After I had graduated from college, I was working 20 hours a week as a coach and 30 hours a week as a high school counselor. On top of that, I was attending graduate school. I was making good grades (3.7 average), doing a good job as a first-time school counselor and a pretty good job as a coach. In a five year period, I coached 20 state champions, three regional champions, and one national champion.
Many people would have considered my accomplishments to be respectable and possibly even impressive; but for me, I was miserable. I was miserable because I spent very little time focusing on the things I did well and tremendous amounts of time thinking about where I felt like I fell short. I wasn't getting a 4.0, I wasn't making more money, and my athletes weren't the dominating force I wanted them to be.
I had the "perfectionist mentality." I would do 100 things well in any given day and 1 thing less than perfect, and it was that 1 less than perfect thing that I was focused on. I was constantly beating myself up and rarely giving myself any credit.
Luckily for me, I was being forced to read sport and performance psychology textbooks at the time, and the one thing that kept showing up in the research was something called "expectancy theory." Expectancy theory basically states that what a person focuses on expands. In essence, allowing myself to focus on what I didn't have was actually causing me to have less. I didn't believe this at first. In fact, I used to believe that beating myself up for not accomplishing more would actually cause me to perform better.
The research, however, was too strong to ignore. All the research was saying the same thing--negative self-talk does not cause improved performance. In fact, it's counter-productive. Instead of focusing on what I didn't have, I needed to focus on what I did have or what I wanted to have.
For me (and for many perfectionists), thinking about what I do have doesn't actually do a lot for me. However, focusing on what I want to have and, specifically, what it will take on my part to get it is a tremendous help. In doing so, I actually cause myself to become more successful. Further, it is undoubtedly a much more enjoyable way to experience life.
The key to channeling the perfectionist mentality into something advantageous is to first be aware of the thoughts in your head. When you find yourself focusing on what you don't have or what you are not happy with, make it a point to answer the following solution-focused question:
What is one thing I can do that could make my current situation better?
You don't have to make your current situation perfect, but do identify one thing that will make it even just a little bit better. The trick is to become relentless with this process. By "relentless," I mean that within 60 seconds of having any thought focused on what you are unhappy or dissatisfied with, re-direct your thoughts to solutions by answering the above question.
For most individuals, especially the perfectionists, it is a very foreign process to replace problem-focused thoughts with solution-focused thinking. A method of training your brain to develop a relentless solution focus is to answer the following three questions at the close of each day:
- What three things did I do well today?
- What one thing do I want to improve on tomorrow?
- What is one thing I can do differently that could make the above mentioned improvement?
By making the commitment to answering these three questions daily and whenever negative thinking occurs, you will literally train your brain to use expectancy theory to your advantage. Remember, that which you focus on expands, and if you are constantly focusing on solutions, your success will grow. Not to mention, this is a much more enjoyable way to live your life, and I can assure you that the perfectionist tendencies will become an asset rather than a hindrance.