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Index to 50 Rules of Life

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Rule 20: Be Responsible to Yourself

by Monica A. Frank, Ph.D.
Rule 20: Be Responsible to Yourself

So many people, especially those with perfectionistic tendencies, feel a responsibility to others while ignoring their own needs.

Certain types of perfectionistic behavior appear on the surface to be beneficial and are considered by the perfectionistic person to be an essential aspect of their personality. Even when they accept that the perfectionistic traits cause them stress, anxiety and/or depression, they are still unwilling to make the cognitive and behavioral change.

Many of my perfectionistic clients argued with me about changing their perfectionistic tendencies especially when it involved desirable character traits. I think my rejoinder to their claim regarding the value of perfectionism usually convinced them.

The problem with their argument is thinking in all-or-nothing terms: “But I SHOULD be responsible and reliable!” To them, the opposite of being perfectly responsible is being irresponsible. Since they have shown they are capable, any choice other than perfect is irresponsible. Many were raised with the belief, “If you can't do it right, don't do it at all.”

To refute their claim, I would hold my hands far apart to show them how different responsible and irresponsible are: “Responsibility is a continuum of behavior. On the continuum you are at this end and irresponsible is at the other end and most people are here in the middle. Are you saying most people are irresponsible?”

“Well, no, but...”

“They're just not as demanding of themselves as you are. They take into consideration not just what they are capable of doing but what is reasonable for them to do given their circumstances. Is it reasonable to stress yourself out so much you have anxiety attacks or you become irritable with your loved ones or you feel depressed and unable to cope?”

“I guess not.”

And the clincher to the debate: “Besides, even if you tried, you will never move yourself so far on this continuum that you will be like the average person. You will still be more responsible and reliable than most people.”

After being convinced, my clients usually responded, “But I don't know how to not be responsible all the time. It feels wrong.”

“At first if might feel irresponsible to you, but you need to keep convincing yourself just like we did here that it is not irresponsible. You are still on the responsible side of the continuum but you are considering other factors, most importantly, how to be responsible to yourself and take care of your needs as well.”

The next step I tell them is: “Make a list of daily activities and identify ways to do them less perfectly. We're going to call this your 'mistake practice list.' Even though most people wouldn't consider it a mistake it will feel that way to you at first. Then, choose items from your list, do them, and write down the outcome. Continue to do this until you no longer feel the demand to be perfectly responsible.”

Most of the time my clients would find that the outcome wasn't much different: the job still got done, their grades were still good, and people weren't upset. The big difference was they weren't as stressed once they became accustomed to not being perfectly responsible.


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