In a recent coaching session with one of my clients, I had a light bulb moment. There is one thing a lot of us have internalised that stops us from discovering and realizing our potential: the strive for perfection.
Perfectionism is the biggest illusion and source of a lot of stress and anxiety.
In this article, I share the misunderstanding of perfectionism and its detrimental consequences. I also show you what you can do to shift your perspective to reach your authentic work life goals.
Perfectionism is an illusion
“I am a perfectionist, I take my tasks too seriously”, is one of the most common replies when asked about weaknesses in a job interview. Somehow, we get conditioned with the idea that striving to be perfect is the holy grail to aim for.
According to the APA Dictionary of Psychology, perfectionism is the “tendency to demand of others or of oneself an extremely high or even flawless level of performance, in excess of what is required by the situation.”
Perfectionism means that we define our self worth by external circumstances outside of ourselves. It does not equal achieving excellence.
Even though we all know that perfectionism doesn’t exist. We are all flawed. Every strength is on a continuum which comes with a weakness. We are chasing an illusion and in doing so, will never feel we are enough.
Take a recent example of my work life. I received critical feedback from one of my corporate clients. I can tell myself “I made mistakes, I’m disappointed, but it’s okay; I’m still a good person overall,”: that’s healthy. Or I could tell myself “I’m a failure. I’m not a good coach. I am not good enough,”: that’s perfectionism.
This connection between being flawless and always achieving 130 % comes from our socialization. And it is contagious. Demanding, hyper-critical, controlling parents raise perfectionistic kids. We learned that we get love and attention with outside achievements, like our grades in school or what we look like.
Perfectionism does not lead to better performance
The problem is that we believe perfectionism is a good trait. We think striving for perfection leads to more success and being better at what we do. But unfortunately, it causes us to set unrealistic expectations for ourselves and others. It leads to imposter syndrome, indecision, analysis paralysis and the need to people please.
Your inner perfectionist stands in the way of accessing your curiosity, creative, complex thinking. Therefore, it hinders you from creating an authentic work life.
To protect yourself from rejections, shame and failure, you might hold back your ideas. You don’t stake on more responsibility. You don't start your business or follow through with a project that has been close to your heart for many years.
Perfectionism makes you feel worthless
Internalised perfectionism is rooted in fear and insecurity. It isn’t helpful in our work life, because it creates a lot of self-critical thoughts.
In the case of many of my coaching clients who want to realize a new career project, they block themselves with internal worries such as: “Who am I to do this”? “Do I have the authority?” “I am not ready, good enough.”.
Constant self-doubt leads to ruminating. Staying stuck in the head and overthinking, instead of practicing.
It's no wonder why perfectionism is linked to burnout, as well as depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and other mental health problems. There are studies that suggest that the higher the perfectionism, the more psychological disorders you’re going to suffer.
You are setting very high expectations for yourself and torture yourself with self-criticism. As a result, you will also be more likely to criticize others and let them know they are not enough, too.
Perfectionism blocks you from growing
We all know that making and admitting mistakes is a necessary part of growing, learning, and being human. The more we avoid failure, the less we trust ourselves and have the chance to grow our capabilities. Perfectionism paralysis us and stops us from taking action.
I realised that my internalised perfectionist held me back many years. For example, from trying new sports where I knew that there was a big chance that I would completely suck at the beginning. And I really didn’t like being a beginner and sucking at something.
Until I realized that this is actually holding me back from learning new skills and progressing. If I want to play it safe, and doubt myself with every setback on the road, I make it so much harder for me to adapt and learn.
It is the same with learning a new language. Only when you get over the discomfort of not being perfect and making mistakes while speaking at the start, you have the chance to get better at it.
How to retire your inner perfectionist
You may now feel that your inner perfectionist is holding you back. That it holds you from starting, or makes you give up on your ideas to avoid feeling of shame and disappointment in yourself. You are stuck in a vicious circle.
Here are some ideas from my coaching practice. Hope they help you to start minimizing the impact of your internalized perfectionism.
1. Focus on mastery
Here's a good example. Instead of concentrating on not making any errors when you write an article, remind yourself that you write to practice and to become better every time.
Thrive for mastery in the areas of your work life that matter to you. Allow yourself to suck at the beginning. Every athlete, every musician or artist in general started by being a beginner. Only through the consistency of practice, they reached excellence.
Write down skills you have mastered through repetition, trial and error. You will be surprised how many times you were a beginner and only through time, you became competent and confident in something.
Learn to get comfortable with new, uncomfortable situations. Challenge yourself often to learn a new skill like surfing, or singing. Whatever you feel excited about, but also scared that it might take you time and patience to master it.
2. Focus on your personal Why
If you start a new role or business for example, instead of being paralyzed by the fear of making mistakes ask yourself “why are you doing what you're doing”. What is the important part of your work? Who do you want to impact?
A client of mine wants to plan a retreat for teachers and educators. It has been a calling for her for some time now. By creating a vision of who will be part of her retreat, the atmosphere and conversations she wants to create, she keeps the bigger picture. Her “Why” is at the forefront of it all.
By focusing on the impact on her target audience, she can also stop loops of self-doubt making her wonder if she will be good enough leading this retreat.
By connecting with her Why and being intentional throughout the planning process, she can make her vision a reality. Taking it step by step, without getting caught up in analysis paralysis and imposter syndrome.
Ask yourself: do you have more control over learning new things with curiosity, or everyone signing up for your workshop? Being present during your retreat or making sure everyone is having the best time?
When you start concentrating on what really matters, you will give yourself and others grace on the journey.
3. Run your own race
Compare yourself only with the younger version of yourself. Delete social media channels that trigger your perfectionism and make you feel bad about yourself.
Reflect on how much progress you have made already. What advice would you give your present self as a 90 year old?
Do you every day. Thrive for being true to yourself, your unique story, gifts and imperfections. Connect with your values and remind yourself that you don't have to prove anything to anyone but yourself.
4. Get better at coping with your imperfections and mistakes
Every time I share failures and things that went wrong in my articles and newsletter, I get the most reactions from my audience. People can relate to you much more if they feel your whole you. Fake perfectionism makes you unhappy and pushes others away.
I share struggles and failures with colleagues of mine to normalize and learn how they are coping in difficult situations. Instead of asking only for successes, I started talking about “What was your biggest fail of the week?” “What did you feel?” “How did you cope with it?” and very importantly, “What did you learn from it?”.
When we take time to reflect on the lessons learned from our mistakes, we really have the best accelerator for personal growth and mastery.
Instead of shying away from difficult situations, start asking people around you for feedback as much as possible. A different kind of approach could be: “How can I become better at XYZ ?” What suggestions do you have for me to become better at XYZ in the future?”
I hope you discovered a bit more on how perfectionism is holding you back from reaching your goals. That this gave you an idea of what you can focus on instead, to become the master of your authentic work life.
The Anxious Perfectionist: How to Manage Perfectionism-Driven Anxiety Using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Clarissa W. Ong, Michael P. Twohig, Randy O. Frost, 2022