Notes on Self-Study from a Killjoy Perfectionist

I have a friend who just doesn't see himself. He has declared bankruptcy twice and alcohol abuse landed him in jail for the past year. Despite losing almost everything, when he was released he was talking about how much money it would cost to get his iPhone back in service. To make the situation more frustrating, he largely blames others for his circumstances.

We all know someone that makes us shake our heads and wonder why he or she continues to repeat the same self-destructive behavior. But how often do we consider the likelihood that we, too, are not seeing ourselves clearly?

Self-study is a tricky process, but it's the only way to create lasting, positive change, whether it's a change in how you handle your finances, your relationships, your weight, or any other life area with which you struggle.

Revealing the positive
Self-study doesn't require sitting in front of a mirror or retreating to a cave. In fact, usually it's activities to which we're naturally drawn that uncover our strengths and teach us about ourselves. Writing, sports, travel, music, dance, photography, woodworking–any activity can be an act of self-study if there's an intention to learn about yourself and a commitment to stick with it. The sticktoitiveness part is key, since it's usually when something becomes difficult that we learn the most about ourselves.

As a personal example, one of my favorite activities is kayaking. I took lessons in college, and during our last lesson, we were to circle a small island near the dam. The river was usually calm, but recent thunderstorms made the water choppy, and we had to fight a current to circle the island.

A few students couldn't make it and were swept back, deciding to meet us on the other side. I pushed through and made it around the island. I felt a surge of pride, and our teacher was greatly impressed that students with only four lessons could paddle against the current. My sheer determination to accomplish a goal was something positive I learned about myself.

Facing the negative
The downside to self-study is that you start to learn things about yourself that might be unpleasant. Self-study can reveal weaknesses, shortcomings, obsessions, bad habits, and less-than-attractive behavior of which you either weren't aware or have been ignoring for years.

When my boyfriend (now husband) and I went kayaking together for the first time, I was psyched to share my love of paddling with him. We rented a tandem kayak and set out into the water. I explained the basics, and we started to paddle toward a spring. Only he wasn't in unison with me, so we were having to work too hard. And sometimes he wasn't holding his paddle at a 45-degree angle. And where was that push-pull technique I showed him? After helpfully pointing out these things, thinking only of perfecting his paddling skills, he smiled and said, “I thought this was supposed to be fun.”

(Can you see why I married the guy? He's the only one that can kindly point out that I was being a killjoy perfectionist without using those words AND make me laugh about it at the same time.)

Here I was ruining a lovely day on the lake, not enjoying the scenery or the company, because I was concerned with kayaking technique.

Acknowledge and accept
If you've read some of my other articles at GRS, you know I stress going easy on yourself. This is because my first inclination has always been to berate myself for every shortcoming and every failure, real or perceived. But it never got me far, so I started to ease up on myself. I emphasize cutting yourself some slack both for your benefit and to remind myself of the same thing! Rather than berating yourself for being an insensitive egomaniac (or a killjoy perfectionist), acknowledge and accept the behavior.

This does not mean that you continue to be a first class jerk because you are who you are, it means that you recognize that you do it. You accept that this is the way you act sometimes. By accepting what you discover about yourself, you can get closer to the source of the behavior. You can't think constructively about what causes you to react a certain way and learn to handle or redirect the habit if you're busy hating yourself.

Bonus benefit: The more you learn about yourself and the more you understand your behavior, the more understanding you become of other people's shortcomings. Note that accepting does not mean condoning. Self-study gives you the understanding that we are all working through our own stuff. Your stuff is just different from my stuff.

“Self” doesn't mean “solo”
Self-study is not easy. It can be difficult to separate our perceptions from the truth because we usually see things the way that we've been taught to see them from the time we were children, and sometimes the way we've been taught to see things is distorted.

In many ways self-study is a solo task, but if our perceptions are distorted, it can be impossible to see ourselves. For this reason, you need a mentor. Mentors can be teachers, close friends, family members, or anyone who you trust to see your weak spots. I wouldn't have noticed what I was doing that day on the lake if my husband hadn't called my attention to it.

Once you have a person in mind, find some quiet time and mention that you've noticed that you are a bit of a killjoy perfectionist (obviously substitute the weakness for your own, but feel free to use mine if applicable). Ask your person if he or she has noticed it. Talk about possible causes of the feelings or behaviors, and ways to redirect them. Tell your person that you want to work on improving yourself, and ask for help when he or she notices the negative actions.

Self-study is hard work, but it's worth it.

Have you ever discovered something negative about yourself that you've intentionally worked to overcome? Was it hard to own up to it? How did you redirect the feelings or behavior?

