Three Things About Perfectionism I Wish I’d Learned Sooner
I’m a recovering perfectionist who can be quick to relapse, so I try to pay attention to how perfectionistic tendencies play out in our society, from work to parenting. You don’t have to look hard to see it: perfectionism is generally considered to be a side product of high achievement. Who hasn’t heard a perfectionist humble brag about how tough they are on themselves with such high standards? Most perfectionists are proud of being one. After all, they’re productive and get a lot done.
I heard writer Elizabeth Gilbert once say “perfectionism is just fear in really good shoes,” and it truly struck me. That sentiment is expanded in The Choice by Dr. Edith Eva Eger, an unforgettable memoir that spans Eger’s imprisonment in a Nazi concentration camp as a young teen to her success as a renowned psychologist into her 90s. Eger talks about her own struggle with perfectionism, and she describes it this way:
Perfectionism is the belief that something is broken – you. So you dress up your brokenness with degrees, achievements, accolades, pieces of paper, none of which can fix what you think you are fixing.
We see this playing out in our careers directly. Perfectionism may seem like a good thing on the outside, but it’s a way of covering up our deep-seated fear of not measuring up. Impostor syndrome is pervasive at all levels of position and success – just ask leadership coaches who see it every day.
Perfectionism may be a socially acceptable form of fear, but at the root of it all, it’s still fear. And no one is coming from a position of strength if they are coming from a place of fear. Fear actually narrows our field of vision and decreases our range of motion. We operate from a place of loss aversion and protection rather than creativity and innovation.
I’ve seen leaders open up when they are able to lose the need for perfectionism. Shifting one’s orientation from self-protection and defensiveness to confidence and openness can be transformational. How does it happen? First, we have to acknowledge that perfectionism isn’t a quality to be glamorized, but a harmful trait we need to debunk. Consider the following negative results of perfectionism, and how they undercut our true goals.
Perfectionism limits growth.
In order to maintain a facade of perfection, we often avoid making decisions that could jeopardize our success. The safe option becomes the only option.
But risk-taking is critical to our personal growth. “It is only through taking risks that we can reach our extraordinary potential,” writes Stephanie Harrison, an expert on well-being. “Risks are what help us to grow and evolve, to expand past our existing boundaries and to learn new things. Each of these outcomes expands our strength of character, the richness of our life and the depth of our experience.”
Ultimately, being a perfectionist often restricts our growth as leaders. We mistakenly think that being open to feedback and admitting mistakes is a sign of weakness, so we project omniscience even when we aren’t sure of something. We stifle opportunities for learning because we want to stay in comfortable territory.
If we’re not stretching, we’re not able to see what we’re capable of. Further, one of life’s ironies is that we grow the most from our missteps and failures. This doesn’t mean that shouldn’t strive to make good decisions. Rather, we can be aware that discomfort doesn’t automatically mean something is wrong. We can jump into the unknown and be assured that we’ll learn and grow from whatever happens on the other side.
Perfectionism makes you less likable.
We may strive for perfection as a way to project a version of our best selves. We want people to like or respect us. But perfectionism actually works directly against that goal.
People step closer to you if they can relate to you. How many people would feel comfortable revealing something difficult when the person sitting behind the desk seems to never show weakness? While you think that your perfectionism may be inspiring hard work or high standards in others, it undercuts trusting and open relationships.
Perfectionism creates guardedness in others. If we’re able to express our own challenges and struggles, then it helps others to take their own risks. If you find yourself in this trap, consider what perceived weaknesses or challenges are you holding back that might create a connection with others? Are there struggles or failures that you tend to downplay that others might share?
We’re better role models when people can identify with us, and that requires authenticity.
Perfectionism is unhealthy.
Despite its negative impacts, perfectionism is on the rise. Children as young as 8 complain of anxiety and stress from their performance, and researchers see the behavior endemic in adults.
Not all striving is perfectionism. You can hold yourself to high standards but also be forgiving of mistakes. Maladaptive perfectionism develops when we blame and shame ourselves for mistakes and place our self-worth on our achievements. This can lead to stress, depression, anxiety and even suicidal ideation. Some research has suggested that perfectionists die at earlier ages.
Again, rather than perfectionism being an ideal state for success, it’s robbing us of having a well-rounded, enjoyable life. The more we can learn to value our effort, hard work, and broader measures of success, the healthier we can be. If we put our focus on excellence as an expression of our gifts, and mistakes an opportunity for growth, we give ourselves permission to explore what gives our life true meaning.
As Dr. Edith Eger puts it: “Only I can do what I can do the way I can do it.” Let that, not perfection, be our guiding principle.
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