Change is Like a New Kitten

8 09 2011

Do you ever wake up and want to change everything in your life?

Every few months, I get into a mood where I want to completely overhaul every aspect of my life. I want to start a new exercise plan, learn some new skill for work, get a new haircut, re-arrange my furniture…what have you. But changing too many things at once can get unwieldy and overwhelming and for me at least, none of those changes last.

Two days ago, my roommates and I rescued a cat, Delphina (don’t ask me, I didn’t name her). Like most cats who are moved into a new house with new owners, she was scared, shy and uncomfortable. As soon as we brought her home, she darted under the couch and hid there for the whole first night.

My roommate wanted to play with her so he got down on the floor, reached his arm under the couch and pulled her out. He tried to hug her into submission but a second later, Delphina leapt from his arms in a tizzy and bolted back into her hiding place. She cowered back in her corner more scared than before.

After my roommate went to bed, I took my turn trying to play with the new kitten. I dangled a cat toy in front of her, but she wasn’t having any of it. So, rather than force it, I just sat on the floor near her, letting her get used to my presence. Occasionally I would make some “here kitty” motions but for the most part I left her alone. Eventually, step by step, Delphinacrept closer to me and then cuddled into my arm.

We’ve had her a couple days now and I’m still the only one she’ll come out to play with, in fact she’s cradled between my arms as I type right now.

It’s a Slow Road to Lasting Change

Trying to get the cat to play with and love me is a pretty good metaphor for change. We’d love to reach out and seize change, pull it towards us and hold it in our arms until it stays for good. However, change is finicky and elusive. It will slip out of our hands in an instant, leaving us back in square one.

To change and to make it last, we’ve got to coax it towards us and get a little crafty. Sometimes after even the tiniest step forward, we experience a step backwards. Even after a step forward that sticks, we have to wait and adjust – often for quite some time – before we can take another tiny step forward. Taking the slow and steady path is how to make a change that lasts. It is how to get it to cuddle into your arms rather than dart back into hiding.

There is No Right Way to Change

There are of course the kinds of people who wake up one morning, decide to makeover their lives entirely and accomplish it all in one step. That’s great for them and I admire their resolve but, not everyone works that way. Many people, like me, need a stepwise approach.

Sometimes change is like a moody cat but so long as we keep saying “here kitty” and remain patient, we can get it to curl up into our arms like a warm, furry friend.

Do you think people who change fast can change for good? Or is it really slow and steady wins the race? What have your experiences been?

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The Perils of Perfectionism

29 08 2011

I ‘ve been a perfectionist all my life. My mother is Chinese and yes, some of the stereotypes about ‘Tiger Mothers’ are true. I had my first piano lesson at 3. If I brought a straight A report card home, my mom would just say “Ok, do it again next time.” I’ve been conditioned since birth to grow up to be a virtuoso pianist who moonlights as a surgeon and does pro bono charity work as a lawyer for the disenfranchised in my spare time. In a word, to be perfect.

Perfectionism can be a positive force. It motivates people to work hard and keep high standards. After all, being the ‘best you can be’ is what self improvement is all about. However, we’re here today to talk about the negatives of perfectionism, and how the need to go beyond excellent and be perfect can actually keep us from progressing in our goals.

We are all familiar with the idea that perfectionists are over-achieving workaholics but here are some other warning signs of perfectionism.

Perfectionists don’t try new things

Perfectionists avoid being anything less than perfect at all cost. Usually this means working to the bone to achieve perfection but sometimes this means inaction. Often, when a perfectionist tries something new and they aren’t immediately good at it, they give up (see my post last week about my 2 week stint on the bass guitar). When the new activity is already perceived to be difficult, many perfectionists don’t even bother trying at all.

Perfectionists don’t get things started

Even when perfectionists do decide that they are going to take on a difficult new task, they are slow to get the ball rolling. If there is any worry that they might perform poorly, perfectionists will procrastinate and attempt to delay that poor performance as long as possible. It’s funny that perfectionists often come off as slackers.

Perfectionists think “I won’t start this project until I know the right way to do it.” Perfectionists have an ‘all or nothing’ attitude. Either something has to be done impeccably, or not at all.

Perfectionists don’t get things done

In addition to not being able to start projects, perfectionists often have trouble finishing them too. It’s not that perfectionists aren’t productive, they’re usually workaholics. What stops them from actually finishing projects, though, is getting too hung up on small details. They waste time on perfecting individual components and lose sight of the bigger picture.

No matter how much work they do get done, perfectionists will never feel finished. They will forever be chasing perfection when it doesn’t exist. Perfectionists run at full speed but never get anywhere. It’s stressful, exhausting and debilitating.

How to Overcome Perfectionism

Perfectionism is a tough habit to break because it’s so closely tied to feelings of worth. In order to improve, we must learn to separate healthy goals from harmful obsession. The key to this is to re-examine our motivations.

Perfectionism is often fueled by external, rather than internal causes. Perfectionists want to be perceived as excellent by others. They feel they have an image to maintain, an image to present to everyone else.

The irony is that perfectionism, though it does not necessarily stem from the self, is self-imposed. We must, however, remember that it is only us that holds us to these standards. If at any point we choose to change those standards or those goals, we can.

So what should our goals be?

Perfectionists often strive for things: a promotion, a raise, a title or recognition. It’s better, however, to work toward values and actions: doing things with integrity, being a supportive team member, working hard or being enthusiastic. It is a far more admirable thing to accomplish something with a positive spirit and to grow and learn in the process, than it is to accomplish it perfectly.

So even though we all want to be MVP, to be perfect and to get those gold stars, being ‘Most Improved’ is just as worthy a pursuit.

Can you relate to these traits of perfectionists? What are your stories of struggling with, and overcoming, the need to be perfect?