Sheila Murphy of Focus Forward Consulting: “Perfectionists must be able to recognize when their perfectionism is showing up in their inner thoughts”

Perfectionists must be able to recognize when their perfectionism is showing up in their inner thoughts. This is not always easy because perfectionism often disguises itself as providing high-quality work. Usually, you can do this by evaluating if your inner voices are acting out of fear, lack of confidence, or need to feel superior (often, […]

Thrive invites voices from many spheres to share their perspectives on our Community platform. Community stories are not commissioned by our editorial team, and opinions expressed by Community contributors do not reflect the opinions of Thrive or its employees. More information on our Community guidelines is available here.

Perfectionists must be able to recognize when their perfectionism is showing up in their inner thoughts. This is not always easy because perfectionism often disguises itself as providing high-quality work. Usually, you can do this by evaluating if your inner voices are acting out of fear, lack of confidence, or need to feel superior (often, this pops up when you are considering other’s work). You cannot conquer any negative behavior until you can identify it.

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 Sheila Murphy .

Sheila Murphy is the CEO of Focus Forward Consulting, LLC. After almost 25 years, as an award winning senior corporate executive at Fortune 50 company, where she hired, developed and mentored talent, Sheila now provides career and business development coaching. She prides herself on taking her clients from uncertain and uninspired to unstoppable.

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?

As a child (and today), I was an avid reader and read everything I could. I attended Carmen Road Elementary School in Massapequa Park, NY, where there was an extensive history section and a tiny wall dedicated to biographies of women who impacted the world. So during my time there, I read every one of those autobiographies, from Helen Hayes, the first woman of Broadway, to Elizabeth Blackwell, the first US woman to attend medical skills. And while what I read stayed with me and has helped me at a lot of trivia nights, more importantly, it made me believe a woman could navigate a world primarily occupied by men and forge her own path.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I love this quote from Carrie Fisher:

“Stay afraid, but do it anyway. What’s important is the action. You don’t have to wait to be confident. Just do it and eventually the confidence will follow.”

So many times, we believe that we need to wait until everything is perfect, and at that moment, we should jump in. And what I have learned is to jump in when I am cautious and the time seems imperfect because there is never a perfect time. I found that the more I took the plunge when I wasn’t sure, the more confident I became in driving actions forward and taking risks, and because of this, the more opportunities came my way.

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?

I adore Adam’s Rib, the 1949 romantic comedy-drama starring the remarkable Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy as lawyers who come to oppose each other in a criminal case. Amanda’s client had attempted to kill her unfaithful husband. Amanda bases her case on the belief that women and men are equal and that Doris had been forced into the situation by her husband’s adultery and emotional abuse. Adam thinks Amanda is showing contempt for the law since there should never be any excuse for such criminal behavior.

Katherine Hepburn’s Amanda was this amazing advocate for her client and was a fully-developed person with wildly independent thoughts and views. Again, I was struck by what you can accomplish if you are willing to put yourself out there. Interestingly, while MGM released this movie over 70 years ago, it is still not common to have a woman as lead trial attorney, and women are still fighting to have equal time in the courtroom. This gender inequality is something in my work and my volunteering that I am focused on eradicating.

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?

The first trait I would mention is investing in yourself. Early in my career, I just worked very hard and kept my head down, and I did get opportunities. But as I became more senior, I started to feel a little stalled, and then I realized that to get to the next level, I needed to be more intentional in my professional development, profile, and network. Once I began to invest time and sometimes money into these items, I saw more growth opportunities open up internally at my company and outside of it. And it is not just me — the research shows that those who “invest” in themselves are more likely to climb the corporate ladder.

Second, I firmly believe that being an extraordinary listener is needed for success. Only by understanding other people’s points of view and positions do you get the benefit of diversity of thought — which, as we all know, makes for more effective and creative decisions. It also allows you to communicate more effectively and influence. Finally, by listening, you get input into where you also need to develop to strengthen your skills and experience.

One of my clients, “Joan” was not making the impact that she wanted to in her company. She felt that no one was listening to her or her ideas. As we unpacked what was happening in meetings, Joan realized she was the one not listening. It was a huge AHA. Once she started to listen, she had more impact, and she received more positive feedback and more exciting assignments.

The third trait I would mention is you need to be a thoughtful networker. The number one indicator of career success, no matter your occupation, is the strength of your network. And it is not just about who is in your network but how you treat them.

Recently, a client asked me about some of the opportunities in my career and how they came about. As I walked through them with her, every one of them started with someone in my network. If you are not cultivating your network, you are not cultivating your career.

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?

A perfectionist is a person who refuses to accept any standard short of perfection in themselves or others. Perfectionists are constantly grading themselves on their accomplishments and physical appearance which is unattainable and unsustainable.

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?

Perfectionists would argue that their perfectionism drives them to perform exceptionally high-quality work. They also believe that perfectionism is self-motivating and helps them overcome adversity and achieve success.

