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The paralysis of perfectionism

5 signs you have a problem and how to turn it around

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In many ways this is a tough article to write as I reflect on some of my own struggles with perfectionism in the past. Since experiencing burnout, this is one of the traits I have focused letting go of the most and I now find myself actively seeking opportunities to experiment, to fail, to ‘try’ before I am really ready, or to disregard that typo I may have noticed on a slide moments before presenting. It’s been a journey of liberation, release and of self-compassion, and a path I needed to tread, no matter how difficult owning the truth has been.

In one of my favourite books, Daring Greatly, Brené Brown describes perfectionism as a defensive move, “It’s the belief that if we do things perfectly and look perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment and shame. Perfectionism is a twenty-ton shield that we lug around, thinking it will protect us, when in fact it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from being seen”.

So what have I learned while leaning in to this discovery?

The downside

  • Procrastination. Many perfectionists get locked into stalling tactics when they fear not producing their best quality work. This often leads to ‘burning the midnight oil’ in advance of pending deadlines.
  • You’re not too fun to be around. Placing high expectations on yourself often leads to imposing that belief system on others. This can lead to rigid thinking, excessive control, an inability to delegate, showing a lack of trust in peers or subordinates, and generally a high stress environment for everyone in the team.  
  • Lack of happiness. The pressure to be ‘perfect’ can place enormous strain on our mental resources leading to elevated stress levels, anxiety, struggles with self-doubt, a fear of disapproval, or rejection. It creates a lingering feeling of lack or never being good enough.
  • Workaholism. Perfection is an elusive goal and the constant pursuit of it is generally at the expense of our health. Perfectionists tend to work longer hours and later hours while they continue to ‘tinker’ at likely small changes to get things ‘just right’.
  • Negative thinking traps. Perfectionism is often underpinned by pervasive ‘all or nothing’ belief systems, a fear of failure and/or a lack of self-worth. These feelings might arise out of childhood and either come to be validated or invalidated through adulthood.

How to flip it

  • Don’t sweat the small stuff. When you notice you start to correct things compulsively take a minute to question what sits behind that. Also think about the purpose of the work and your audience. Are you working on a thought starter or a finished product? Something for a peer or senior management? An internal or an external audience? Align the level of your need to correct things with the intended output so you can better focus your time and energy. Good enough and done is better than perfect.
  • Lower your attachment to work and broaden your identity beyond the office. Perfectionism is most prolific when our personal identity is largely wrapped up in our career and we don’t have enough outside interests. Make work one part of your life and not the only thing in your life.  
  • Fail and allow yourself to grow. Think back to some of your most pivotal life moments. Isn’t it out of failure that we most learn? Embrace the feeling of imperfection and understand that it’s reflective of trying and improving, and it’s part of the human condition to make mistakes. Indeed, many great inventions were borne of them.
  • Healthy striving is a better way to channel any perfectionist tendencies. This growth mindset continues to facilitate the achievement of high standards but from a position of self-acceptance and self-compassion; viewing failure as a way to improvement.

So am I a recovering perfectionist now? Well I like to think so but I’m realistic in the knowledge that old habits can take time to move on. It continues to be a journey but I’m definitely discovering a whole lot of joy and ease in letting go of what doesn’t serve me.

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