story, this is true, right? It’s not my story but it’s somebody else’s story. Right?
“But my family’s going to freak out. They’re going to freak out. I am a doctor and I actually want to be a comedian.” Okay. True story people. Okay? “And how do I talk to my family, my wife, my children? How do I do this? How do I justify that I want to do something meaningful and purposeful with my life that may not align with what society has set up for me, with what culturally, ethnically, I have been on track for.”
I just wanted to give you some of those examples. Again, you don’t have to be in such extreme examples. Sometimes a lot of our clients have chronic illnesses, and for them, it’s really just getting support around being understood. Being understood in a way that other people cannot, and what it feels like to walk around with a chronic illness that maybe is invisible, right? An invisible illness because you don’t see it physically. You look really good, but inside you’re going through all kinds of stuff. Right? Not wanting to be a burden to people. Knowing what it’s like to have fatigue that no one can understand, and have people judge you. Have people judge you because they look at you and they’re like, “Well, you look fine. Just pick yourself up at the bootstraps. I mean, get over it.” Well, I mean, if it were that easy, right?
Same thing with anxiety. “You’re fine. You’re fine. You’re too sensitive. You’re exaggerating. Oh my God, always so dramatic.” All those things are so impacting to our spirit and to our psyche and our functioning because it’s an invalidation of our experiences. And yet, we just take those in, we internalize what other people are saying to us about us, and don’t feel the worthiness or that we’re worth the time to say, “Well, I don’t know. I don’t think that’s true. I want to explore that further.” Or don’t feel the right to disagree. Yeah, therapy can help with this.
It is my mission to make sure that people understand what therapy is about. That it is not just about crisis, that it is not just about you getting help because you’re getting a divorce or because things are falling apart. This is about us going through life transitions and understanding that the things and the way that we used to cope in the past may no longer be working for us now. That’s it.
You don’t necessarily have to know what to do next. That’s what you do in therapy with your therapist as your partner in that collaboration.
So, I’m here today putting myself out here because it is that important, because this is more important. My big why, this big why is more important to me ultimately than my imposter syndrome and my anxiety about imperfection, and my fear of judgment. Because some people will judge me, and that’s okay. It’s more important to me that people get what they need to get from this.
How To Work Through Perfection Paralysis: Support Systems
You want to surround yourself with support systems that encourage you. You want to learn how to develop healthy boundaries.
Most people think that creating healthy boundaries means conflict.
Also, knowing that it is okay to make a mistake. Knowing that it is okay to make a mistake, to fail.
Here’s the deal, right? If you are perfect in every single way in everything that you do, where and how are you learning flexibility and alternative ways of how to do things? How are you learning problem-solving skills if everything you do is perfect?
The idea here is we’re going for progress, not perfection. And when you fail or you make a mistake, yeah, we acknowledge it. It is really important to acknowledge that we feel like crap about it, that we don’t feel good about it, that it doesn’t feel good. Okay? That maybe we have disappointed people. Yes. Okay? I am not saying that we don’t acknowledge that. Quite the contrary. We got to lean into those feelings.
But then we don’t stay there. That’s the key. All right folks? That’s the key. We don’t stay there. We then apply some other strategies that help to move us from there, such as, “Okay, I feel horrific about that. I feel horrible. I am so unhappy with myself that I didn’t do well, that I failed. Now, if I had to do it again, let me look back and see what didn’t work. How did I actually feel about doing it in the first place? What was my mindset when I started this?”
What I’m saying here is there’s always opportunity to evaluate and assess what was going on, and is there another way?
If you are taking a trip from here to, I don’t know, Florida let’s say, and you had planned a roadmap and that roadmap says, “Okay, I’m taking route whatever to whatever and whatever and that’s my destination,” and along that route there was a big detour, are you going to turn back and say, “Oh, you know what? Never mind. I failed. I am going to turn the car around and go back home and I’m not going to have that whatever, vacation or visit or whatever it was, because now there’s a roadblock. I have failed. I can’t get through there.”
Or do you curse at the detour sign, get real pissed off or whatever it is that you’re going to get, and then go back and say, “Okay, what are my other options here? Are there other ways to get where I want to get to?”
Two more things.
How To Work Through Perfection Paralysis: Go Big Or Go Home
Let’s not sabotage ourselves by doing the go big or go home thing. Okay folks?