And if they were really focused on high quality and self-improvement- they may be right. Still, the costs of constantly seeking the unattainable standard of perfection can be detrimental to their careers. For example, one of my clients, “Susan,” was trying to advance in her company and was frustrated that people who did not produce the quality work that she did were getting promoted while she stood still.

She discovered that her concern that her work was not perfect caused her to miss deadlines and not handle the same amount of work as her peers — and also impacted her ability to get assignments in the “gray” because there is no perfection there.

What are the negative aspects of being a perfectionist? Can you give a story or example to explain what you mean?

As I mentioned with Susan above, what perfectionists believe is protecting and helping their careers is in actuality derailing it. What makes extreme perfectionism so toxic is that while those in its grip desire success, they are most focused on avoiding failure, resulting in a negative orientation.

Additionally, it impacts them as team players and managers because they expect perfectionism in others and themselves. Perfectionists can be very critical team members and managers. Often, as managers, they get incredibly exasperated with their team and end up taking on the work themselves, believing only they can do it right.

Perfectionism can be a fast and enduring track to unhappiness, especially as many perfectionists see their “value” being dependent on positive feedback relating to their performance. Perfectionism also negatively impacted my client, Jenny, a people manager, and management feedback was highly damaging. Her team could never please her, and she ended up getting more frustrated with them and feeling she had to do all of their work. Her team was not engaged and feeling that Jenny was not developing her. Jenny’s management told her that getting the compensation and advancement depended on turning around her management style.

Also, perfectionists may avoid taking on assignments outside of their comfort zone because they fear they cannot do them perfectly. By avoiding this work, they are depriving themselves of the opportunity to grow because the most impactful development happens during these assignments.

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?

There are many reasons that perfectionists become stuck; I will give you three of the most impactful. First, there is often an enormous fear of failure and an unrealistic view of what will happen if they are not perfect. Second, lack of self-confidence can have an impact. Finally, perfectionists have often been “rewarded” in the past for high-quality work, and they feel that it is the one thing they can control. This makes perfectionists review their work repeatedly, even when they have spent extraordinary amounts of time on it and have the skills, expertise, and experiences to create a high-quality work product.

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?”

Here are five of the things that perfectionists need to do to control their inner perfectionists.

First, they need to understand what perfectionism is and how it can negatively impact their career. Most perfectionists genuinely believe that their perfectionism is protecting their careers. However, they also need to see the upside to letting go of their perfectionism. My client, “Sally,” keeps a list of the benefits of not being a perfectionist next to her computer to remind her. For Sally, it includes taking more risks, being a more decisive leader and manager, and being more effective.

Second, perfectionists must be able to recognize when their perfectionism is showing up in their inner thoughts. This is not always easy because perfectionism often disguises itself as providing high-quality work. Usually, you can do this by evaluating if your inner voices are acting out of fear, lack of confidence, or need to feel superior (often, this pops up when you are considering other’s work). You cannot conquer any negative behavior until you can identify it. One of my clients, who had trouble distinguishing between wanting high-quality work and her inner perfectionists, had allies that helped her. It would be best to recognize that this behavior is not helping you and is harming you.

Third, if you are a ruminator who has difficulty letting go of the negative thoughts, you need to develop a methodology for break up these thoughts. Some ways that people successful do this is by:

  • Leveraging mindfulness
  • Concentrating intensely on something else, whether it is the ridges of your fingers or staring at a project.
  • Writing down the negative thoughts and either crossing them out or ripping them up
  • Visualization-imagine you are somewhere else and doing something out there.

Another of my clients always pictures herself looking at the waves at the beach to stop her from ruminating. She then can assess the situation more effectively.

Fourth, you want to change the narrative. To start with, if you are thinking, “I can’t succeed on this project unless I interview five more vendors,” reframe it to say, “my perfectionist is saying I can’t succeed….”

Next, think about what perfectionism costs you and what would be the benefits in these circumstances of you letting it go. In these circumstances, it is best to look at the big picture of the project and not focus on just your aspect of the assignment. You also want to put yourself in control.

For example:

“My inner perfectionist is telling me to take on that assignment because I have not done it before, and the leader of that organization is a real stickler for thoughtful work. But I know that by taking this assignment, I will grow my skills and have the opportunity to develop a new sponsor.”

Some clients write down the benefits for each specific situation if they let go of their inner perfectionists.

Fifth, perfectionists should picture how they want to be as leaders. Do they want to be seen as sticklers over typos or innovative leaders who engage their teams to develop new innovative leaders? When their perfectionists start to rear their ugly heads, they need to ask themselves what my inner leader wants to be in this situation and then go that way.

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 love to inspire a listening movement where people took the time to listen to each other’s views and try to understand why people feel a certain way and perhaps learn from it. I think there is a lot of toxicity and negativity in our discourse now, which I did not believe serves anyone or furthers thought.

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!

If only that happens. I would love to have lunch with New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. She has taken a very humanistic view of governing and advocated for many equality laws. I would love to my insight into her thought leadership.

How can our readers follow you online?, and

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

We use cookies on our site to give you the best experience possible. By continuing to browse the site, you agree to this use. For more information on how we use cookies, see our Privacy Policy.