Non-Coercive Perfectionism

post by Matt Goldenberg (mr-hire) · 2021-01-26T16:53:36.238Z · LW · GW · 25 comments

Contents

  Acknowledging the Shadow
  Perfectionism for Others
    
    and Questioning
  Perfectionism for Self
    
    
None
25 comments

Perfectionism is a surprisingly common ailment among both procrastinators who don't get stuff done, and high performers who get a LOT done. With just a few tweaks you can go from the former to the latter. While perfectionism is quite complicated, a useful simplification is to break it down into two categories:

1. Perfectionism for others - done to gain praise, avoid punishment, or be accepted.

2. Perfectionism for self - done to satisfy taste, identity, or goals.

Quite often, both types are present in a person, but one is a shadow value [? · GW]. People will hide that they care what others think, and pretend it's only about their work. Others will hide that it's a bit "selfish", and pretend it's only for others.

Acknowledging the Shadow

The first step to dealing with your perfectionism is acknowledging the shadow side of it. If you think it's purely about your work, ask yourself if it's even a little about others. If you think it's purely about others ask if it's even a little about your own taste/identity. Once you've broken it into it's component parts, you can deal with each side separately. And when I say "deal with," I don't mean necessarily "get rid of." Remember, perfectionism can be functional! Our job is to work with the perfectionism instead of fighting against it.

Perfectionism for Others

Introspecting

So, starting with the portion of your perfectionism that's about others: Ask yourself: Who am I being perfect for? And what does that do for me? There are many possible answers here, none right or wrong.

Exploration and Questioning

Once you've acknowledged this answer, it can be much easier to work with the intention of your perfectionism. So ask yourself: Is being perfect here the best way to get that? If not, what is?

Oftentimes, when we acknowledge our shadow values, we find that our strategies for getting them were horrible because we never actually examined them! Sometimes, we find that we don't actually know how to get our needs met, and need to spend some time thinking about them.

Other times, we find that this is in fact the best way to get what we want (putting as much effort as possible to this project will actually help our boss see us as competent) so we allow ourselves to be perfectionistic (the perfectionism is functional).

No matter the strategy you've decided on for this need, it' s smart to look at how you're relating to this desire. Are you thinking" I should be perfect for my parents?" Or "I must be perfect for god?" Musts and shoulds are unskillful, they allow for no nuance.

You'll want to question if it's really true that you "should" or "must" do this, or are there actually tradeoffs and choices to be made? My favorite tool for this is Byron Katie's The Work. [LW · GW]

It's four questions you ask yourself in relation to a belief:
1. Is that true?
2. Can I be sure?
3. How do I react believing it's true?
4. Who would I be without the belief?

Asking these questions (and being open to both yes and no) in relation to your "should" or "must" is the last step in dealing with perfectionism related to others.

Perfectionism for Self

Now lets talk about perfectionism related to ourselves. Related to achieving our goals, meeting our own taste and identity.

And here's the trick (cribbed from Nate Soares and his excellent replacing Guilt sequence at mindingourway.com/guilt/): You're going to allow yourself to be hold as much perfectionism internally as you desire - but direct it towards your high level goals.

Introspection

Just like with perfectionism for others, perfectionism for yourself starts with asking the question why. Why am I doing this project? What's my ultimate aim?

There's no right or wrong answer:

Sometimes, there's 3 or 4 or 12 things, that's ok too! Is this the best way to get them met?

Reframing

But, the question you want to ask yourself related to perfectionism is: "What level of effort do I need to reach those aims? What standards do I need to hold for myself in this area to reach my ultimate goal?" Oftentimes, you'll find your perfectionistic standards are WAY higher than you need to achieve your aims - they're based on your own internal sense of identity or aesthetics.

So here's the cool part: You're going to allow yourself to maintain that sense of aesthetics and identity - but apply it to your actions themselves, and their ability to reach your goal. You're going to allow yourself to put in the *Perfect* effort to reach your goal. You get to be perfect, but on the meta level - putting in the perfect effort to reach those aims, no more and no less. (of course, if there's some uncertainty, you need to leave yourself a little buffer room).

This is great because you get to still be exacting, AND you get to apply heroic effort when needed - otherwise, you're being exacting about NOT putting in unnecessary effort.

