16 April 2007

Unravelling Unrelenting Standards

I've read a couple of Blog posts recently, in different places, about struggles with procrastination and perfectionism. I keep writing long replies, and then thought maybe I should just put something about it here on my Blog... so here goes.

In 2005 I was seeing a counsellor, for various reasons tied up with my daughter having been the victim of horrific bullying. As part of this she gave me a 'Lifetraps' test - you know, a million questions which you rank, and are then scored. A Lifetrap or Schema is defined as a negative life pattern that begins when we're young, is comfortable and familiar, and repeats itself throughout our lives. You'll notice them if you're stuck in some area of your life but can't change it, or overreact to the same kind of situation constantly.

The set of Lifetraps includes things like Abandonment, Failure, Subjugation, Unrelenting Standards, Dependence, Approval-Seeking, and so on. No surprises if I tell you that Unrelenting Standards was an almost 'perfect score' (ie maximum score) for me. So I set about trying to make a dent in this one, as it was having a huge negative effect on my life. Here is what Dr Young (who wrote 'the book' on this all, see below) says about Unrelenting Standards (I'm paraphrasing as I go) :

"The primary feeling is pressure. You can never relax and enjoy life. You are always pushing, pushing, pushing, to get ahead. You fight to be the best at whatever you do, whether it is school, work, sports, hobbies etc. You have to have the best house, car, job... You have to be perfectly creative and perfectly organised.

"The name of the lifetrap is from the point of view of the outside observer. It is the observer, not you, who feels your standards are unrelenting. To you, it is just a normal level of trying to achieve. People with the Unrelenting Standards lifetrap are usually successful at whatever they do, but this success is from the point of view of other people. Other people think that you have achieved a lot, but you take your achievements for granted. They are only what you have expected of yourself.

"Physical stress symptoms, such as irritable bowel and headaches are common.... For you, life is only doing. Life is having to work and achieve all the time. Things that could be enjoyable become an ordeal. You are always aware of time and feel a constant sense of time pressure."

There's plenty more about this lifetrap, but I don't want to overstep the bounds of copyright here. You get the idea.

So I did the hard work, with the help of my counsellor, thought and wrote about what I did, watched myself... there were a couple of common 'features' of the Unrelenting Standards lifetrap I wanted to work on :

• You rarely stop and enjoy successes. You rarely savour a sense of accomplishment. Rather, you simply go on to the next task waiting for you.

• Your standards are so high that you view many activities as obligations or ordeals to get through, instead of enjoying the process itself.


• You procrastinate a lot. Because your standards make many tasks feel overwhelming, you avoid them.

I won't go into the whole process here, as it's explained in better depth in the Lifetrap book and web site. But I needed to imagine what the effects would be if I lowered my standards about 25%. Argh! Impossible! This was a complete disaster - it was either 100% success or 0% failure! But gradually I learnt to take on board that maybe I could do something 80% and it would still be a good job. I went through the other steps in the process, and started to make small changes.

Around the time I was doing all this (mid 2005), my dear friend Taph was encouraging me to come along to the Canberra Stitch'n Bitch group (which only had about 3 or 4 regular bods). I wasn't sure. I'd stopped knitting in 1985 when both my hands were immobilised with RSI - I was forced to stop playing the violin and drop my Science degree because of this too - it was all rather awful. I had knit on occasion in the intervening years, but not much (photo is me around 1991, just after Dotter's birth, not sure what I'm making - what was I thinking, red and pale blue?!).

I was anxious that my hands would get bad again, and didn't think I could afford a new hobby in any case. But Taph was not to be dissuaded! She sent me the link to Knitty (Ooooooooh). She showed me how you could unravel cheap op shop jumpers, wash and skein the wool, and reknit. She took me to lunch in Mawson - with a quick drop in at the yarn shop - for my birthday. She wouldn't take no for an answer was persistent (thank you, Taph!).

I spent many hours browsing through Knitty, reading articles, looking at patterns. I started to knit the French Market Bag ... I went along to Stitch'n Bitch... my hands were OK, as long as I used circular needles or flexible casein needles. I grew cautiously optimistic...

Apart from this all being great fun, I started to realise that this could be part of my escape from the Unrelenting Standards lifetrap. After all, knitting was :

• relaxing (well, mostly).

• not an essential thing I had to do for my business, family, career, or anyone else.

