We often sit in job interviews and sell our perfectionistic traits with pride. After all, the exacting standards you apply to all aspects of yourself, your work, and your life can only benefit your (soon to be) employer, right?
We think of it as pushing ourselves to be the very best.
But our devotion to flawless perfection could actually be causing us undue stress and anxiety.
And it could also be preventing us from achieving truly great things.
There are certain professions where perfectionism is essential. Like neurosurgery, for example. But for most of us, there are certain things that we can relinquish our grip on. So unless you’ve got someone else’s life in your hands, it’s worth exploring the source of your perfectionism and looking at what we can do to ease that perfectionist streak.
Perfectionism or Fear?
“Perfectionism is just a high-end, haute couture version of fear - just fear in fancy shoes and a mink coat, pretending to be elegant when actually it’s just terrified. Because underneath that shiny veneer, perfectionism is nothing more than a deep existential angst that says again and again, “I’m not good enough and I will never be good enough.” - Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic
For some, believing that if we act and live perfect, produce flawless work and become the model citizen/employee, we minimise or avoid the pain of blame, judgement and shame.
But perfectionism isn’t the suit of armour we think it is. Instead, perfectionism weighs us down and prevents us from taking flight.
To make mistakes is to be human. To feel shame, judgment and blame is part of the human experience. It is only from these experiences that we grow to be stronger, better versions of ourselves.
And it’s our flaws and quirks that make us interesting. Allowing our unique perspective to shine through is what allows us to bring something fresh and different to the world.
Perfectionism or Excuses?
Elizabeth Gilbert writes in Big Magic that perfection not only stops people from completing their work, it can also stop some from beginning their work, with many perfectionists deciding in advance that their end product would never reach their exacting standards. So they don’t even try in the first place.
Bréné Brown takes it further, using the term life paralysis, when we are so afraid of failure that pursuing our dreams gets pushed to the side.
Until we learn how to cope with our fear of falling in front of others, we will never have opportunity to learn and grow from our mistakes. We limit our reach and miss out on seeing what we’re truly capable of.
So what can I do?
1. Accept that you can’t work at 100% all of the time.
As a perfectionist obsessed with achievement, it was difficult to accept I couldn’t operate at 100% all the time. But we’re all human and we should give ourselves the same compassion we show others. Acts of self-care (going to a café, taking some quiet time out getting a massage, whatever takes your fancy) are important ways we can replenish ourselves so we can be ready to work at our best.
2. Step back and take stock
In economic terms, the Law of Diminishing Returns tells us that you’re going to reach a point where the effort you expend on making something perfect will exceed any incremental benefit you’re going to get from investing any more energy on the matter.
An old boss of mine used two questions to decide whether he should be concerned over something: (1) Is it actually important? & (2) will it affect things in 5-10 years’? Those questions are still my litmus test when I feel the stress levels rise.
It’s hard to see when you’re in the throes of a project, buried knee deep in information, but pull back for a moment. Is all that extra energy really worth the result you’re going to get?
3. Work at your 90% and see whether anyone notices
This was a suggestion made by an old therapist of mine when I was tearing my hair out with frustration and stress at work. It killed me to do it, but after a week of 90%, not a single person noticed.
Pick your moments though, where no harm will be caused to anyone. Like my neurosurgeon example, in the middle of a surgical procedure may not be the right place.
4. Let go of what people think
Our endless pursuit for perfection is more about earning acceptance and approval than it is about doing our very best. And while we’re exhausting ourselves not to be seen as inferior to others, it’s likely they’re not even noticing the supreme effort you’re putting in.
The truth is that they’re far more concerned with what they’re doing rather than where you’re at.
It’s not about being immune from hurt, because that very heartbreak is what makes us stronger and grow to be better beings.
So acknowledge their thoughts. Take their feedback. Just don’t carry it with you and let it dictate who you are, and the actions you take.
5. Let go of who you think you should be
Most of us grow up being told how to act, how we should feel, what we should have, and by what age we should have these things if we want to be ‘successful’. We learn from a very young age to measure ourselves by other people’s standards and ideals.
But no one is you. No one can compete with what you have to offer. What could be right for someone else mightn’t be right for you.
I see it again and again with clients - people who have pursued, persisted and succeeded in careers because that’s what everyone else was doing or that’s what their parents wanted.
But they end up burnt out and disillusioned, because their chosen vocation doesn’t align with their values or what truly makes them happy.
So let go of comparisons. Let go of competition. Everyone is on their own journey.
It takes bravery to put ourselves out there, flaws and all. You’re never going to be able to control what other people think, but we can control how we perceive the world and our actions. Life is too short to tie ourselves in knots over little things that - in the end - don’t really matter.