More about...Psychology

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SF_UK
SF_UK
10 years ago

Wow! You are indeed lucky to have such a wonderful husband who can point out what you were doing in a positive way. But you should also take some credit for recognising what he was saying and taking it to heart (and not tipping him out of the kayak…) One of the problems I have is that some of the things I’m aware of are linked with low self-esteem. And so most of the times they have been pointed out have been in very negative and derogatory ways, by which I mean rude, bordering on actual bullying. It’s sometimes hard… Read more »

Wojciech Kulicki
Wojciech Kulicki
10 years ago

This is a really interesting approach to discovering more about yourself. I’ve always been a fan of writing (both public and private) as a means of self-discovery, but largely because that’s one of my big strengths. What I had not considered is some of the other activities you mention…of course, we need an additional “layer” during this self-study time–that of self-awareness to actually know that we’re self-studying. 🙂 I think this has many personal finance applications, both in the same spirit as you discuss (finding out your characteristics, strengths, and weaknesses) and in a direct application (like taking the time… Read more »

Sam
Sam
10 years ago

Yes, every day I strive to work on my short comings in my professional and personal life. I tend to be controlling and a perfectionist and that can be a positive and a negative in both arenas of my life. One of the reasons that I set goals and not resolutions is that goals are things I’m working on and some days I do better than others. Resolutions = things that I resolve to do or not to do and for me its pretty easy to fail at resolutions because its an absolute. Almost every day I review my goals,… Read more »

Dan
Dan
10 years ago

Sometimes it helps to make life changes to accommodate your personality. I was a manager for the first 12+ years of my career. That profession, however, doesn’t really mesh well with a trait that I have to take on tasks for myself and just do them. I’m not a great delegator. I also tend to avoid confrontation, which can be a problem when addressing others’ performance. I switched careers to IT network admin. Now I don’t have anyone reporting to me and I’m in more of a customer service type role. I’m much happier 5 days per week. It’s a… Read more »

TosaJen
TosaJen
10 years ago

I like the way you write and the topics you pick, April! 🙂 I have found that it takes a lot of self-confidence to really look at myself and see my shortcomings and work on them effectively. Only now, at 42, do I have enough confidence to ask a voice teacher pointed questions until I understand what he is trying to teach, to record and evaluate my own singing, or to look in the mirror to see what I’m doing wrong. I’ve also found that the main issue I have to work around to effectively address my shortcomings is shame.… Read more »

C Rivers
C Rivers
10 years ago

For self-study and self-improvement, I highly recommend co-counseling, which is a peer process involving two people who share time in a session to heal past and present hurts, to celebrate growth, and make intentional change. I have found it invaluable for identifying and changing negative patterns, and for self validation. More information can be found at http://www.cci-usa.org.

Jackie
Jackie
10 years ago

I’ve worked on a lot of different things, and overcome some of them (including a doozy — social anxiety). What I’ve discovered along the way is twofold: one, we’re often way harder on ourselves than anyone else ever would be, and two, sometimes it pays to observe/listen to others in order to see our real issues. By that I mean that if there is something that really annoys is about others, chances are it’s really a problem with ourself. Likewise, if we keep experiencing the same issues over and over again with different people, it’s likely that the common denominator… Read more »

ami | 40daystochange
ami | 40daystochange
10 years ago

“Writing, sports, travel, music, dance, photography, woodworking—any activity can be an act of self-study if there’s an intention to learn about yourself and a commitment to stick with it. ” I’m glad you make the point that self discovery can occur in conjunction with activities we enjoy. I think if I set myself the task of “evaluate myself” or “consider areas for improvement” that task would never get done. Or else it would get done and I’d be depressed. If the evaluation is a happy benefit of doing something I otherwise enjoy, well then, it’s closer to the top of… Read more »

Foxie || CarsxGirl
Foxie || CarsxGirl
10 years ago

I’m certainly a perfectionist, but I tend to force it out of myself rather than the people around me. I’ve been getting slightly better, at least with some things — I no longer demand nothing but A’s in my classes, for one. I had to admit that I wouldn’t be good at every class I ever take, so there will be B’s. I’m finally a senior, and am glad to say I’ve only gotten one C so far. Other than that, I’ve always suffered from low self-esteem and a lack of confidence. Since finding cars I’ve been better with that… Read more »

Cely
Cely
10 years ago

I go to Crossfit regularly, which is a gym that favors short, intense, and VERY challenging workouts. It’s at the gym that I often see most clearly what is holding me back in other areas of my life, whether it’s an inability to concentrate, a lack of confidence (I talk myself out of being able to lift more weight, for example), or my anxieties about competition (which usually translates to self-sabotage). The ways these things manifest themselves are often quite subtle, but it’s amazing how often something will happen at the gym that turns a light bulb on in my… Read more »

