Well-Being//

If Being a Perfectionist Stresses You Out, Read This

Dropping the need to be perfect can help you create a more authentic life.

Yagi Studio/ Getty Images
Yagi Studio/ Getty Images

Nobody’s perfect. However, that sure doesn’t stop millions of people from trying. Striving to create a certain way of life can motivate you to succeed. But a constant need for perfection could mean nothing is ever good enough – leading to getting stuck, massive amounts of stress, stifling personal growth and a lack of fulfilling relationships.

Social media has made it worse. Everybody seems to be projecting their best life online whether it is real or not. Compare yourself to the perfect bodies of Instagram influencers or pictures of idyllic family vacations on Facebook, and it might leave you feeling like chopped liver.

Unfortunately, perfectionism is becoming an increasingly aspirational goal. According to a 2018 generational study of more than 40,000 college students in the United States, Canada and UK that was published by the American Psychological Association, “the drive to be perfect in body, mind and career among today’s college students has significantly increased compared with prior generations, which may be taking a toll on young people’s mental health.” 

However, you can recover from a perfectionism habit. Just ask Emotional Intelligence expert Caroline Stokes, who like so many of us struggled with the need to be perfect since childhood.

 “Whatever sense of perfectionism we have growing up is actually like a trauma, creating an overload of self-doubt,” explained Stokes. “Trying to be perfect leads to playing all different types of roles. I felt miserable with it.”

She excelled in her career, making a name for herself in the UK as an international PR and brand marketing expert for the video games industry and then as an executive producer in Australia. However, the fierce pressure to maintain high standards of perfectionism took its toll, particularly after the dot.com collapse of 2001. Her ideals of how things should be created conflict with her husband and child, and she felt lost.

When Stokes started to explore other interests and moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, her mindset began to shift. The transformative experience of becoming an executive coach made Stokes realize how her lifelong need for perfectionism was self-destructive. Through much reflection, work, self-honesty and journaling, she consciously crafted a different path.  Releasing the need to be perfect made her world a bigger, better place. Stokes gained more kindness and authenticity, towards others and herself.

Today Stokes serves as a Certified Executive Coach, Executive Headhunter and EQ Trainer for Recruiters that want to develop their humanness in the AI revolution. Her upcoming book Elephants Before Unicorns: Assess, Adapt, and Transform Your Company for Success helps organizations adapt their emotional intelligence and hire effectively in light of emerging AI trends. Plus, she encourages people to embrace their authentic selves in moving forward, whether providing career advice or leading a 100 Days of Fitness program online.

“All of these issues that I have are still here,” she admits. “And I need to continuously work on it so I can be a better mother, wife, colleague, leader or a better whatever in the moment. I’m stubbornly, insatiably interested in not only helping my own personal and professional development, but everybody else’s. Once you climb out of that deep well, It’s pretty cool.”

Ready to recover from the perfectionism trap? Here are four ways recommended by Stokes:

  • Identify what perfectionism means to you. Perfectionism really is in the eye of the beholder. “Fortunately, at 46 years of age, I know how to translate perfectionism from my previous life,” Stokes says.  “People should be clear about their definition of perfectionism, considering if it actually helps identify your desired direction and where you might want to be.”
  • Ask yourself powerful questions. Stokes gives a shout out to Warren Berger’s book, A More Beautiful Question, which poses the prospect of doing things differently. “I would ask lots of “what if” questions to create a sense of possibility,” she advises. “What would it look like if you weren’t a perfectionist? Allow yourself to ruminate on that. It can be a powerful experience.”
  • Promote personal growth. Consider what you can do to promote your personal development, which can decrease the drive for perfectionism. “We’re in the age of education online, where people can explore many different courses at reasonable prices,” notes Stokes. “That growth can help us learn, adapt and evolve.”
  • Embrace a learning mindset. Find groups of people that value learning and growth as opposed to a judgmental mode that can spike a need for approval. It’s all about making mutual encouragement the norm where true growth is encouraged and rewarded, not superficial perfectionism.

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