Please be gentle with yourself if you have struggled in attempts to drop kick perfectionism. It is a habit that you adopted at one point because you perceived it as either keeping you safe from judgement and criticism, or it created some type of human reward like acceptance or praise.
Many successful people are perfectionists. At the same time, they have the ability to say “Done is Better Than Perfect” and just complete and wrap up a project. What is the best way to overcome the stalling and procrastination that perfectionism causes? How does one overcome the fear of potential critique or the fear of not being successful? In this interview series, called How To Get Past Your Perfectionism And ‘Just Do It’, we are interviewing successful leaders who can share stories and lessons from their experience about “how to overcome the hesitation caused by perfectionism.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Shawna Oliver.
Shawna Oliver is a National Board-Certified Health and Wellness Coach with an additional 20 plus year background as a Registered Nurse. She has her own coaching practice which aspires to help women in conquering limiting beliefs and patterns that are holding them back from personal and career success all while experiencing greater ease and comfort. Her coaching methods are built upon positive psychology and the current brain science around changing not only unhelpful habits of behavior, but also those of the mind. In her practice, Shawna helps women change perceptions of who they are, and more importantly, what they are truly capable and deserving of receiving.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I was born and raised as the eldest of three in Nova Scotia, Canada. My mother worked in banking and my father in education, but his all-time passion was sports coaching. From a young age my dad instilled in me the idea that “excellence is key” in every aspect of life. As a competitive runner, the first-place blue ribbon was of course the most coveted. The concepts of “digging in” and really feeling the gravel under my feet to gain the necessary traction to “finish strong” were communicated frequently while I was growing up. These ideals taught me grit, and translated well to academic pursuits, resulting in the top of the class placement in nursing school. As I went on, my perfectionism, attention to detail, and dogged work ethic, were not only valued, but were much sought out attributes in my nursing career. On the surface, it all appeared to be working.
But it really was not …
I went on to be married and have children, and as the responsibilities grew, I remained steadfast in attempting to maintain these lofty standards in every facet of life. I felt unable to be the fully present wife and Mom I yearned to be. On top of that, the continuous striving, fighting, and pushing to meet these unrealistic expectations was taking its toll on my physical and mental health. I was exhausted and experiencing overwhelm. By coincidence, I was introduced to wellness coaching. That is the day everything began to shift.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care “Theodore Roosevelt.
For many years I falsely believed the knowledge I possessed was my highest value. I vastly underrated the human currency of presence and compassion.
The first place I began to practice my newly appreciated currency was in hospice nursing and I remain forever grateful to be afforded this opportunity. These clients wanted attention, yes, but not to the seamless bandage wrapping, or the endless medication side effect list, but to them. Their fears and priorities, seen, heard, and validated, during their intimate journey of dying with dignity, comfort, and autonomy. Caring was not important, it was everything.
Outside of my work I also began to overcome the perfectionists need to always seem “perfectly fine” and I gradually became more authentically vulnerable. The depth of my human connections grew exponentially. Not only did I experience a greater sense of bonding, but eventually I noticed others respected me more when I allowed my incompleteness and missteps to be seen openly. My mind was less busy worrying about all that doing and gave me the freedom to be fully present to experiences, and the beautiful humans enjoying them with me. This philosophy serves me well in my coaching today, well beyond any facts and figures I could garner or convey.
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
All of Jon Kabat- Zinn’s work has made a significant impact on who I have become today. The mindful awareness and self-compassion rescued me from a life of constant thinking, worrying, and trying to chase the impossible perfection that never existed in the first place. It allowed me to be present and accepting of the good and bad in the world, and within myself. The first of his many books I read was Full Catastrophe Living. It was an instrumental guide to finding the path to a whole new way of being.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
- Humor. Being a solopreneur means finding laughter in the everyday pitfalls of building a business. Everything from lackluster engagement on new ideas, computer and technical issues, failed client programs and pivots in unforeseen circumstances. Secondly, levity even in the most challenging client conversations, can be the bridge to push through and find solutions to difficult issues. Humor has helped less seasoned coaches around me see it is okay to be self-depreciating and not try so hard to be perfect all the time.