RMS
RMS
10 years ago

One of my weaknesses is lack of confidence. It’s not really apparent at work because I can cover it up in other ways, but it really shows up when I am rock climbing. Whenever I have the thought of not being able to make a certain move while climbing, my mind takes over my body and completely cramps up. I waste my energy cramping up and then I get to tired to finish the climb smoothly. What I have learned from all of this is to mentally move the negative thoughts out of my head and believe in myself (both… Read more »

Adam
Adam
10 years ago

It’d be nice if J.D. updated with a post about the importance of giving and humanitarian relief efforts in Haiti. I know it’s everywhere else as well, but the perspective is important on a blog like this.

Shara
Shara
10 years ago

April, I was just thinking about this topic, but from a different perspective. It is important to know yourself and your weaknesses not just to work to make them better. But since they can hold you back, and continue to do so before you overcome them, it can really help to know how to work around them. I don’t fold clothes. I don’t mind doing it, but it always seems so unimportant that I procrastinate until my clothes are a wrinkled heap. So my husband and I have worked out a system that hangs important clothes, and I can just… Read more »

namesarehardtopick
namesarehardtopick
10 years ago

I disagree with many statements above because they presume that the self is not fluid, but a fixed state. People are not “perfectionists,” but they choose to be. Anyone can find someone that they admire and mirror similar actions and reactions and began to develop in a way that the admired person did. What is required, however, is active reflection and construction, both of which are unpopular these days since TV is “more interesting.” However, the few people that understand reflection (like the above), rarely realize that construction allows you to alter your being because it’s not fixed, solid state.… Read more »

2 Cents
2 Cents
10 years ago

I’m a scatter-brained perfectionist. How’s that for oxymoron? Lately, I’ve managed to make myself dizzy by trying to focus on too many things at once in an effort to get everything right. The consequence is that I’m getting nothing done. I know this is a repeated pattern for me, but I feel like a bug flying toward the light. I know I’m going to get zapped, but I head there anyway! This unproductive habit definitely affects how I manage our finances. I am sometimes trying to juggle budgeting, retirement planning, tax planning and everyday purchases at the same time. I… Read more »

Rob Bennett
Rob Bennett
10 years ago

My weakness is that I am too easy on myself. When I want to eat another chocolate chip cookie, I can in seconds come up with a great rationalization for doing so even though 10 minutes earlier I had been swearing off the things. I am sincere when I am swearing off them. And I am sincere in the rationalizations. Human feelings trump logical consistency in my world view. My wife is the opposite. Her view is that you say what you mean and you mean what you say and that’s that. My weakness is inconstancy. Hers is a lack… Read more »

brooklynchick
brooklynchick
10 years ago

Too many to list! Hoarding, procrastinating, over-spending, over-eating, being judgmental…..and many more!

I found for myself that a therapist provided the best help for self-study. Others I know got it from AA.

Mrs. Money
Mrs. Money
10 years ago

I am a perfectionist too. It is silly sometimes. I’m working on that. 🙂

Adrian
Adrian
10 years ago

Truly one of your most moving and inspiring articles at GRS, April. I believe self-study and observation to be at the core of improving our financial lives as well as our personal — as you cannot “fix what is not broken.” We each have to delve deeply into ourselves with respect to personal finances and ask ourselves “I want to be debt-free because…” “I want to retire because…” “I spend /spent money because…” By learning the roots of our behaviour, only then can we accept what is good, alter what is bad, and truly get to know ourseleves and enjoy… Read more »

Andrew
Andrew
10 years ago

Absolutely. I did a program with Landmark Education, and this is what they are all about. I realized what a precious little spoiled brat I’d been being (at age 40) about my mom and cleaned up my relationship with her, fully acknowledging the awesome job she did after my dad died (for which I’d been blaming her). Moreover, I came to realize how I’d been carrying a need for ‘someone else’ to fix everything in my life into my relationship – imagine how that was going. It’s like being a fish – you don’t have much concept of water until… Read more »

Debbie M
Debbie M
10 years ago

When I think of weaknesses that I have made great improvements on, the kinds that are obvious (easy to realize) are the ones that come to mind: * I stopped sucking my thumb (finger, actually). * I stopped biting my nails. * I learned how to talk to strangers. But then I remembered a few other things I learned: * I tend to err in the direction of being too macho rather than too wimpy — I learned this while recovering from a sprained ankle and while recovering from the flu. Now I know that when in doubt about whether… Read more »

sarah
sarah
10 years ago

Great article! It gave me a lot to think about. I loved the picture, it made me laugh out loud! Nicely done.

