Q. I’m exhausted trying to do everything “perfectly” as I was taught in childhood. What can I do to get out of this perfectionism feedback loop?

A. First, what is your definition of “perfectly”? If by perfectly you mean flawlessly—you’re in for failure big time because no human being can do everything (if anything) absolutely flawlessly. There’s always room for improvement. On the other hand, if you define perfectly (as some dictionaries include in their list of definitions) as ‘well suited for the task at hand,’ that’s doable.

As a nurse I have never yet heard someone wish on their deathbed that they had tried harder to be flawless. It’s more like, “I wish I’d played more with my kids,” or “I should have taken more vacations with my partner,” or “Too bad I bought into so-and-so’s assessment of my value.” At the very least, “perfectionism” can rob life of much of its joy, suppressing your immune system because of the triggered stress responses due to worry and anxiety. At the other end, it can lead to illness and immobility, even to a fear of doing anything because it might not be flawless.

My brain’s opinion is that life is far too short for that type of thinking and behaving. What do you want to do with your life? What do you want it to stand for? Do you want to spend it agonizing about pursuing flawlessness and driving yourself and everyone around you crazy or do you want to do your best at the tasks for which your brain function and interests are well suited?

What can you do about it? Dr. Jeff Szymanski, associate instructor of psychology at Harvard Medical School and executive director of the International OCD Foundation, has suggested doing an exercise to put things into perspective and help you decide where best to put your time and energy.

Identify your personal goals and projects or tasks and assign them priorities using the following scale:

(A) Exceptional Effort   (B) Above Average Effort   (C) Average Effort    (D) Drop it or let go

  • A  Reserve this for what is most important to you. For what, on your death bed, you’ll be glad you did. For example, if your career is most valuable, your goals might be to impress the boss, make sure clients are happy, and put out good products at work. If your family is the most valuable, you might be well-served to balance time and energy spent between work and family.
  • B  Perhaps you like playing golf or tennis or want to learn a new language. You enjoy these activities, but have no plans to go pro. (Remember it takes at least 10,000 hours of practice to become world class in a chosen field or skill.) Do your best with the time you have to devote to it.
  • C  Perhaps having a clean home is important to you. But how often does your home need to be cleaned? Genuine friends want to see you and are less focused on the environment. Could you tidy up on the weekends or focus on a few rooms that get the most traffic? Perhaps you can even afford to hire some help with cleaning—and be sure to be glad for the assistance and don’t try to clean everything before help arrives or reclean everything after help leaves because it wasn’t done exactly to your specifications.
  • D  Time-consuming activities that don't advance your goals or values or improve your relationships or bring you pleasure may need to be dumped. For example, lining up all your hangers or folding all your clothes in a specific way. Everyone has some tasks that, upon reflection, don't really matter much in the big scheme of things. Ask yourself: “How much will this really matter 12 months from now?” Perhaps you were taught there was only one way to do something and/or have done it that way for so long you’re on no-think autopilot. These types of tasks and activities likely deserve to be pruned.

Finally, you are where you are today because you learned a style of thinking and behaving and may believe you are okay only if you do everything flawlessly. The good news is that because you learned this style, you can learn a new style. I encourage you to do so. If you cannot do it on your own, you may need to get some professional assistance—sooner than later.


Dominant Hand

Q. My 5-year-old son has not yet selected a dominant hand. Several individuals have made suggestions for strategies to force him to select one, and to develop his dominate hemisphere. My brother is ambidextrous and I wonder about the wisdom of their advice.

A. I applaud you for wanting the best for your son! Since he has always exhibited ambidextrous behaviors, what makes them think they know the way in which his brain was wired for handedness? People sometimes mistakenly assume that all human beings have a dominant hand and it needs to be the “right” one. The “right” one is different for different individuals. In fact, innate ambidexterity may not be as rare as you may have been led to believe. It may appear to be so (at least in some settings) because adults often push children to select a dominant hand, usually the right hand. Since you have an ambidextrous brother your son's giftedness may be genetic. I suggest that you try to prevent others from putting pressure on your son to select a dominant hand.

Certainly you can encourage him to be who he is innately. Make it easy for him to use either or both hands for tasks according to his own preference. Place utensils, pencils, tools, etc., in the midline and allow him to pick them up with whichever hand he chooses to use. Place tools or toys in easy reach and allow him to access them on his own. It’s so easy to hand a child an object in a way that prompts him/her to take it with the right hand. Avoid trying to force him into choosing a dominant hand, because if you happened to push him toward selecting the more energy-intensive hand for his brain profile, he can expend more energy than is necessary or desirable, and could become frustrated and discouraged in the process. Life is challenging enough without adding a stressor that could have been avoided.