Understanding the difference between healthy striving and perfectionism is critical to laying down the shield and picking up your life. Research shows that perfectionism hampers success. In fact, it’s often the path to depression, anxiety, addiction, and life paralysis. ― Brené Brown
Hoping for that perfect summer, job, team, back to school? If you like things to be perfect, how can you manage your perfectionism, to go easier on yourself? If striving for perfection rules your life, that can be problematic, as I know from coaching perfectionist leaders who are hard on themselves and others. Perfectionists have high standards and high expectations of themselves – and of others. But sometimes, the standards they set are impossibly high, and their achievement or results are never ‘good enough.’ In fact perfectionism and imposter syndrome often go hand in hand. Edith Eger defines perfectionism as ‘the belief that something is broken—you’. If this sounds like you, learning how to manage your perfectionism is an invaluable skill, offering you relief from the stress and frustration it often inflicts.
Since summer offers you opportunities to switch off and relax, understanding this trap and following these tips will help you to overcome this tendency, so you can better enjoy your life – and your work.
The Problem of Perfectionism
A common question asked at job interviews is ‘What are your weaknesses?’ And a classic answer is ‘I’m a perfectionist’. They suggest that this weakness is a strength, but in fact, ‘perfectionism is a much bigger weakness than job applicants and interviewers probably assume’ – as Swider, Harari, Breidenthal and Bujold Steed say in ’ The Pros and Cons of Perfectionism, According to Research. The authors explain that:
Yes, perfectionists strive to produce flawless work, and they also have higher levels of motivation and conscientiousness than non-perfectionists. However, they are also more likely to set inflexible and excessively high standards, to evaluate their behavior overly critically, to hold an all-or-nothing mindset about their performance (“my work is either perfect or a total failure”), and to believe their self-worth is contingent on performing perfectly. Studies have also found that perfectionists have higher levels of stress, burnout, and anxiety.
Fear of underachieving – or not being perfect – results in procrastination, and when you do start something, perfectionism is time-consuming – you often painstakingly rework projects or reports. And yet, evidence shows that there is little correlation between perfectionism and high performance, which means that a lot of perfectionist effort makes little difference.
Swider, Harari, Breidenthal and Bujold Steed say: ‘Critically, our results showed that performance and perfectionism were not related to each other — perfectionists are not better or worse performers than non-perfectionists.’
And non-perfectionists do not have the self-imposed pressure, anxiety and stress that impacts on people, business and organisations. As the authors go on to say: ‘if perfectionism is expected to impact employee performance by increased engagement and motivation, then that impact is being offset by opposing forces, like higher depression and anxiety, which have serious consequences beyond just the workplace.’
This suggests it might be better not to be a perfectionist at all!
So, how can you overcome or at least manage perfectionism?
Here are some ways to manage your perfectionism – enjoy your summer, and the experiences that come your way!
8 Tips for Managing your Perfectionism
1. ‘Good’ is good enough
Call on your logic to help change your mindset. Perfection rarely ever exists. If you have impossibly high standards, use your reasoning skills to recognise that it is highly unlikely that you will live up to them. Furthermore, you are likely to fall into that ‘woulda, shoulda, coulda’ dynamic where you end up ‘shoulding’ all over yourself – focusing on what you ‘could have and should have’ done better. That’s a constantly disappointing way to live your life. Instead, invite ‘good enough’ into your repertoire and reassure yourself that things don’t always have to be perfect. And remember most kids would rather have a good enough parent who is present than a tortured parent distracted by their quest for perfection.
2. Manage your critical voice
Critical self-talk can make you feel bad, as well as negatively affecting your performance. Would you talk to your friends and/or employees the way you speak to yourself? Do you criticise yourself and what you do? Remember that we’re all just doing the best we can, and check out my blog post on Managing Your Inner Critic for useful tips and techniques to help you address that negative self-talk that often accompanies perfectionist tendencies.
3. Ask someone else
Perfectionists have a tendency to spend far too long on things – their judgement is skewed, because their standards are so high. So, seek another opinion. Instead of reworking and perfecting something to the nth degree, run it by someone else at an early stage. Whether it’s a business idea, or a document draft – check with another person, to see what they think. They might bounce ideas with you, or they might say it’s good enough as it is. So, you don’t need to overthink it or overwork it – saving you hours of effort and angst.
4. Tackle self-doubt
I’ve come across many outwardly confident leaders who secretly believe that they aren’t as competent as people think they are. They live in fear of being ‘found out’ as imposters or fakes. Read my blog post on Imposter Syndrome for more details and ways to tackle this.
5. See the big picture
It’s easy to get lost in the detail, or pernickety about trivial things that don’t matter so much, in the huge scheme of things. So, take a helicopter view, and see the big picture to prioritise the greater purpose and what matters most. Don’t waste time on getting absolutely every tiny thing perfect.
6. Remember success
Some perfectionists won’t even attempt to do things they can’t do perfectly well. For a perfectionist, ‘learning from your mistakes’ is rather challenging and likely to provoke inaction. In her Harvard Business Review article, Alice Boyes suggests: ‘An alternative is to learn from your successes. By reflecting on the pathways that led to your successes, you’ll be able to see that you achieved a meaningful end despite not doing everything completely flawlessly or being 100% certain of success in advance. Through this process, you’ll be able to understand how you can benefit from taking a ready, fire, aim approach, where you tweak your processes and decisions based on experience rather than from exhaustive research and deliberation.’
7. Model Non-Perfectionists
Do you know any successful people or colleagues who are not perfectionists? Use them as your role model. Observe them and what they do, or ask them what they tell themselves and how they have the ability to be so effective, without falling foul of perfectionism. Or, if they have written books or articles about their approach or mindset, read about them. Learn from them and try it out yourself.
8. Be held accountable
Perfectionism may be your default position, and you may not even realise you’re doing it. Bring your perfectionism to consciousness by having someone point it out to you. Ask colleagues, friends or family members to tell you when you’re being particular, or pernickety, or too much of a perfectionist. Stop short and do things differently. Seek help from a coach to find other ways. Although perfectionists are motivated, hardworking, and very goal-oriented – remember to enjoy the process – not just focus on the end result.
Hope your summer, like you, is perfectly imperfect – just as it should be.
If you would like some help addressing perfectionism – or you are interested in the benefits of coaching, please contact me.
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