Finally, it's always good idea to check your relationship to these goals. Do you NEED to get the higher level goal met, or do you have nuance and flexiblity. Use @byronkaties The Work to explore.

 

Life is so much better when you work with your perfectionism rather than against it!
 

25 comments

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comment by Gurkenglas · 2021-01-26T22:17:29.169Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I had the attention-consuming urge to walk the street in a way optimized for something, such as keeping the number of cracks stepped on with each foot as equal as possible. I solved it by instead optimizing for walking as indistinguishably as possible from someone without such an urge.

Replies from: mr-hire
comment by G Gordon Worley III (gworley) · 2021-01-27T01:38:33.537Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Hmm, there's something to this that doesn't sit right with me. This quote

Once you've acknowledged this answer, it can be much easier to work with the intention of your perfectionism. So ask yourself: Is being perfect here the best way to get that? If not, what is?

and this one

And here's the trick (cribbed from Nate Soares and his excellent replacing Guilt sequence at mindingourway.com/guilt/): You're going to allow yourself to be hold as much perfectionism internally as you desire - but direct it towards your high level goals.

suggest to me your "big idea" here is to notice one's motivations and do a better job of satisfying them rather than continuing to do whatever one's doing now that is worse at satisfying one's concerns.

Certainly that seems a clear improvement, but I wonder how wise it is to not only leave those motivations in place but actively feed them, since although one might be able to better get what one wants this does nothing to address the fundamental unhappiness that comes from wanting something at all. Although to be fair I guess one can't find out striving will never make one permanently happy without first being good enough at striving to not be able to make excuses for oneself.

Replies from: mr-hire
comment by Matt Goldenberg (mr-hire) · 2021-01-27T02:01:19.140Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

 to address the fundamental unhappiness that comes from wanting something at all.

I think your whole comment, and this clause in particular, comes from what I refer to as a very  "enlightenment-oriented" frame.

That is, the thing that matters is feeling good (or not feeling bad), and the goal is to get to that.

There's another perspective, that I like to call the "heaven-oriented" perspective, in which the thing that matters is achieving a world where all needs are met and nourished, and the goal is to get to that.

I have heard people coming from a more heaven-oriented perspective say that people who think they just want to be happy are making a fundamental category error, and not in touch with what they actually care about.

I have heard people coming from a more enlightenment-oriented perspective say that people who think they want to achieve a state of the world are making a fundamental category error, and not in touch with what they actually care about.

My take, having worked with lots of people and guiding introspection into fundamental motivations, is that both of these are true for different people. My current frame is that these perspectives are more like fundamental dispositions that people have, to lean more towards enlightenment or heaven (with some at the extremes and some at different places along the spectrum), although it does get a bit more complicated because they may lean in different ways in respect to different needs.

In general, the type of advice I'll be giving in this sequence will tend to be more useful to heaven-oriented individuals, although I encourage people who are more enlightenment-oriented to follow along and take what they'd like from it.

Replies from: gworley
comment by G Gordon Worley III (gworley) · 2021-01-27T16:53:28.502Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Hmm, so we've talked before and you know I'm a bit suspicious about the useful of this enlightenment vs. heaven distinction. Let me try to steelman it within my model of what's going on here with the human brain and see what happens.

I think of the human brain as primarily performing the activity of minimizing prediction errors. That's not literally all it does in that "prediction error" is a weird way to talk about what happens in feedback loops where the "prediction" is some fixed setpoint not readily subject to update based on learning information (e.g. setpoints for things related to survival like eating enough calories). In this model we're maximally content when there is literally no prediction error.

There's three main ways to achieve this. One is to have such such weak models that one has no models to be surprised are wrong. Basically this is the route of becoming a rock. Another is to have such powerful models that one is never surprised. This is the route of becoming an oracle. The last is to do nothing to your models and change the world so you're never surprised. This is the route of the "child emperor" protected from ever knowing suffering (cf. the story of Siddhartha Gautama as a child).

In this framework, the first two approaches would be your enlightenment perspective and the third would be your heaven perspective.

There's a problem with all of this, though, if we try to choose between these approaches, which is that it depends on the notion of there being some important distinction between minimizing prediction error one way or another. That is, preferring one approach to another carries with it an assumption that it matters which side of the equation is manipulated to achieve contentment. But such an assumption matters only so long as one is held subject to that assumption; if it can instead be held as object one sees that one can choose freely among them, or at least choose among them by some other criterion.

