I saw perfectionism and black and white thinking at their best today. Well, that's not quite the right way to put it... maybe, I saw them at the height of their powers? Anyway, you get the point.
A client has had great difficulty with sleep for many months. She stays up very late, then finds it virtually impossible to get up in the morning. This week she decided she felt ready to try to rearrange this pattern and see if she could get herself into bed earlier.
We were musing about how to approach the project and I suggested that eventually, if she could get herself to sleep by 10pm she would get 8-9 hours each night, which is what she says best fits for her. I'd used the word "eventually" on purpose, to illustrate to her my understanding that accomplishing that bedtime would take us awhile, that I certainly didn't have any expectation that she'd be going to bed at 10pm this week, or next, or probably the week after that even... Immediately after I said it, she became defensive and said she'd "never be able to change" her sleep pattern. That I "was asking something impossible" of her. I tried to explain what I'd meant. After awhile we were back on track with the idea that we'd approach this sleep thing slowly and gradually.
So, here was the first place her perfectionism reared its head- she perceived there were only 2 choices: keep her sleep exactly the way it is at the moment, or instantly get into bed at 10pm, something she saw as wholly impossible. She ended up feeling I was insisting she "choose" the 'get into bed by 10pm right now' choice; then she felt like a failure because she knew she couldn't do it.
Once we were back on track we tried to figure out a reasonable first step. She didn't see any options so I suggested that since she regularly goes to bed at about 2am, why didn't she try to give herself the guideline of being in bed each night by 1am for this week.
I thought this was an eminently reasonable place to start. But this got my client even madder than she was when I said the thing about eventually aiming for a 10pm bedtime.
It was the perfectionism again, in slightly different form, but no less intense and rigid. This time she saw my suggestion of "only an hour earlier" as a "waste of time" and unable to get us anywhere. "An hour less! How will that ever get me more sleep!?"
I said that right off the bat it would give her an extra hour each night, but I realized this response wasn't going to do much except make her more annoyed. Clearly, from her perspective, I wasn't getting this.
The next thing she said was that unless we made a more "dramatic change" this week, it wasn't worth it to even try.
I pointed out that she just couldn't win, no matter what we thought of here. If I "suggested" going straight to 10pm bedtime she felt it was impossible, so why bother. When I suggested 1am as a place to start, she felt it was a waste of time and futile, so why bother.
This was such a stark example of how perfectionism and the black and white thinking that goes along with it can really mess up a situation. It took us most of the session to help her see how perfectionism was at play and how it was making it impossible for her to address the sleep issue.
Ironic, she thought the things we could try were impossible, but really it was her perfectionistic thinking that made the situation impossible and impassable.
She ended up having a good laugh at how perfectionism creeps in. She's well aware in many areas of her life that perfectionism is a factor, and she's used to catching it. It initially got by her this time, but we caught it before too long and worked to moderate her thinking.
She left the session in good humor and committed to aiming for a 1am bedtime until we meet again.