The reality is that if you are going to work towards something that means a lot to you, then you want to honor that by doing it in small bits and pieces. Because otherwise, you will be setting yourself up to not be able to do it.
If something means a lot to you, especially … Maybe it’s something small. It doesn’t matter. If there is a goal, if there is something that you want to accomplish, take bite-sized, take it in small steps. Okay? Because when you take things in small steps, guess what happens. You are able to better foresee and plan ahead for some things that might go wrong.
Now, this does not mean, I am not saying here that now you take a small step and now you’re going to look at plan A, plan B, plan C. It doesn’t mean that now you engage in perfection paralysis. Did you see what I did there? Okay. It does not mean that you engage in perfection paralysis by continuing to just take these small steps and, “Now, let me see what could go wrong.”
I’m saying you take small steps, you see what’s out there, and then you take the next step. Smaller, doable, bite-sized steps.
The last step here, which by the way, these are not the only things to do here. These are just some recommendations that I have here.
I mean, I’m not endorsing Nike but they’re right. Just do it. Okay? Just do it. Take the first step, let the momentum propel you.
I will tell you, sometimes that means that you will have to deal with the, or tolerate the discomfort of not knowing. Okay? But if you don’t do, guess what, you will never know. If you do not move forward, you will never know. If I don’t do this first podcast, I will never know if it will be well-received, if I like doing it, if I want to do this again. I’ll never know, right? I will be left in front of my computer continuing to research what mics to do and to get, and watching other people do what I think I should be doing. No. You got to just do it at some point. Okay?
So, overall, what I want to say here is that while perfection paralysis may tend to visit some of us more than others … And there’s a lot of elements to that. It’s not just a personality thing. It’s our childhood rearing. It’s what we were told we’re supposed to be. So much goes into it. Okay? But it’s probably a feeling that we can all, or an experience that we can all relate to. And if you can lean into some positive support systems … Okay?
And I’m not talking about people who are just like, “Everything’s great, everything’s great.” I’m talking about people who can just take in your anxieties and your fears and just be like, “Okay, I’m here for you.” Right?
Doing enough research to feel confident but not so much that then it becomes an avoidance tactic. Right? Or an avoidance strategy.
Knowing that it’s okay to make a mistake, because when you make a mistake or fail it opens up an opportunity to be creative perhaps and look at other alternatives.
And then just doing it. Right? And then just doing it. Acknowledging that you are scared to death, that you don’t know what might come of it. That’s okay, we want to acknowledge those fears, but we want to acknowledge them and not let them get in the way.
I think this is it for my first, ‘So, How’s therapy?” podcast. I do hope that you’ve enjoyed it, that you’ve gotten something out of it. I want to thank you for listening, for holding this space for me. I don’t know, I’m crazy excited about the next one.
If you want to know more about me, our practice, or this podcast, please be sure to head over to cohesivetherapynyc.com/podcast to check out the show notes. And there, you’ll also be able to find resources, links and how to get in touch with us.
Anyway, feel free to send me comments or any topic that you feel you might want to hear in the future. I would love to hear from you. By the way, if anyone wants to talk about their own therapy experience, feel free to reach out. I’d love to have you on as a guest. Of course, we’ll do everything possible to protect your identity if that’s what you would like.
And thank you, thank you. I’ll see you next time on, ‘So, How’s therapy?’
About So, How’s Therapy?
In each podcast episode, Karen and her guests work to push through the traditional therapy format to demystify, debunk, and destigmatize therapy.
Whether you’ve been in therapy for years, or are thinking about reaching out, Karen is here to guide you through it all.
She tackles everything from Anxiety, Trauma and PTSD, to Childhood Emotional Neglect, to dealing with chronic illness, and everything in between, through the lens of her private practice in New York City, Cohesive Therapy NYC.
Your Host: Karen Conlon, LCSW CCATP
Owner, Founder, and Clinical Director of Cohesive Therapy NYC
Want to know more, be a guest on the podcast, or are located in New York or New Jersey and interested in therapy? Reach out at email@example.com. We’d love to speak with you.
About the author(s)
Karen is the founder and Clinical Director of Cohesive Therapy NYC. She earned a Masters in Social Work from New York University and has extensive training in Hypnosis, Anxiety, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Brainspotting, and DGBI. She is a member of the Institute of Certified Anxiety Treatment Professionals, The Rome Foundation, the National Association of Social Workers, The Crohn's and Colitis Foundation, and the American Social of Clinical Hypnosis.