Released from the “perfectionism trap”

How many of you have agonized relentlessly over a piece of work, just to nip it in the bud because it’s “not ready yet” or “not good enough”? Or prevented yourself from going after an opportunity, be it a dream job or a project, because you don’t meet all of the criteria, and what if you fail? 

If you, like me, get stuck in procrastination, stall on getting started whilst you do your ‘research’, re-do the same piece of work relentlessly, or get into analysis-paralysis before making a decision, let me tell you something – it is not because you have high standardsIn fact, it is quite the opposite. 

Whilst striving for high quality work and aiming for excellence are expressions of a healthy drive, there is a very fine line between having high standards and self-sabotage. Throughout my career (and life in general) I have had a very unhealthy relationship with failure, I avoided making mistakes at all costs and linked it to my self-worth when I fell short of my own expectation. 

I finally broke my perfectionism pattern after being exposed to the “scrappy culture” in my latest HR job. When my manager called a Leadership Team meeting and asked me to present an unfinished piece of work, I broke out in cold sweat. My manager responded to my protests and objections with “Embrace the scrappiness, it doesn’t matter that it’s not finished, let’s get some feedback and refine”. Turns out the Leadership Team was much more forgiving that I was towards myself, and my journey to releasing myself from the grasp of the “perfectionist trap” has begun. 

The paradox of perfectionism

According to the Centre for Clinical Interventions in Western Australia, perfectionism typically involves three elements: 1) relentless striving for extremely high standards for yourself and/or others; 2)  judging your self-worth based on ability to achieve such unrelenting standards; 3) experiencing negative consequences of setting such demanding standards.

The very idea of perfectionism is paradoxical as it involves striving towards a subjective standard of perfection based on an assumption that somehow we can control and truly understand other people’s perception!

Perfectionism is a double-edged sword, on one hand it represents pursuit of excellence and achievement as a way of gaining recognition and building a sense of self-worth, on the other it can actually stand in the way of progress and self-actualisation as we stall and agonize over impossible standards we set for ourselves. 

People equate perfectionism with having high standards, the truth is: it is the lowest standard you can have! Perfectionism can lead to life paralysis and feeds inertia as it prevents us from taking risks, making mistakes, showing up vulnerably, all of which are natural elements of progress and learning! It’s the lowest standard, because you don’t get anything done! “It’s not ready yet”, “I need to do more research”, “It’s not good enough yet”, sounds familiar? 

Perfectionism is not a trait you either have or you don’t, it is a belief system whereby we attach our sense of self-worth and value to the perceived quality of our work and the achievement of self-imposed high performance bar. Perfectionists tend to (sub-consciously) believe that if the work they produce is impeccable, they will be more respected, accepted, and maybe even loved. They define their own identity based on their achievements and accolades they receive. And as such, perfectionism is a protection mechanism against judgment, rejection, and shame and it can be self-defeating

Whilst it is often dressed as a virtue, perfectionism goes hand in hand with self-criticism, and judging yourself based on an ability to meet an impossible standard. The excessive strive to prove yourself can be self-defeating and the pressure associated with the constant strive to be perfect can lead to feeling exhausted and stressed out. It can eventually negatively impact mental health and lead to social isolation, frustration, persistent sense of failure, even anxiety and depression. What does not help is the socially prescribed perfectionism, in an increasingly competitive economy and access to comparative ‘successes’ of others through a highlight reel on social media. Giving in to perfectionism means letting the fear run the show. 

Imperfect action trumps inaction any day! 

So now that you know that you might be in a perfectionism trap, how do you get yourself out of it? The overarching attitude you need to adopt when attempting to change your perfectionist tendencies, is that of self-compassion. It takes practice, and do not expect yourself to get it right on the first go! 

Brene Brown calls out three essential ingredients of embracing your imperfections: courage, compassion, and connection. Amazingly, these also become the gifts of imperfection, as by practicing these, you breed even more of the same: courage, compassion, and connection! Here are a few strategies I suggest you try (imperfectly):

1/ Acknowledge it takes courage and vulnerability to let go of perfectionism, and it does not mean the absence of fear, but taking imperfect action and allowing others see your vulnerabilities despite the fear! Courage breeds courage, start small and you will be amazed at how much easier the ‘bigger stuff’ becomes! It’s like a muscle, you have to work it! 

2/ Be kind to yourself, the very premise of perfectionism is “all or nothing” thinking, and so it is important to practice self-compassion as you learn this and do not give up if you slip. It’s okay to recommit. Cultivate self-trust and kindness. 

3/ Share how you feel with someone you trust, and you will be surprised how many people will relate to your experience! Sharing your vulnerability allows others to do the same, and makes you more authentic and relatable! It breeds connection, and gives you an opportunity to get honest feedback from someone you trust. 

4/ Make progress your goal, rather than perfection. Lower the bar for entry and just start, give yourself permission to mess it up and iterate as you go. Perfectionist tendencies are a perfect ingredient for inertia, remember that imperfect action trumps inaction every time as it means you are moving towards your goal! The only way to get better at something is by trial an error, and mistakes are part of the learning process. 

Thomas Edison’s approach towards failure is worth modelling, it took him 1000 attempts to finally get the lightbulb and his perspective was: “I have not failed, I have found 1000 ways this doesn’t work”Make “done is better than perfect” your new mantra!

5/ Calibrate your standards and challenge some of the rules and assumptions you have about perfectionism. Can you really control how others perceive your work? Will it really mean you are a failure if you don’t get a 100% on a test? Is there more than one way to get this done? Are others really going to reject you if you make a mistake? Question whether the assumptions you have are really true, and recognize negative consequences this absolute thinking had in the past. 

6/ Separate your identity from your achievements and perceptions of others. People are not their behaviours, and making a mistake does not mean you are a failure, but rather your actions are a learning opportunity to avoid the same mistakes in the future. Your sense of self-worth should not depend on your marks, impeccable appearance, or cleanliness of your home, but rather your internal qualities and how you make other people feel. 

7/ Get clear on your values, once you know what values drive your thinking and behaviour and which values you want to continue experiencing on a consistent basis, it’s easier to make decisions in alignment with that. Ask yourself, would you rather value learning and growth or fitting in? Fitting in is different to belonging as belonging does not require altering yourself and hiding imperfections, but rather being accepted as you are, flaws and all. 

So go out there, take imperfect action and start living the life where failure is feedback and an impetus for growth! For now, let me leave you with a quote:

“Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy.”

―Dale Carnegie

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