The Perfect Storm of Perfectionism
Updated: Feb 10
Some of us wear it like a badge of honour.
Others are dragged down by it, constantly afraid of making mistakes.
And whilst it’s true that I definitely want my doctor, surgeon or aircraft pilot to be practically perfect in every way (at least whilst they are on the job) for the rest of us, perfectionism can spell disaster for our confidence.
Are you a perfectionist?
· Do you find yourself muttering, ‘if you want something done properly, do it yourself’?
· Do you repeatedly tinker, tweak or faff and struggle to get things finished?
· Do you get annoyed at yourself for procrastinating?
If you identified with any of the above then chances are you are you fall into that category and you might not even know it.
We’re conditioned to think that perfectionism is a good thing. It makes total sense that we should strive to do - and be - our best. And I’m certainly not going to quibble with that. In fact, research suggests that a very small number of people may have ‘adaptive’ perfectionism which results in high-standards and strong motivation – i.e. they positively adapt to the need to perform and are highly conscientious.
But what if your best is rarely good enough?
The reality is, perfectionism is a burden for most, especially those that struggle with confidence.
A perfect storm
Let’s lay down the facts.
· If your need to chase perfections stops you getting shit done.
· If you frustrate yourself with your lack of productivity.
· If you get annoyed when others don’t complete tasks to your high standard.
· If you end up taking on more than your fair share.
· If you struggle to take action for fear of getting things wrong..
Then your perfectionist streak isn’t propelling you to greatness and a job well done. It’s having the exact opposite effect! Perfectionism is providing a big, perfectly formed barrier to you being your best self. It’s harming your confidence and fuelling a negative state of mind.
To top it off, perfectionism also hides something more sinister: it’s one of the main indicators of imposter syndrome. (I talk all about this here.)
Impostor syndrome is something I witness within my coaching time and time again. Women come to me struggling with confidence but they can’t quite pinpoint why they feel the way they do.
When I uncover perfectionist tendencies, the pieces generally start to fall into place.
Perfectionism is a sneaky little bugger as it masquerades as other things. It doesn’t come with a big red warning light like most of the other forms of self-doubt I help women through.
In fact, many of my coachees see it as a positive emotion that pushes them to strive for better. It’s only when we do the work that the extent of the problems that perfectionism cause really begin to emerge.
Where does it come from?
The pressure to be perfect, largely comes from (yep, you’ve guessed it) yourself.
It all boils down to the pressure you put on yourself to succeed, to ‘be right’ first time, to gain respect, to be seen as someone reliable who does a good job. Of course, your parents might shoulder some of the responsibility too. Perfectionism tends to be stronger in those who had parents who rewarded overachievement and highlighted ‘failure’ for example. (There’s more on that here.)
But worryingly, psychologists are notching an increase in perfectionist tendencies over recent decades. It seems this may be rooted in the increase in competition, both academically and professionally. And of course, the impact that social media should not be underestimated when you able to consume and produce highly filtered and ‘perfect’ representations of yours and others’ lives.
But regardless of why you have it and where you came from, perfectionism leads to the same set of challenges.
The impossible goal.
Here’s the biggy..
There is no such thing as perfect. Perfection is an entirely subjective measure.
Mine and my husband’s versions of ‘perfectly tidy’ are poles apart, for example. My daughter’s ‘perfect day’ is very different to mine.
And whilst there may be ‘perfect outcomes’ in some scenarios – for example medicine or manufacturing – the trouble is that there are often numerous ways to achieve that perfect outcome.
Take my own recent experience. Last year, my friend and I broke our arms days apart and had virtually identical injuries. Weird right?! But as I broke mine in Finland and she broke hers in the UK, we were dealt with differently.
My arm was reset multiple times specifically to avoid surgery. She had one attempt at a reset then an operation. When I returned home, the doctors were amazed I hadn’t had it surgically reset, but it was two different ways achieving exactly the same outcome. Which was perfect? Well, that depended entirely on which doctor you asked!
So, if you are striving for perfection, by default, the chances are that you will fail to find it. There are always improvements you could make. There will always be someone who sees your version of perfect as inadequate. Unless you have a very clearly defined vision of ‘perfect’ and you are secure enough in yourself to not care what others think, it’s inevitable that you’ll disappoint yourself.
The constant need to attain the unattainable is also one of the leading causes of burnout, and don’t get me started on the links to depressions, anxiety, OCD and the long-list of other psychological issues where perfectionism lurks.
Failure, fear and control.
Oddly, perfectionism isn’t rooted in a burning desire to get things right, it’s driven by the fear of getting them wrong. A fear of you being imperfect. This is toxic as it’s not about what you do at all, it’s about how you feel about yourself.
If you’re striving to reach an impossible goal, you’re going to flux between feelings of stress, frustration, guilt and disappointment when things don’t go the way you had hoped.
You’ll also have a more acute sense of failure given the standards you have set for yourself are unattainably high.
Of course, that feeds into the desire for control – another perfectionist trait.