• a place where I could make mistakes, unravel them, reknit, or hell, just leave the mistake in there and keep going.

• a slow process - a project could take me months, but that didn't matter.

• a creative process, where I could just let go and not feel I had to control everything.

• a craft where I was creating things that people had been making throughout history, everyday objects to wear or use - there was no pressure to show off how clever I was as an artist, create things to go in a gallery, or progress my business plan.

• easy to pick up and drop when the need arose, it wasn't a big deal that kicked me into procrastination mode.

• all about process, the making of each stitch, each row, the movement of yarn over needles.

I unravelled a beautiful fair isle jumper I'd made 20 years ago, and hadn't worn in ages, and was suddenly TOTALLY HOOKED... I washed, skeined, browsed patterns until I found my favourite one, and settled down to knit, and relax...

The whole knitting Blog world came to my attention, I met Happy Spider in person and online - Taph started hers in mid-November, and I started mine about 10 days later to keep her company... and look where we are now!

I wasn't sure what I'd have to say on this Blog, but figured that it fit in well to my lifetrap work - I needed to 'stop and enjoy my successes'. It is a place for me to say "Look, I made this - cool!".

I work so hard at everything in my life, my business, my writing, art, family, and so on - but once I'd finished or succeeded at anything, it was like I forgot about it, and moved directly onto the next job on the never-ending list. So my Blog was - and still is - a place where I can remind myself of my achievements. That's why I leave my 'Off the Kneedles' list there, slowly growing.

I wasn't aware of how much I'd improved until I re-did the 'Life Traps' assessment this weekend. While I'm not 'cured of perfectionism', and need to revisit some areas, Unrelenting Standards now ranks as "Fairly Low - this lifetrap may only apply occasionally" instead of "Very High - this lifetrap is one of your core lifetraps". A major improvement, which has taken nearly 2 years, and has been helped largely through knitting. W00t!

Now I just need to figure out what to do about this obsession I have ... LOL! More wool, anyone?

(If you want to find out more, the main book about Lifetraps is Reinventing Your Life by Dr Jeffrey Young and Dr Janet Klosko. There's more information, including score sheets, at this web site too.)


  1. thanks for that great post jejune. I think it's something I can really relate to and something I could well do with looking into. We can all be our own worst enemies, can't we?

    Sounds like it's been really helpful for you and something that's worth revisiting every now and then to review.

  2. Agreed, it's something we can all relate too. Perhaps it's time i take a step back again. Reading this has been quite inspiring. Thanks for this reminder. :)

  3. OMG, I love this post!! Congrats on not only doing the work, but how far you have come. You should be very proud of your self. The book sounds really interesting, think I am going to have to get me a copy!! :)

  4. Great post. I used to hate this kind of pyschology (when I was in my late teens/early 20s) but as I've grown up I found it really is very interesting and very helpful, and that having an external person, like a counsellor, to talk to can really help you identify issues like this, and deal with them. Thanks for sharing your story.

  5. Thanks for a really great post jejune, and for sharing something so personal. Self-awareness can be such a powerful thing.

    You've really touched a chord with me. Thanks for making my day that much brighter!

  6. You may be a perfectionist, Babe, but you're a very courageous one.

  7. Thanks for this post. I had to laugh - I was half way through objecting in my head with "What's wrong with having high standards?", when I got to the drawbacks! Thanks for the wake-up call. Happily, biology has started to make me be more forgiving and less take-overish when P. doesn't met my housecare standards - letting go certain tasks has given perspective on my attitude to the whole.
    Thanks for the hint re casein needles too - trying to find a supplier in wagga with no success. Will have to buy online : (

  8. What a truly lovely story and one I can well relate to.

  9. Thanks everyone for your comments - they brightened my day too :)

    And Kate - I got my casein DPNs via eBay. The brand to look for is Ivoré. Good luck!

  10. I've been reading Reinventing Your Life too and I really like the concept of lifetraps. I'm just torn on what the approach to them should be, especially in relationships. They keep saying to avoid partners who trigger your lifetraps with high chemistry, yet I know other authors who say otherwise.

    In any case, the book made me think so much it inspired me to write this post called Choosing Intimate Partners: To Repeat or Not to Repeat?. I think it would be great to open up more discussion about lifetraps and how to deal with them.

  11. Interesting post; what a great book eh! Reinventing your life.


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