To me this dissolves the idea of making any kind of enlightenment vs. heaven distinction except conditionally, that is the distinction only makes sense conditioned on a particular ontology that makes certain strong assumptions about what is possible in the world, and if/when those assumptions dissolve the distinction disappears.

Replies from: Kaj_Sotala, mr-hire
comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2021-01-27T20:38:22.466Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think of the human brain as primarily performing the activity of minimizing prediction errors. That's not literally all it does in that "prediction error" is a weird way to talk about what happens in feedback loops where the "prediction" is some fixed setpoint not readily subject to update based on learning information (e.g. setpoints for things related to survival like eating enough calories). In this model we're maximally content when there is literally no prediction error.

Even assuming that this is true, why does it need to be the most important level of abstraction to consider?

Certainly there are various mechanisms built on top of predictive processing but there seem to be different mechanisms [LW(p) · GW(p)] operating on roughly the same level. Even if there weren't, you could go some abstraction levels lower and say that the brain is attempting to e.g. maintain a particular balance of chemicals within the skull (whatever combination of chemicals is necessary to keep it alive), or to just follow the laws of physics. Or you could go some levels higher and say that some complicated set of social motivations is what the brain is primarily doing. Etc.

It doesn't seem obviously wrong to me to say that the brain is primarily performing the activity of minimizing prediction errors, but it also seems not-wrong to me to say that the brain is primarily performing any number of other tasks.

Replies from: gworley
comment by G Gordon Worley III (gworley) · 2021-01-28T01:16:30.573Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Ah, it's because I think feedback loops [LW · GW] are the relevant base process over which mental activity arises (yes, this is ultimately a kind of panpsychist position that also involves deflating what "consciousness" means). Thus PP is the right abstraction for understanding the kinds of feedback loops brains use.

comment by Matt Goldenberg (mr-hire) · 2021-01-27T19:24:23.662Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think of the human brain as primarily performing the activity of minimizing prediction errors. That's not literally all it does in that "prediction error" is a weird way to talk about what happens in feedback loops where the "prediction" is some fixed setpoint not readily subject to update based on learning information (e.g. setpoints for things related to survival like eating enough calories).

I tend to think that there are several of these, some of which relate to deeper emotional needs, which I think is an important distinction.

if we try to choose between these approaches, which is that it depends on the notion of there being some important distinction between minimizing prediction error one way or another. 

I'm stating that in different minds, it sure looks to me like there is indeed a fundamental preference for different ways of minimizing prediction error. I tend to call this "heaven" or "enlightenment" orientation although I think it's quite correlated with what I've heard called "masculine" or "feminine" orientation.

Replies from: gworley
comment by G Gordon Worley III (gworley) · 2021-01-28T01:13:09.208Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm stating that in different minds, it sure looks to me like there is indeed a fundamental preference for different ways of minimizing prediction error. I tend to call this "heaven" or "enlightenment" orientation although I think it's quite correlated with what I've heard called "masculine" or "feminine" orientation.

Sure, we might find preferences, but those preferences must themselves be the result of these same brain processes over which the preferences operate, thus they are not grounded in a way that we can say a person prefers one more than another in anything more than an initial approach.

Thus, at best, I think we can say this distinction between enlightenment and heaven orientation something like a starting orientation but it's not one I expect to hold up. I guess thinking of them that way I don't mind them so much, although the way you've referred to them reads to me like you are suggestion people have essential dispositions that differ rather than different conditions from which they start.

Replies from: mr-hire
comment by Matt Goldenberg (mr-hire) · 2021-01-28T02:20:32.882Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sure, we might find preferences, but those preferences must themselves be the result of these same brain processes over which the preferences operate,

Why must they?  Surely it's possible there are parts of the mind that are influenced by other processes outside of the predictive processing components? 

It's pretty clear to me for instance that people act differently when on psychedelics not because somehow they're making a prediction about what will happen when they're on psychedelics, but because it's actually changing the way in which the brain accesses and makes those predictions.  So it's not hard to imagine other chemicals in people's brains operating at different biological set points fundamentally altering the way their brains would like to update.  Not to mention biological brain differences,  etc.

It could be starting dispositions as well, that can then be changed, but I don't see a principled reason that that should be the case.