If your standards are so high that you sometimes struggle to reach them, how do others have a chance? I’ve lost count of the times I hear the women I work with say, ‘If I want something done properly, l I just do it myself.” (This can lead to an unhealthy burden of emotional labour, which I talk about here.)
Studies show that perfectionists have stronger reactions to failure and tend to give up more easily, which is the antithesis of the result they seek.
I’ve witnessed this in my own behaviour many times over the years. As a child, if I was not immediately good at something, like a sport, I quickly gave it up. In my adult life, it was a similar picture with public speaking (something that has formed a large part of my career). It wasn’t until I did the inner work that I realised there was no right or wrong way, there was just my way of doing it. Once I accepted this, there was a welcome reduction in the crippling performance anxiety I used to suffer and my enthusiasm shot up too. You may have your own examples of how your need to be perfect has caused you to stand in your own way.
The colossal waste of time (and money)
Perfectionism nearly always prevents you from taking action and ramps up procrastination. In short, it wastes your most precious resource – your time.
You quickly hit a point of diminishing returns, raking the same ground over and over for no discernible benefit.
For example, is it really worth tweaking that social media post for the twentieth time before making it public? Will it result in 20 x more engagement or just a whole heap of wasted time when most people glance over it in passing? (This is a great illustration of perfectionism in action as I hear it countless times from my own clients.)
In business, this approach is summed up by the ‘Lean Startup method’. You essentially create a product a service that is ‘minimally viable’, delivering at the point of being functional and refining from there based on the feedback you get. This prevents you wasting countless hours tinkering and perfecting for no discernible benefit.
Perfectionism can lead to real trouble for employees and business owners alike as there is a monetary cost associated with your time when it comes to business.
If you view your perfectionism as a positive trait (i.e. you mistake it for conscientiousness), it’s going to feel like a massive slap in the face if the perception that others have you is that you're a faffer or a time-waster. I’ve seen this trip women up on numerous occasions.
Okay, so I get it’s bad, but what can I do about it?
1) Name, and Reframe
If you’re reading this, you probably know that I am huge advocate of understanding, reframing and challenging the thought processes that keep you stuck.
The more you are aware of something, the greater the opportunity to change it.
Start to identify those perfectionist thoughts that typically bubble away under the surface.
These often manifest themselves in words like ‘should’, ‘must’, ‘can’t’ and ‘don’t’, ‘never’. For example:
‘I can’t do it in that amount of time.’
‘They never do it right!’
‘I must make sure that everything’s totally in order before X happens’
Ask yourself what triggers these thoughts? When do they occur? How do they make you feel? What behaviours do they instigate?
Write it down so you don’t forget.
After a while, you will become acutely aware of the main triggers and patterns of your perfectionism.
Now start to switch it and reframe it. What happens if you tell yourself you can? What happens if you give others the scope to step up or step in? What opportunities are there in that?
2) Take a reality check
It’s easy to get lost in our own perfectionism. it totally distorts your picture of what ‘normal’ or ‘acceptable’ might look like.
When I was at the start of my own business journey, I recall my coach recoiling in horror at how long it took me to plan each social media post. It was a real wake-up call when she said, ‘they’re good, but they’re not that good – and nor do they need to be!’. Once I realised how quickly she worked – and I knew how effective her own posts were – it triggered me to changed my working pattern entirely.
Sometimes, a shift in perspective can give you the shake that you need. So, ask your friends, colleagues and connections what normal looks like for them. How do they feel when things aren’t perfect? Do they still accomplish what they want? How do they react if things go wrong?
Then contrast that to your own thoughts and behaviour. What works? What stands in your way? What can you learn? What are the costs and benefits of a trying different approach?
3) Test and learn
I’ve spent many years working in research, so it’s no surprise that I advocate experimenting. Experimentation is a crucial step to overcoming perfectionism.
Based on what you’ve learned from your reality check, you need to try out new ways of doing things.
· Test and learn.
· Implement and tweak.
How did it feel to bosh out a week’s worth of post in half the time? Did you make a grammatical error? If so, did anybody point it out? Did the effect of that outweigh the additional time you gained? What could you do with that time in future?
How did it feel only tidying up after the kids once per day rather than constantly battling to stay tidy? What was the more effective strategy? How did those around you react to you letting go? What really happens if you allow the kids to do certain jobs? What happens if you resist the urge redo their efforts?
4) Let it Go!
Now, I’m not denying that the above steps will feel uncomfortable, but that discomfort is a positive thing. Allowing yourself to let go and just feel those emotions is a vital part of the process.
Even if you can’t let go entirely, building up the length of time between experiencing those negative emotions and acting upon them gradually increases your tolerance. It enables you to understand that the negative effects and feelings are rarely as acute in reality as they are in your head. The consequences are smaller.
It also helps you gain some much-needed perspective. Things will be okay. Of course, they might not be perfect, but most of the time, that’s totally fine.
Did you know that each and every Persian rug has a unique hand-crafted flaw woven into it?
Because humans aren’t perfect. We’re simply not designed that way. Our beauty lies in our individuality. Embrace it.
You are imperfectly perfect just as you are.
P.S. Have you joined my free community 'The Confidence Build for Women'? If not, click here see you there!