“A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”
I have one or two acquaintances who are self-proclaimed pessimists. As in, whenever they encounter a new situation, they promptly declare that it’ll never work because of this, that and the other reason. And whenever someone challenges their negative attitude, they proudly state that they, as pessimists, will never be disappointed.
As an optimist, it’s really hard for me to relate to this attitude. Which is exactly why I feel I need to try.
In addition to pessimists, I’ve noticed a lot of people have a weird group identity pride about perfectionism.
“How come you haven’t returned your essay yet?”
“Well, as a perfectionist I can’t turn in something that’s not ready yet.”
I’m a kind of recovering perfectionist – I do notice perfectionistic features in my behavior, but I try not to label myself as a perfectionist, at least in public. I’m also recovering in the sense that I no longer feel I have to do everything in one go and deliver an impeccable result.
The Safety of the Label
“Pessimist” behavior and “perfectionist” behavior don’t often resemble each other on the surface.l It occurred to me a few days ago, though, that in some way, perfectionism and pessimism stem from the same source. They’re both about “why bother, if it won’t work out exactly like I want it to”. In other words, a fear of less-than-perfect.
If you’re a perfectionist, you can never really feel satisfied with the results of your actions. Nothing we do in this physical universe will ever achieve perfection. Deep down, most perfectionists know this. Or they think that even if perfection is possible, their own skills will never be enough to achieve it.
For me, the logical train of thought was
1. Perfection is the only thing worth achieving.
2. I will never achieve perfection, no matter how hard I try.
3. Why should I try at all?
End result: the things I was most perfectionistic about were the exact things I’d never get around to.
For a pessimist, the thought process is maybe slightly different. I’d imagine something like
1. New possibility. Hmmm.
2. There are at least seventeen things that can go wrong about this project because I’m not good at/experienced in X, Y, Z.
3. Why bother doing it at all, if it’s going to go wrong anyway?
End result: the things you might learn most from are the ones you’ll reject first.
The best part of such a label – pessimist, perfectionist – is that it gives you (me) a ready-made pattern to deflect scary challenges with. It keeps you (me) in the safe realm of no disappointments. It also keeps you from achieving anything of any value, though. And that might lead to a bigger disappointment in, say, ten years’ time.
Scratching the Label
I’m not saying everyone should jump at every chance to experience failure and disappointment. What I’m saying is that identifying as a perfectionist or a pessimist may affect your behavior so that you can’t move forward. If this is the case, it might be a good idea to try and scratch off that label a bit.
A lot of what I’ve done (and am still doing) to recover from my perfectionism comes from Havi and FlyLady. I’ll try to give you a few ideas here, but I’m definitely not saying I came up with all this. I don’t know if these things work for pessimism, too, but I’m guessing they might – if you actually do them. 🙂
1. The label is not you.
The first thing I’ve learned about teaching and leading a group is that when you give feedback, you should always criticize the behavior, not the person.
Telling someone they are stupid, lazy or impossible doesn’t really encourage them to change. That’s who they are in your eyes, apparently, and no amount of work will alter the situation.
If you tell them they are behaving in a way that is unacceptable or less than desirable, you’re giving them a chance to change their behavior without threatening or defining their actual identity. You can still give them positive feedback as well and not end up contradicting yourself and confusing the other person.
This is where the self-proclaiming comes into play. If you always go behind “I’m a pessimist, I can’t X”, you’re rooting the thought deeper and deeper into your mind. A simple change in the sentence – “I tend to think like a pessimist, therefore I think I can’t X” gives you a choice. You can either continue thinking like a pessimist, or you can change your behavior and try thinking like an optimist for a while. You don’t necessarily have to. The choice alone makes a huge difference.
2. It’s a fear. Hear it out.
This idea comes straight from Havi. If you’re afraid of less-than-perfect, then somewhere in your life it was useful for you to be afraid and avoid less-than-perfect. The fear is there to protect you from something.
Admitting that it’s a fear, of course, is a big step. It’s not considered cool to be afraid. It’s a lot cooler to just despise, look down on, not care about or scorn a person or an activity than it is to be afraid. Depending on the culture, some people would rather saw off a limb than admit they’re afraid of the pain. Or they’d rather insult a loved one than admit to them they’re afraid of losing them.
Recognizing the fear doesn’t necessarily require other immediate action. Except maybe going to read Havi’s article about the fear knight. And then slowly considering if there’s a deal you can make with the fear so you can take small steps forward.
3. Something about the big picture
This goes under the perfectionism heading, but I guess pessimists can relate to this as well.
Holidays are coming, and with them the stress to clean out your house. A wonderful chance for every perfectionist to guilt themselves into a burnout. Everything has to be clean, since that’s how Mom used to do it.
A few days ago, I read my favorite holiday cleaning tip in the newspaper. It comes from the Finnish Marttas, although it might be a universal one as well.
You only need to clean out the kitchen closets if you plan to spend your Christmas in them.
Think about the past month. Was there anything you wished you’d done but didn’t, because your perfectionism or pessimism stopped you? Was there anything you wish you’d participated in? What were those things?
Then think about the things you’re really proud of achieving this past month. How did your perfectionism or pessimism feature in that picture?
Finally, think of the moments you were really happy during the past month. How did perfectionism or pessimism come to play there?
I can’t give you a stock answer on how to get rid of the perfectionistic or pessimistic behavior. As I said, I’m still struggling with it myself. But I guess considering the big picture – what will stick with you in a month, a year, ten years – could be a good way to communicate with the fear and put it into perspective.
I don’t even remember the essays or projects I was stressing about three years ago. I don’t remember one single instance when I was happy I didn’t participate in a project or a trip because it failed.
I do remember, however, the thrill I get when I realize all my projects are handed in and I have the weekend off. Or the satisfaction of a horribly difficult job pretty well done. Or the moments we’ve had people over and enjoyed their company, even if there were dust bunnies in the corners and a pile of dirty clothes piling on top of the hamper.
Whenever you hear yourself saying the words “I can’t”, it’s time to stop and think. Do you want to? Is this important? Is there a little itty bitty piece you can do? These are the things you might want to say to your fear and see if it’ll shift a bit.
My perfectionist side is urging me to write a wonderful closing paragraph that draws the essay together perfectly. I’ll gently remind my fear that I can always edit the essay later, and that if my readers want to clarify some point, they can do so in the comments.
Thanks for stopping by again, and until we meet again – keep catching your own insightings.