As I start to write this article, the familiar feeling of anxiety creeps in. Within a heartbeat, I’m procrastinating furiously – checking emails (again), tidying my top drawer – you get the picture? Why so, when writing articles is important to me, people tell me I’m a good writer, and I know from your feedback that readers find them helpful? The close companion of procrastination is perfectionism, and when it comes to writing articles, I have it in spades. I can’t start because of my mistaken belief that I must first find the ‘perfect’ topic and then write the ‘perfect’ article that everyone will find amazingly helpful!
Perfectionists set high standards for themselves which are often beyond reach or reason, and are highly self-critical when these are not met. A perfectionist needs to perform at heroic levels and achieve flawless results. This is often driven by extreme fear of failure, avoidance of criticism and negative judgement, or by a desire to please others, to gain their approval and to belong.
But there’s a high cost to perfectionism – do you recognise any of these potential consequences?
- high levels of anxiety – we worry we’re never going to be good enough, and the possibility of failure is always looming
- frustration or depression from never being satisfied with our own efforts or results – like being on a treadmill, we never get to our end point, we just keep setting higher and higher standards then beating ourselves up for not meeting them
- feeling overwhelmed – taking on too much because we’re unable to delegate when we know others won’t be able to meet our unachievable standards
- being highly critical of others who don’t meet our expectations, and so alienating colleagues and those we’re close to
- over-control – trying to excessively control situations or people to achieve perfection
- unable to take pleasure or pride in accomplishments, because they’re never enough..
Perfectionism can be hard to recognise, because it seems natural to us to set and exceed heroic standards. And like many behaviours arising from ingrained thinking patters that once kept us safe and helped as feel worthy, it can be hard to shift.
If some of this rings true for you, here’s some suggestions and reminders – they’re not perfect, but they may help:
- Start by identifying the areas of your life or work where good enough is OK – does every element of your life need to be driven by such high standards?
- Let go of social comparison – there’s always someone in the world who’s better at something, has more of what we want, or is smarter, thinner, more popular or richer
- No-one is, in fact, perfect
- Although we’re conditioned to judge our own self-worth by socially constructed external markers of success, our true value exists independently of our status, possessions, achievements or relationships
- Set goals that are realistic and personally meaningful – don’t strive for something just because it’s important to please someone else or in order to feed a mistaken belief that you need to be superhuman
- Making mistakes is a fundamental part of being human – recognise and accept that it’s the way we learn and grow
- Think about your definition of success – where did this come from, is it genuinely your standard, and is it now serving you in pursuit of a happy and fulfilling life?
- Painful sensations, including failure and the disapproval or rejection of others, are an inevitable part of being human – allow yourself to experience and accept these
- Get comfortable delegating – let others learn by taking responsibility, practicing and making mistakes, with your support, not your criticism
- Take time to really appreciate your achievements and successes.
The perfectionist’s life is one of striving and struggle, in which goals, actions and relationships are driven by the desperation of avoiding failure, criticism and the disapproval of others, rather than by the joy of working towards what’s really wanted – healthy and realistic goals arising from personally meaningful values. In this sense, perfectionism can be a real barrier to both leadership effectiveness and a happier life. With some awareness and support it’s possible to let go of our perfectionist tendencies, enabling us to live a lighter, freer, happier and more successful life, in which our desire to do well works for, rather than against us.