The Goldilocks Zone and Perfectionism

In the classic fable, Goldilocks (while causing havoc for the bears) chooses the "just right" amount of heat for her porridge and firmness of the bed. We can use the lessons of Goldilocks to help with managing perfectionism, particularly when perfectionism starts to get in the way of life. But firstly, let's clarify what we mean when we talk about perfectionism.

Firstly, perfectionism is not about doing things perfectly or getting the highest possible score. It's a relative term - that is, perfectionism is about setting unreasonably high standards for yourself. Further to the unreasonably high standards, people with perfectionistic tendencies are typically highly critical of their performance and tend to cope with perfectionism in one of two ways - unrelentingly striving to hit these high standards or avoidance (for example procrastination). Perfectionism is typically a coping mechanism to a much deeper core belief - "Not Good Enough". Therefore, perfectionism can be seen as a way of avoiding uncomfortable thoughts and feelings of shame and anxiety. People with perfectionistic tendencies may not display these standards in all areas of their life - just the areas that the Not Good Enough core belief tends to get activated in.

In my practice, what I tend to see is people who have burnt out from constantly striving to maintain these unreasonably high standards, or people that feel stuck or hampered by their procrastination coping mechanisms. Neither of these outcomes are helpful for the person. Getting to the underlying core belief is very helpful in identifying the factors that maintain these behaviours. But what do we do in practical terms to cope with perfectionism. This is where the 8/10 rule comes into play.

What is the 8/10 rule?

The 8/10 rule is a way of managing perfectionism so that it doesn't lead to burnout or procrastination. It's been adapted from sports psychology and is very helpful in setting more reasonable standards. The key here is that it is not about lowering your standards, but examining them carefully and identifying where is the appropriate cut-off point. The 8/10 rule essentially states that 8 out of 10 is still a really good score and most people won't notice the difference between 8 out of 10 compared to 10 out of 10 (in terms of performance). More importantly, you are more likely to be able to achieve an 8/10 day consistently than you are 10/10. Let's breakdown an example to make it clearer.

Jo is a primary school teacher with 4 years experience. She graduated from university with fantastic grades and received exemplary comments from her mentor teachers during her placements as part of her studies. The underlying theme of the comments were that Jo was always prepared and she delivered high quality lessons that engaged the students. Four years later, and Jo is presenting for therapy in the context of burnout and wanting to leave her profession that she worked so hard to achieve. She states that she is constantly tired and stressed and feels she gets little support from her school. On further examination, Jo described perfectionistic tendencies around her performance at school. She frequently arrived 30-60 minutes early in order to set up her room and greet the students, as well as staying behind each day to complete work. She also worked from home most nights preparing lesson plans for the following day and making sure the students had access to the most engaging content. She often received compliments about her room and the effort that went into creating the learning environment, but ultimately, Jo felt anxious and on edge whenever someone from the admin team came into the room in case she was criticised.

So with that in mind, in addition to doing therapeutic work around Jo's core beliefs around not being good enough and coping with shame, we introduced the 8/10 rule. Firstly, Jo wrote down what a 10/10 day would look like. She had to include all the things that would lead her to conclude it was a 10/10 performance. From that list, she then pared it back to what an 8/10 would look like. Then she was asked a crucial question: would any of her students, parents or colleagues notice the difference between an 8/10 or a 10/10? Further - what is more achievable long term, 8/10 or 10/10?

This is the Goldilocks Zone. It is still performing at a high standard (which is important for Jo) but sustainable. Sometimes, she will have a 9/10 or a 10/10 day. Sometimes she might have a 7/10. But most days she will be able to achieve 8/10 and more importantly, not burn herself out trying to avoid core beliefs of shame.

It's not easy. When we try to address the behaviours around perfectionism, particularly behaviours that trigger feelings of shame and anxiety, it can be hard not falling back into old patterns. The key is to remember that 8/10 is still a very good outcome but it also takes a lot of pressure off.

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