- Social Intelligence. I have always been blessed with the ability to read a room and sense other’s states. My parents liked to say I was a “sensitive” child. I think while it may have been difficult when I was younger, it has been beneficial in partnering with clients in choreographing the magical intuitive dance of deep coaching sessions. It has been instrumental in reading between the words and reflecting another’s experience accurately. The ability to offer another the gift of truly being seen and heard, not only in coaching, but in the greater world, has served me and those around me, well.
- Perseverance. Running a business is not for the faint of heart. Organically there will be trials, and failures, but it is in the adjustments, the reinvention, the ability to try another way, another day, that will determine a business’s viability and sustainability. This is where perseverance is crucial. I used to try group coaching selling event tickets and it was neither an effectual nor a consistent way to grow my business. After some time and practice, I settled into a process of performing outreach to specific business groups for personalized seminars. I also used to spend an extraordinary amount of time on social media posting, which did not offer joy, or a positive return on time invested. When I began to ask for referrals from local physician offices and past or current clients, business evolved in a more positive and natural direction.
Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. Let’s begin with a definition of terms so that each of us and our readers are on the same page. What exactly is a perfectionist? Can you explain?
While there are a variety of definitions of perfectionism, most describe it as the need of an individual to display nothing short of perfect execution in performance, goal achievement, and productivity. Individuals suffering with perfectionism often judge themselves harshly and expect similar judgment from others for not meeting those standards. These unchecked attempts to be viewed as flawless can lead to feelings of isolation, exhaustion, overwhelm, and can even progress to depression and/or anxiety.
The premise of this interview series is making the assumption that being a perfectionist is not a positive thing. But presumably, seeking perfection can’t be entirely bad. What are the positive aspects of being a perfectionist? Can you give a story or example to explain what you mean?
Perfectionism can be beneficial on the path to achieving academic and career success. Attention to detail, an impeccable work ethic, and striving for ideal can lead to top of the class placement in academia, and an upward trajectory in one’s career. In my former field of healthcare, it was vital. There is little grace for the nurse in doling out the wrong medications or needing five attempts to start an intravenous line. Another benefit of perfectionism is it can create a sense of accomplishment when you perceive you have completed a task or tasks with flawless execution. Lastly, perfectionism can appear to benefit others in your life. In some ways my family benefitted from my perfectionism because I voluntarily shouldered responsibilities because I felt they could not possibly meet my standards. Everything from scheduling doctor and dentist appointments, to housework, to money management, and large family decisions.
What are the negative aspects of being a perfectionist? Can you give a story or example to explain what you mean?
Being a perfectionist is exhausting. The relentless pursuit of living up to impossible or unsustainable standards, even though they may internally set, creates a never-ending cycle of stressful execution and fatigue, but remains difficult to quit. The mindset is persuasively powerful in fostering the fear that if you stop the performance, you will lose your grip on the carefully crafted identity as someone who appears all together, all the time. During my decades long struggle with perfectionism, I felt like I was treading water in a vast ocean without ever taking a break, and if I dared to stop kicking and paddling, I was certain to drown. I recall once moving into a new home and I would not go to bed that night until the last picture was hung. Inexplicable, yes. Painful, even more so.
From your experience or perspective, what are some of the common reasons that cause a perfectionist to “get stuck” and not move forward? Can you explain?
Perfectionists get stuck for three reasons. Taking chances and trying new things necessitates trial and error, learning as you go, and frankly messing up. This seems foreign and intolerable, so we sit out the chances to explore the next great life adventure and remain stubbornly stuck. The number two reason perfectionists get stuck is due to the workings of our still somewhat primitive brain. It has difficulty imagining life’s middle ground. Perfectionists have a hard time wrapping their minds around doing well, but not to the extreme of flawlessness. In my case, because I had strived for perfectionism for so long, when I considered loosening my standards, all I could envision was becoming completely irresponsible, losing my job, my kids, and the hard-earned respect of others. The number three cause is that this false narrative of appearing perfect has become part of the sufferers’ identity. The compelling internal perception that our performance is the sole reason people like, accept, or respect us. The patterns of perfection are well worn familiar paths in the brain that allow us to feel safe… .and letting go of that is difficult and darn right scary. Like free falling into the abyss of the unknown.
