How perfectionists can become more flexible – Insights from new Psychological Theory RODBT
Updated: Oct 19, 2019
Do you often hear people say “you’re such a perfectionist”, “I wish you weren’t so rigid”, “you’re always so well composed”, “you never do anything spontaneous” or “you’re such an emotionally closed book”? Do you have strict rules that you hold yourself or others too that some people might see as extreme or excessive?
If so, you might have what psychologists are now referring to as an “overcontrolled” (OC) personality. People who score high on traits of overcontrol are often described as being practical, precise, perfectionistic, realistic, self-controlled, highly composed, inhibited and sometimes rigid individuals who favor structure and planning over spontaneity and unpredictability.
While these traits are generally favored by society, when self-control and perfectionism are pursued to the extreme, negative consequences such as social isolation and low self-worth can result.
Before we can address strategies for helping perfectionists achieve more balance and flexibility, we have to explore how patterns of overcontrol are maintained. Research shows that OC individuals have an increased sensitivity to threat and will avoid exposure to what they perceive as threatening at all costs. Individuals often falsely believe that pursuing perfectionism, remaining emotionally guarded and “being in control” can make them less likely to experience whatever they perceive as threatening and uncomfortable. It makes sense then that they would engage in excessive planning, rule following, avoiding situations where they are uncertain of the outcome and take a variety of extreme measures to “remain in control” and “avoid threat”.
The problem is that feeling in control is an illusion – the future is largely out of our control, and even if we plan excessively, follow all our rules and avoid uncertainty as much as we can, while we might protect ourselves from discomfort to some extent, there is often a price to pay, and we still can’t be sure that we will always be able to avoid threat and discomfort.
The mind states, (developed by Dr. Tom Lynch) that are discussed below emerge as a result of an OC individual’s attempt to reduce one’s anxiety. When feedback is received that change requiring unplanned behavior is necessary, OC individuals will usually automatically attempt to minimize or ignore such feedback in order to manage their anxiety. In this way, OC individuals miss out on opportunities to learn and become more flexible.
· “Change is unnecessary because I already know the answer”
· Is like the captain of the Titanic with the attitude of “full speed ahead and icebergs be dammed”
· Rejection of reality
· “It’s my way or the highway”
· Able to tolerate high levels of pain/distress in order to achieve long term goals
· Resistant to any disconfirming feedback
Fatalistic Mind (Opposite to Fixed Mind)
· Change is unnecessary because there is no answer
· Is like the Captain of the Titanic who when hitting an iceberg decides to lock himself in his cabin and refuse to help steer the ship to safety or determine the next course of action
· “What’s the point?”
· Disguised resistance
· Shutting down, silence, withdrawal
· Stop working towards goals
Perhaps now would be a good time to stop and think about examples of when you have found yourself in either of the above mentioned mind-states.
How has this worked for you? Have you been able to avoid discomfort and what has been the effect on your relationships, health, body, self-worth?
So if flexible and fatalistic mind states can be problematic, what are we left with? The answer is: Flexible Mind
Dr. Tom Lynch, developer of RO DBT, describes “Flexible Mind” as involving “purposeful self-enquiry and openness to new experiences whilst honoring one’s past and accepting responsibility for prior actions”.
In terms of the Titanic metaphor, Dr. Lynch explains that being in flexible mind would mean that the captain of the Titanic would be open to disconfirming feedback to his view of the icebergs and willing to change his course or alter his speed to avoid the ice-bergs without completely abandoning the ship or turning around at the first sign of trouble.
So how do you pursue this flexible mind state? RO DBT provides 2 acronyms to guide us: Flexible mind ADOPTS and VARIES
A Acknowledge feedback is occurring – notice when you are receiving painful feedback that is disconfirming or unexpected. Remember that feedback can be verbal, non-verbal or in the form of environmental consequences
D Describe your thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations that suggest you are not willing to change or open up to feedback such as having a strong desire to explain yourself, noticing yourself shutting down or a quick increase in heart rate
O Openess to new feedback. Bodily tension is a signal that you need to practice openness in a particular area – change your posture to be more relaxed, slow your breathing, let go of assumptions and listen fully to the feedback, be curious about what can be learned
P Pinpoint specifically what the feedback is suggesting, clarify what people are suggesting, talk with your therapist about what specific behavior you need to change
T Try out the new behavior using the VARIES skills
S Self-soothe to reward yourself for being willing to practicing flexibility
V Visualize the new behavior and rate emotions, thoughts and bodily sensations that arise when you imagine engaging in the new behavior
A Accuracy – check the accuracy of your urges to avoid engaging in the new behavior
R Relinquish excessive planning and preparation
I Initiate the new behavior (Remember to activate your social safety system before hand – lean back, deep breath, half-smile and raise your eye-brows). Be fully present while engaging in the new behavior and continue this until anxiety around this new behavior passes)
E – Evaluate the outcome. What did you learn?
S- Self-soothe and reward yourself for your new practice
With these helpful tips, choose a behavior that you have been resistant to change and try behaving in a new manner with the above skills. Approach it like an experiment. Take lots of deep breaths as you engage and know that you can tolerate the anxiety that will likely accompany you when you first start behaving in new ways. Repeated practice of new behaviors can help you increase flexible thinking and eventually behaving in these new ways won’t be so anxiety provoking.