Perfectionism – a tendency I witness in the majority of my clients to a greater or lesser degree and certainly a tendency I can identify with, albeit I describe myself now as recovering (haven’t got it licked yet)!
What fascinates me so specifically about it, is its ability to freeze us in inactivity. In the past I had always believed perfectionism to be a very active place – always doing and striving, always busy. If we ever reached the phenomenally tough target set (by none other than ourselves), we just simply stretched that target further and went again. However, I have come to see it as actually the opposite, a stagnant and static place; for although we are continuously hastening on to the next target, we aren’t actually allowing ourselves to evolve anywhere meaningful.
So how many perfectionists have I got along for the ride? Any of these characteristics sound familiar?
You pursue hugely demanding and perhaps unrealistic standards.
You avoid things and procrastinate - because why start it if it isn’t going to be completed perfectly? And something just for the hell of it… er what now?
You have a fear of failure – and not just a healthy eye on risk, but a hardwired “failure is unthinkable” sort of vibe.
You overcheck, often to the point of it being counter productive and ironically it may even impact on your overall performance. Ever submitted the report a bit late because you needed to read it through for the eighth (or eightieth) time?
You are your harshest critic – but you take it to another level, being insanely tough on yourself if you miss your self set standards by a millimetre.
You are a professional comparer and likely a reassurance seeker (this is the bit that still trips me up).
How you view yourself and your own worth is measured in your successes and achievements.
Striving, always striving - at the expense of other areas in your life and sometimes to the point of exhaustion.
Perfectionism is not about healthy achievement and growth; it's a shield. Brené Brown
Perfectionists often want to debate how helpful this trait has been for them. Got a first-class honours degree, or an MBA? It’s because you’re a perfectionist. Promoted time after time after time? It’s because you’re a perfectionist. Financially secure? Senior in your career? Raved about and sought out by colleagues and other organisations for your expertise, skills and support? It’s because you’re a perfectionist. It’s what keeps you focussed, motivated and consistently being, well, excellent, right?
Oh, this is everything I trotted out as I debated with multiple coaches, therapists, leadership experts and mindset professionals why me staying a perfectionist was vital, VITAL, to my future success. I got some knowing smiles and a ton of homework.
Many people think of perfectionism as striving to be your best, but it is not about self-improvement; it's about earning approval and acceptance. Brené Brown
The main problem for those of us who believe perfectionism works for us, is that we have had the notion reinforced over and over by the outside world. We get praised and rewarded – normally because we have worked so damn hard, terrified of messing up, that our work has taken four times as long as the next person, so of course it’s awesome – it’s also false advertising.
Perfectionism becomes a badge of honour with you playing the part of the suffering hero. David D. Burns
So where is your perfectionism keeping you? Because for me it prevented me trying new things and exploring for many, many years. I couldn’t identify the perfect next thing, the perfect career move, the perfect training course, the perfect purpose, the perfect company – basically the perfect solution to my feelings of impatience, resentment, and exhaustion. So, I changed precisely nothing. I just kept digging in and ploughing on – striving more and more. Unsurprisingly not changing anything did not lead to change. Just saying.
So, it’s a tough love lesson – if where you are isn’t doing it for you anymore, then you do need to change something… anything. Further procrastination on the topic and trying to reconfigure the same round pieces into a cube, for the millionth time, is just irritating for you and your loved ones, who watch on with increasing frustration.
Here’s two simple steps to start to change:
1. Delegate some tasks at work. I can feel the shudders from here. Perfectionists like to be in control – if you are doing something, you at least know it will be done right. We live in fear that delegating means it won’t be done properly. Notice how judgemental and presumptuous that is! I will do it better than them. Here’s a reframe to help you delegate – by asking others to complete something, you are giving them a new opportunity to learn and develop, if you are a leader, it’s a vital skill to be practicing. It demonstrates trust, fundamental to all relationships and teams.
2. Test your theories. So, you believe that unless you spend x hours on this report, there will be complaints about your performance. Test it – spend half that time and measure the feedback. Believe you must respond to a request immediately – leave it till the following morning and measure the reception.
I continue to bang the drum that behavioural change takes a lot of practice and reinforcement, it’s not the easy road to choose. But recognising in the first instance that it is a choice, is a start in itself. Perfectionism is exhausting and it’s rarely a joyous place – choose to try something else.
If you are curious about how I can work with you , you can speak to me directly, you can book a free initial 30 minute coaching session with me here and there's no hassling from me if it's a no thanks after that.