If your belief pattern is that you should be perfect, you not only will fail at it, you will miss your greatness. A fixation on perfection robs people of so much that makes life worth living: joy, self-esteem, zest for life, and that feeling of satisfaction that comes from knowing you did well at something.
I’m not talking here about the pursuit of excellence; let’s all be about that. Leaders who are perfectionists are burdened by the dark and heavy weight of “My work is never good enough; I’m never good enough.” They can also burden their teams with unrealistic expectations and fail to delegate properly, both of which lead to poor employee engagement.
I say this with compassion: maybe it is time for you to let this go. The perfection you seek a) is not there, and b) would not satisfy if it was, because the search for outside proof never ends. As Cella Janisch-Hartline puts it, “The expectations that you have in the cycle of perfectionism will always lead to disappointment.” Let’s look at a few ways to start the climb out of this cycle.
• “I know I’m not perfect, but…” Recently a colleague I admire started a conversation with me this way. I never thought she was or ever could be perfect because like the title here, no one is. It felt like she wanted me to validate her worth. I do think she’s great, but I can’t make her see that. Self-validation, and a step toward more real confidence, means she could instead say, “Here are a couple of strengths I bring to the table, and a couple things I’m working on to improve.” There’s a balance to owning both our strong and weak points.
• “That’s perfect!” Calling something perfect is hardly possible and not even helpful. For clearer communication, state specifically what you like about something. If you are supporting an employee who is working on their own perfectionism, you help them too by being specific and focused on excellence, not perfection.
• “I’m a perfectionist.” Even if the perfectionist claims that they only apply the standard to themselves, it’s just not credible to their employees. Instead try saying, “I strive to do my best and learn from the rest.”
START WORKING ON:
1. Self-compassion. This means talking to yourself differently, more kindly than you probably are, e.g. “I’m doing my best, I can do this well, it will turn out fine, etc.” Kind self-talk is a key ingredient to overcoming procrastination, which perfectionist’s can be prone to. Just start with the first step. Life is messy for everyone, and self-compassion helps us move out of all-or-nothing thinking. .
2. Looking for “perfectly imperfect” wonderfulness. When something turns out less than perfect (a work project, the crooked way your kids make their beds, the graduation party where it rained and the cake fell off the table, etc.) identify three things that are good about it. This practice begins to train our brains to interrupt the habitual self-criticism and judgment with a more realistic mindset.
3. Developing a set of questions that challenges your automatic perfectionistic thoughts:
a. What would great look like (vs “perfect”)?
b. How would I treat my best friend in this situation if they were feeling this sense of failure because something they did was not perfect?
c. What would be another way to look at this situation that would be kinder?
d. What is there to learn from this outcome/situation?
e. What could I do with the energy I would have if I didn’t spend it being overly hard on myself, and if I could accept myself the way I am?
f. What’s in it for me to continue with perfectionism? What’s in it for me to change?
4. Finding humor. There is something about humor that breaks down the armor, revealing that whatever it is one is trying to protect with this shield of perfection is found in everyone else – our humanness. Look for what (and who) makes you laugh and bring it to your life as often as possible.
5. Talking with the people you put on a pedestal. Invite them to talk about their imperfections. They have many. When we open up and talk with others, we find we all have insecurities and we’ve all made huge mistakes. Put your perfectionism to the light of day and it won’t survive. Free yourself by connecting with others.
6. Paying attention. Stop what you are doing and sense: what do you see, hear, smell, taste, and touch? This mindfulness practice is grounding and gets us out of our heads, sometimes just long enough to interrupt the old pathways of our thinking. Right here and now, you are enough.
Perfectionism can have old roots and connections to anxiety. Don’t hesitate to seek help if it is getting in your way of living your best life.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
||In Jo Anne's current role as Organizational and Workforce Development Senior Manager at the Rural Wisconsin Health Cooperative (RWHC) her aim is to offer to leaders straightforward tools and inspire the courage to use them.
Lead the Way in Five Minutes A Day: Sparking High Performance in Yourself and Your Team, by Jo Anne Preston is currently available for purchase.