“Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be our best. Perfectionism is not about healthy achievement and growth; it’s a shield.”
What are you shielding yourself from?So many of my clients are talking with me about perfectionism – whether they’ve realized it or not. The need to get everything just right before moving forward or making a decision is having a huge impact on their lives and businesses. They need to be putting themselves and their work out there. That’s when we get the feedback that helps us improve, iterate, or make a course correction. It may feel like a perfect product or plan is the key to success and security. Who could criticize your best work? If you put all your effort into perfecting your business plan, how could it fail? And yet, perfectionism keeps us playing small. We’re polishing endlessly instead of being vulnerable and putting what we’re working on out there. There’s a lot that can drive that, but at the heart of it is usually some fear. Fear of failure, fear of criticism, fear of embarrassment. Even my most capable, most successful leaders get trapped here. It’s not based on their past performance or experiences. No one around them would share these expectations or fears. These are very much internalized and accepted self-doubts.
“Perfectionism is a commitment to habitual self-doubt.”
It may be “perfect,” but it’s not healthyAll that doubt and fear takes a toll. It certainly holds back business and progress but there’s a mental weight as well. There’s increasing research showing that your mental health is intertwined with your relationship to perfectionism. The BBC dug into it all just a couple years ago, and summed it up with this: “Many of us believe perfectionism is a positive. But researchers are finding that it is nothing short of dangerous, leading to a long list of health problems – and that it’s on the rise.” I have one client who is a living example of this trend. When he needs to end a business relationship – parting ways with a client or not renewing a contract – he experiences so much anxiety about the break up call he’s in physical pain. Stomachaches, and migraines – it’s all-consuming. And ultimately, when he does have a professional conversation that includes referrals to another business to take them on, these clients THANK HIM. No yelling. No shame. No accusations. Just a professional and productive parting of ways. But you can bet that if the mental anguish leading up to the call is enough to make him sick then it’s also leaving a mark somewhere. Lucky for him, he’s done the work to unhook from perfectionism. He has clarity on his business, his goals, and how he’ll operate. It’s a positive for everyone involved.
Perfectionism’s enemy: BoundariesBoundaries and perfectionism find it hard to co-exist. And you know how I feel about the necessity of boundaries for, among other things, work-life balance. (Hint: you need clear and compassionate boundaries!) Perfectionism has us dropping boundaries. When our drive is to be perfect, everything else falls away. Perfect takes sacrifice, commitment, and anything less than 100% means failure. When perfectionism has us showing up you can assume there is always a trade off. We’re showing up as someone other than we are – because no one is perfect. The Joneses may look like they’ve got it all figured out: perfect family, perfect jobs, perfect home. But remember you’re watching their show – there is ALWAYS something on the inside that’s propping up that perfect facade. In one house it may be debt. In another there may be weekly or nightly fights. In another there may be true and deep mental anguish pushed down below the surface – or a million other issues could be brewing. And that’s ok – that’s their story to write. But when you get caught comparing and striving for perfect – remember what you’re seeing is just one piece of the puzzle. So if you’re sacrificing your boundaries for the sake of keeping someone else happy, or awed by your job performance, or otherwise bending your priorities to accommodate their needs? Perfection has gone to war with your boundaries. And you have to decide how perfect – or imperfect – that feels for you.
Blazing a path for recovery from perfectionismHow does one transform into a recovering perfectionist? Well let me say from the start – there is no ONE PERFECT way to go about this. Instead, consider a few of these options and how they might help you identify where you can let go of perfect in exchange for embracing authenticity and progress.
1. Pause (there’s always so much power in the pause!) and release judgment Your perfectionism is enmeshed in judgment – maybe of yourself, maybe of others. Observe your opinion, and let it go. Don’t let your opinion of things be the lens through which you decide “what is” or “what is not.”
2. Unhook from what others think Just like you’ve let go of your self-judgment, can you let go of your fear of others judging you? For one – they’re not. They just aren’t thinking what you think they are. And two – you’ve got to follow your goals for you – perfection won’t protect you from the (rare) naysayers.
3. Get clear on what exactly “perfect” is in your mind ● Is the work you need to do to achieve perfection adding to your life, or taking away from what or WHO is most important? ● IS perfectionism actually attainable? ● What is the tradeoff for your perfectionism? (Because there is ALWAYS a trade-off! Even if it’s not immediate and public – it’s there.)
4. Question WHY you have the drive for perfectionism – are you trying to avoid something? Prove something? And to whom? Is it serving you and your goals? Or is it a distraction?
5. Self-boundaries – you need them Leadership starts internally. These are your habits, the promises you’re making to yourself based on your goals, not just a projection of perfection. This is self-leadership, and you’ll need to stick to your boundaries on what you’re saying you want. Think about your habits, good or bad, your triggers, and what you want your response to be. Then stick to it – without falling back on your old crutch perfectionism.
6. Accountability – it works Ask friends to help hold you accountable – because all of us can see when our friends are stuck in perfectionism. Maybe they’re not getting things done they say they want to. A friend can say, “What’s going on for you?” Let them hold up the mirror and tell you, “You said you were going to do this by a certain date and you’re not there. What needs to change? What’s getting in the way? What are you overthinking?” All clients come to me for accountability. Accountability to NOT be “perfect” might sound odd – but it will work!
The upsides of “imperfection”What’s on the other side of perfectionism? Don’t listen to your self-doubt. It’s better than you might expect.
In my experience, when my clients let go of perfect and strive for success and progress they find: ● Relief ● Better energy and time management ● Improved relationships with self and others ● Increased confidence ● Improved boundaries ● The ability to say NO ● Increase effectiveness (productivity, communication, collaboration)Which, honestly, sounds kind of perfect, doesn’t it?