Why Perfectionism Damages Your Life and 4 Ways To Overcome It

Part of the series "Braving Up To Build Your Best Life"

Photo Credit: Jorg Greuel/Getty Images
Photo Credit: Jorg Greuel/Getty Images

As a career and personal growth coach, I’ve had the pleasure of working with hundreds of top professionals who’ve achieved truly great things in their lives and careers. Sadly, more often than not, these same high achievers demonstrate one key trait that wreaks havoc on their lives, relationships and work — their relentless drive to be perfect.

“Perfectionistic overfunctioners” as I call them, do more than is necessary, more than is appropriate and more than is healthy in both life and work, and it crushes them down in the process.

Does this sound familiar to you?

Why do we strive for perfection?

Striving for perfection often emerges as a learned, adaptive behavior in our childhood. There are numerous conditions and situations in our family lives and our development process that foster the drive toward perfectionism, including:

– Having love and acceptance withheld by our parents unless an “A+” was earned in our achievements and performance.

– Being criticized sharply and chronically by authority figures, and being compared negatively to others when we didn’t achieve at the highest levels

– Feeling alone, scared and out of control as children, leading us to overfunction in order to gain control over a chaotic world

– Experiencing our parents or caregivers as unreliable, creating the need to overcome their disappointing and erratic behavior.

Whatever the root causes, perfectionism is an addictive, driven behavior that damages your life, keeping you from fully appreciating yourself, recognizing your own worth and value, and building healthy, nurturing relationships. Despite the coping mechanisms we learned in our childhood, when can overcome our need for perfectionism and our drive to overfunction.

Why perfectionism is damaging to your career

Being a slave to an insatiable drive for perfectionism limits your ability to feel joy, acceptance and satisfaction. It also keeps you from having a full appreciation of others. In your career, perfectionism demands that you continually pursue validation — inner and outer — to tell you you’re “ok.” If “perfect” is your standard, you find it hard to feel safe, worthy or “good enough” unless you’re achieving some invisible standard you’ve created. You’re on the constant look-out for the next bar to jump over to prove your worthiness, and you become demoralized quickly when others are less than supportive of you.

Worse yet, perfectionists often experience the common dreaded “impostor” syndrome — the fear that if people saw the “real you,” they’d realize you’re a fake and you’re flawed.

Specifically, perfectionistic behavior damages your career because it:

1) Makes you more difficult to be with, collaborate with and manage — your need to “win” or be the best alienates your colleagues.

2) Hurts people — your critical and judgmental thinking and behavior toward yourself bleeds out to others and negatively impacts them.

3) Taints your judgment — your ability to manage people, projects and resources is altered because you see “perfect” as the only standard to strive for.

4) Crimps your creativity — the creative process is not a clean, perfect, linear one and the “messiness” of creativity makes you uncomfortable and insecure.

5) Puts up walls — those around you can sense your energy of edginess and judgment and your need to be perfect, which repels people.

In the end, if you’re a perfectionist, your ability to lead, inspire and engage others — as well as generate trust and loyalty — will be severely impaired.

If perfectionist overfunctioning describes your behavior, below are four tips for releasing your drive for “A” in everything:

Stop “overfunctioning”

Examine why you believe you’re the only one who can do all that you’re doing, all by yourself. Get support from someone you trust and respect to see what’s holding you hostage in your need to do it all perfectly. Determine where you chronically take on more than your share, and begin the process of letting go today. For instance, identify several tasks each week that your children should be helping with, such as doing their own laundry and sharing the cooking. Request their help, and enforce it. Ask your partner/spouse for more regular support as well. Delegate tasks more appropriately to your staff members as well, so they can learn self-reliance and stretch their own skills. Get more help from those who will grow exponentially by giving it.

Say “No” So You Can Say “Yes” to Yourself

Start to gain more awareness of where you’re saying “yes” — to projects, initiatives, endeavors and even time with friends and family — because you think you have to in order to be perfect. Determine what you no longer wish to do (for instance, a volunteer project, a school task that’s become too much, participating in a committee you’d like to leave, etc.). Make this the year you “brave up” and say “NO!” to what you don’t want to do. Stop trying to be everything to everyone else, and learn to give to yourself.

Get a “B”

Identify an area you’ve been working yourself to the bone to excel in only because you’re trying to win approval. It could be how late you stay in the office every day (that was me in my twenties and thirties in my corporate life), or buying all the latest toys for your children when in fact you’d rather reduce your family’s spending and shift away from a constant drive to acquire “things.”

Determine the one area that will give you the most joy, peace and contentment if you could learn to live with less than perfection.

Tell a New Story

How we choose to interpret what happens in our lives — the stories we tell to ourselves and others — color how we experience life. It’s time to tell a new, more accepting and self-validating story. Engage in a brief inner dialogue each day (perhaps during your morning commute or before bed) about your own self-worth, reminding yourself of the enormous intrinsic value you bring to the world, to your work, and to your family — regardless of the level of perfection in your achievements.

If you can’t embrace your own self-worth on your own, get some outside support to assist you.

Remember, you’re not perfect — you’re human. 

When you can fully embrace your imperfection and stop trying to live up to impossible expectations, you’ll finally become the person you long to be.  

And your life and career will thank you for it.

For more from Kathy Caprino, check out her personal growth programs, her book Breakdown, Breakthrough, and her TEDx talk “Time to Brave Up.”

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