Here is the central question of our discussion. What are the five things a perfectionist needs to know to get past their perfectionism and “just do it?” Please share a story or example for each.
Please be gentle with yourself if you have struggled in attempts to drop kick perfectionism. It is a habit that you adopted at one point because you perceived it as either keeping you safe from judgement and criticism, or it created some type of human reward like acceptance or praise. Mine began one day in grade school and I brought home a test result to show my dad. I had received a score of 98. When I passed him the paper, he said, “why not 100?” and passed it back to me. He was somewhat joking, but at the time I could not grasp that detail. Nursing cemented this mindset. Right medications, right time, every darn time. Mindset habits like perfectionism can be changed, beginning with awareness and self-compassion. Dig deep and think about where these perfectionistic tendencies first appeared, and how you understandably felt they were of some benefit. I coached a client who struggled with perfectionism who played basketball from age twelve to twenty-one. With coaching exploration, we were able to reveal that her perfectionism and internal judgement originated from desire to get the ball in the net every time without fail because it garnered her praise and acceptance from both the coach and her teammates.
Intentionally weigh the pros and cons of maintaining your perfectionistic standards. Factors to consider are things like; is your perfectionism causing procrastination in acquiring new skills, personal growth or accepting advancement opportunities at work? Is your attempt to execute every task perfectly creating so much stress that you are suffering from physical ailments like insomnia, tight shoulders, a racing heart and an inability to relax? If you decide that the downside outweighs the good, then make it an intentional conscious decision to work towards loosening its grip on your life. I coached an incredibly talented silver smith jewelry maker who works with sea glass. Because her work is both handmade and intricate, imperfections are a natural part of the creative process. Her perfectionism caused procrastination both in the production and the listing of her pieces. Her recognition of this issue allowed her to be able to maintain high quality standards, but not so excessive that her beautiful work remained in her studio drawers instead of out in the world for women to enjoy.
Once you have captured your own unique characteristics of this mindset, give it a name, preferably a humorous one. Humor and language help you to recognize its directives faster and adds a little lightness the next time it arises. It also allows for the separation of perfectionism from the core essence of you. I call mine “Little Shawna.” She loves to reappear in my life when the stakes, and its accompanying stress, is running high. I worked with a client that struggled with her perfectionism around social media business postings. She came to call hers “Judge Judy.” Just because it is a serious subject does not mean you cannot have a little fun while conquering it.
Managing your stress with specific coping techniques (like yoga, breath work, exercise etc.) is valuable in setting the stage for your preparedness to act when opportunities arise to intentionally step in the opposite direction that your perfectionist mindset tells you to go. I promise, although it may feel like your perfectly crafted world may crumble in giving up these standards, it really will be okay. Breathe through the discomfort and leave something that does not fit in the category of life and death undone or imperfect. I had a client that struggled with perfectionism agree to leave dirty dishes in the sink when company was expected. Another practiced firing off emails at work without lamenting for hours trying to craft a perfectly curated response. Another women avoided doing live videos for her business because she felt it would not “be just right.” Once she just went for it, fumbles and all, her following doubled. Do this type of action every chance you get. Habits are built with repetition and rewired with the new habit repetition. It takes some time.
The freedom on the other side of this is worth it. The discomfort of acting imperfect will pass with time. When you see that people still adore and respect you as a fallible, but inherently beautiful human being, life becomes easier and a whole lot more fun.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
I would like to spread to the world the movement of playing the game of Truth or Dare. I dare you to show your imperfections, your idiosyncrasies that may not live up to society’s false standards of photoshopped perfection. I would also ask we speak truth in our humanity, our fear of the pain of rejection, or loneliness, and how many of us fight with internal struggles and false narratives of inadequacy. When we remain distracted, and busy in our heads and hearts working endlessly to cover up all that makes us human, we all lose out on the best part, deeply. authentically connecting with others.
Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens!
Lisa Nichols. She is self-assured, quick witted and so wise. She shows up with the best energy in interviews so I cannot imagine how great it would be to have her in front of me in the real world.
How can our readers follow you online?
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!