Replies from: gworley
comment by G Gordon Worley III (gworley) · 2021-01-28T03:47:10.489Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

But then if so much flexibility is possible, what is even producing this distinction between enlightenment and heaven approaches?

I guess I should be clear I'm generally unhappy living with concepts that are descriptive and don't have gears. So while you might see a pattern that looks like this split, I'm not really satisfied by it so long as we don't understand the mechanism by which this pattern appears, and I'm generally not willing to stake much on patterns that don't have causal explanations, hence why I'm poking at this.

Replies from: mr-hire
comment by Matt Goldenberg (mr-hire) · 2021-01-28T04:32:49.388Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

But then if so much flexibility is possible, what is even producing this distinction between enlightenment and heaven approaches?

My guess is that there are attractors in this broad space, similar to other personality differences.

comment by David Gretzschel (david-gretzschel) · 2021-01-27T12:23:34.769Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Perfectionism as a stubborn, sentimental and arrogant attachment to ones own high standards" is not my explanation for when I get stuck with spending excessive amounts of time trying to force marginal returns.
But a simple reframe is not a solution, because high standards are not the problem.

I think marginal returns being sub-optimal is obvious enough when it happens and "opportunity cost" is a cool word that humans probably understand instinctually, so I don't know if this is a plausible explanation of the root cause.

Marginal returns for effort become quickly obvious to me, yet I cannot stop myself from expending it, anyway, which adds to the frustration!
I think this issue has nothing to do with something abstract like guilt or values, but from logistical issues at a lower level of the stack. 

I flinch away from updating my plans when hitting marginal returns, because I am instinctively afraid of the sheer complexity of the inherent uncertainties of planning. 
Broadening the scope of my awareness again, reincluding original assumptions, actions and schedules decided on, comparing it with what just happened and how it is evidence for/against for modified or entirely new relevant assumptions and having to define new actions and schedules..... going back to that level of uncertainty, that's extremely difficult, when you are semi-comfortable with the certainty of executing one thing after another and doing only minimal, adaptive course changes.

I do not think that you are really attached to the planned outcomes, in as much you are attached to the flow of "knowing what to do".
And mode switches like that are cognitively expensive.
Worse yet, the actual cost is mostly opaque to you, since you can't see dopamine concentration and other neurotransmitter levels in real time [even if you could perfectly interpret them], and under uncertainty you're more risk-avoidant. 
The risk being, that you get derailed entirely and neither plan for nor act on and in fact, completely forget your original intention.

[my argument makes too many inferential leaps, I noticed, this is a summary of something that I would need more time to write; though I'm happy to elaborate on specific points]

Replies from: mr-hire
comment by Matt Goldenberg (mr-hire) · 2021-01-27T13:01:55.286Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for sharing! I think that what you are talking about is another common cause of procrastination! IME what you are talking about is usually experienced as overwhelm or ambiguity, rather than perfectionism, and it will be the subject of another article.

To be clear, I'm not invalidating that you experience this underlying fear on the surface as perfectionism, it just hasn't how it's presented to the people I've worked with.

Replies from: david-gretzschel
comment by David Gretzschel (david-gretzschel) · 2021-01-27T21:03:04.237Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yeah, fair enough. Probably was typical-minding.
I just want my actions to result in excellent things quickly.
And the frustration and demotivation when that is not working out, is something I can relate to.
But that's not perfectionism?

I personally don't experience all those things you mentioned, though.
Sounds downright alien, this guilt thing and all this obsession with shoulds and musts.
Or worrying about meeting expectations from boss/God/parents/whatever.
It sounds rather exhausting.

Btw, that penultimate line: "Use @byronkaties The Work to explore." seems out of place. 
Is that a Twitter-thing?

Replies from: mr-hire
comment by Matt Goldenberg (mr-hire) · 2021-01-28T01:11:19.116Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Ahh yeup must have forgotten to edit that when I ported over from twitter.

 

Sounds downright alien, this guilt thing and all this obsession with shoulds and musts.
Or worrying about meeting expectations from boss/God/parents/whatever.
It sounds rather exhausting.

Yeah, it's very possible that you don't experience it. 

It's also possible it's there for you, but in shadow, as talked about in the article. Might be worth spending 10 minutes probing feelings around obligations to see if any sense of "not wanting to look" or "attention being yanked away" comes up, as that's a good sign that there's something there you don't want to acknowledge. 