DreamChaser57
DreamChaser57
10 years ago

April, Congrats on a fanstastic and insightful post. JD – I commend you for acknowledging and honoring the reality that personal finance is not just about the numbers. Human beings have a tendency to mask psychological turmoil with addictions, destructive habits, etc. I think money is often used in this way. We also tend to mindlessly mimic money habits our families of origin taught us. I think if people grew up poor, they tend to buy more stuff, chasing the ever elusive sense of security. They want to feel empowered, strong, and confident. Hoarders may also feel that there will… Read more »

Anastasia
Anastasia
10 years ago

It must be seasonal:-) Just this morning I read an article in Harvard Business Review with a great exercise that helps to change behaviour. It goes like this:
Complete the sentence: “When I get better at…” over and over again. Listen closely as you recite potential benefits. You will be amazed at how quickly you can determine whether this change is worth it for you.
I’ve tried it with my goal of changing my spending habits and there is a good chance it will work

erika
erika
10 years ago

@Rob (#16) “I believe that God put us together so that I could remind her of why people are so weak and so that she could remind me of the need for me to toughen up. And, also, because He has a good sense of humor.” Very funny 🙂 My husband and I complement each other in a similar way and I find that it works well as a relationship dynamic. He is very easy-going and I am a bit more uptight than I’d like to be. He helps me recognize when I am stressing over meaningless, unimportant things, and… Read more »

beforewisdom
beforewisdom
10 years ago

Perfectionists aren’t always high achievers. In fact, they are often the worst procrastinators.

They are scared to get anything done because their self image is on the line if they don’t achieve perfection.

“If you will settle for nothing other than perfection, that is often what you will get — nothing”

Working on unconditional self acceptance (easier said than done ) is the way to shut that cycle down.

chacha1
chacha1
10 years ago

Really liked this one. I’ve been doing self-study as part of my yoga practice for the past six years. It was enormously helpful in a) deciding to take action in creating an exit plan from a miserable job; b) choosing a new path; c) divorcing my ego from said miserable job and its mind-numbingly dull successor; d) enjoying the transitions and being open-hearted about new opportunities. I am a relentless improver, and the biggest difficulty for me in life has been my impulse to improve everything around me. It’s not my responsibility to fix other people, other people’s businesses, other… Read more »

Brian
Brian
10 years ago

great write-up.

Sheila
Sheila
10 years ago

There’s a reason they call a tandem kayak the “divorce” kayak! Almost 30 years of marriage, and we still won’t get in one.

Tracy
Tracy
10 years ago

There are friends who will always commiserate with me about your shortcomings, and I’m to have them in my life. But when I’m ready to make progress, it’s the friends who will look me in the eye, and tell it like it is, that really seem to matter the most to me.

Russ
Russ
10 years ago

I don’t know, man. I’ve followed this blog over the past year while I killed off more than $20K in debt and put $8K in my savings. A true success story if there ever was one. Anyway, here’s my critical observation: With the addition and more frequent use of your staff writers the quality of Get Rich Slowly is going down. I like your style, your views, your talent with words. These posts lately come across as “well, duh” pieces that anybody who’s willing to invest a few hours Googling can come up with. At least with your posts, I… Read more »

John DeFlumeri Jr
John DeFlumeri Jr
10 years ago

I think I can learn any subject on my own.

John DeFlumeri Jr

Tomas Stonkus
Tomas Stonkus
10 years ago

Awareness is truly hard to develop. I have tackled this task many times myself. The hardest thing to do is to catch yourself in the act of a destructive action. At those moments it seems that the mind just goes blank and that you cannot remember exactly why it happened. Journaling helps a ton with this as well as watching others and recognizing yourself in those actions. One other major tool that we can use to build awareness is to look at our parents and see how they act and then ask ourselves if we have been guilty of similar… Read more »

David/yourfinances101
David/yourfinances101
10 years ago

Yes, I have. The best lesson that I learned is that you must take responisibility for your own actions and realize that only you can bring about your own happiness–no one else and nothing else can do it for you

Anna
Anna
10 years ago

April, I love the kayak story with your husband! I know a number of people who have gone kayaking with a significant other and found it a real test of how well they can communicate, coordinate and do something difficult together. On a vacation with a boyfriend, we tried kayaking and ended up in such an argument about who it was that was steering us in circles that he wouldn’t speak to me for the next three days!! Needless to say, he isn’t my boyfriend any more (and I maintain that it was his fault as he was paddling with… Read more »

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