In general though not everyone experiences these sort of feelings so it's equally possible you're one of them.

comment by Vladimir_Nesov · 2021-01-27T04:51:19.439Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

There's perfectionism about results, and perfectionism about process, and these are very different. As a process perfectionist, I usually don't care about completing a project that isn't otherwise important to me, or even making much of a headway with it, only about approaching it in a well-researched way. Thus there is no systematic drain on effort towards unimportant activities, as they can be easily abandoned, while important activities are not abandoned and also get the serious attention to the process. On the other hand, I get less rarely encountered unimportant stuff done than usual (frequently encountered unimportant stuff eventually becomes efficient).

Replies from: mr-hire
comment by Matt Goldenberg (mr-hire) · 2021-01-27T04:57:59.591Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

What would it be look to strive for perfection in your process of choosing how much effort to put into each process?

Replies from: Vladimir_Nesov
comment by Vladimir_Nesov · 2021-01-27T05:07:05.226Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Activities differ by how much time I put into them, not by effort per unit of time. I'm only choosing when to not abandon an activity. Putting more effort per unit of time is not psychologically feasible long term, while putting less effort per unit of time makes activities less enjoyable, and is only of use to quickly get unfamiliar things done (which causes me some discomfort).

Replies from: mr-hire
comment by Matt Goldenberg (mr-hire) · 2021-01-27T13:03:42.709Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Ahh if it wasn't clear when I say less effort, I wasn't meaning "effort averaged over time", but less absolute effort (which in your case means spending less time)

Replies from: Vladimir_Nesov
comment by Vladimir_Nesov · 2021-01-27T13:34:54.461Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I thought my answer worked for that case as well: choosing the amount of time to spend on a project looks like choosing to not abandon the project when it should be continued (out of abstract consideration of what projects are important). The alternative, abandoning of projects, bears no emotional valence, so costs no effort.

Replies from: mr-hire
comment by Matt Goldenberg (mr-hire) · 2021-01-27T14:23:12.399Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Do you think that the process by which you get to rarely encountered unimportant stuff is perfect, or could you bring more perfection to the process?

Replies from: Vladimir_Nesov
comment by Vladimir_Nesov · 2021-01-27T16:46:42.853Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

What I mean by perfectionism is a desire for a certain unusually high level of challenge and thoroughness. It's not about high valuation according to a more abstract or otherwise relevant measure/goal. So making a process "more perfect" in this sense means bringing challenge and thoroughness closer to the emotionally determined comfortable levels (in particular, it might involve making something less challenging if it was too challenging originally). The words "more perfect" aren't particularly apt for this idea.

Why novel unimportant things specifically? That would be mostly about fiction/games/tv shows. Maybe I'm looking at ratings/reviews/screenshots more than typical in proportion to actually watching/reading/playing. (The games are always on impossible/deathworld/etc. difficulty and never completed.) I'm certainly aware of much more media than I've actually experienced, additionally because of general dislike of novel activities (for example, I'm avoiding movies altogether). This seems related, but I don't have a specific story for the relation.

(I've now edited this comment about ten times, and re-read even more times, which is typical for anything longer than a couple of sentences. Thus "commenting on LW" eats up enough time to meaningfully share time budget with other fruitless entertainment such as fiction/tv shows, even when I'm commenting an order of magnitude less than I used to years ago.)

Replies from: mr-hire
comment by Matt Goldenberg (mr-hire) · 2021-01-27T19:21:56.358Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

What I mean by perfectionism is a desire for a certain unusually high level of challenge and thoroughness. It's not about high valuation according to a more abstract or otherwise relevant measure/goal. So making a process "more perfect" in this sense means bringing challenge and thoroughness closer to the emotionally determined comfortable levels (in particular, it might involve making something less challenging if it was too challenging originally). The words "more perfect" aren't particularly apt for this idea.

Ahh interesting, thanks for sharing!

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2021-01-27T20:39:53.091Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I liked this article and upvoted, though I think that it could benefit from more examples, e.g. this paragraph was one where I found myself interested to read some:

Oftentimes, when we acknowledge our shadow values, we find that our strategies for getting them were horrible because we never actually examined them! Sometimes, we find that we don't actually know how to get our needs met, and need to spend some time thinking about them.