The trap of perfectionism — and what you can do about it

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When you are an accomplished woman (as so many of my readers are), you are bound to find yourself dealing with perfectionism — and it may show up with great frequency. 

We feel pressured by the perceived expectations of others to be great — a great leader, consistently productive and efficient, to have an abundance of excellent ideas, to perform well at everything we do. This applies to work, being a parent, our exercise routines, our roles of spouse and friend — basically in every aspect of our lives. And, the truth is that we believe the expectations of other people are much higher than is often the case.

And, we set expectations for perfection ourselves. 

Why do we do that? 

Maybe we adopted the pressure to be perfect as a child, imparted by parents or teachers. We then generalized that everyone has those expectations of us, and have carried the weight of that misconception. 

Maybe we adopted the pressure out of a belief that we are deficient, and need to prove ourselves. And many believe perfectionism is the path to achieving big goals. What most often happens is that the stress of striving for perfection makes us stuck, or slide into procrastination. Thus, we don’t shine fully, or it takes longer to reach our goals. And sometimes we don’t ever them.

Can you relate?

Do you find that pressure to be perfect exhausting?

I often hear this stress expressed by my coaching clients and women I speak to, when they feel safe and open up to share how hard it is to live this way. It’s a challenge I know well, too — I was saddled with this self-imposed pressure for many years.

I also hear about an array of self-doubts that are tied to the endless attempts to be perfect. Many accomplished women feel like impostors, or not good enough or smart enough or talented enough. They see other impressive women and are sure those women don’t struggle as they do. With crazy-high standards for themselves, they tell themselves they are the only ones who can’t comfortably perform at amazing levels all the time. 

But it’s impossible to live up to a standard of perfection. Because none of us is perfect (even if it looks to us like some people are pretty darn close). Excellence is a wonderful objective, but nobody can achieve greatly all the time, or be great at everything. 

In fact, there is no such thing as perfect.

Perfectionism is one of the great myths, and it’s one that the Self-Critic loves to use as a tool of sabotage. Perfectionism puts our emotional well-being at risk, and it can negatively impact our physical health, too. 

So, what to do? How can you release the patterns and habits that are rooted in a drive to be perfect — and that you believe you need in order to be “successful”?

1. Start with self-love

I talk about the impact of self-love often — because it is so powerful. Here is how to put it to work to reduce perfectionism.

Begin by fully acknowledging and appreciating all of your talents and gifts. Own them with a full heart, without judgement, without looking at where they are limited. Focus on believing in yourself.

And then, forgive yourself for all the ways you are not “perfect”. Consciously start trying to let go of unrealistic expectations. Appreciate the efforts you put into things that matter, and release a sense of duty to do things that do not merit a super-high level of effort. And, be happy when you give your best shot to what does matter most — even when you don’t meet Nobel Prize-level standards! 

2. Take imperfect action

Perfectionism can inhibit us terribly, or even paralyze us. The second-guessing and fear that come up are huge blocks that keep your true talents from flowing. Perfectionism often leads to procrastination, which heaps on more stress. Taking action — without pressure — is a brilliant way to start, and to accomplish, in big ways.

It sounds counter-intuitive, but taking action with the objective of beginning imperfectly is a powerful way to do great things. Let me share an example of this concept and how it worked.

A client of mine was launching a new business and working to quickly get a simple website in place in time for a big opportunity. She knew she needed to write a short but powerful statement about the business, but was stuck. It felt daunting. It had to be great and she was intimidated.

Now, this client is a excellent writer, so her skill level was not the stumbling block. Her expectations for perfection were stopping her, even with a deadline looming. My advice to her was to begin by writing a shitty first draft — in fact, not one bad draft but at least three totally messy drafts. The assignment was to play with rough ideas, get lots of them down, and then begin to shape the statement from that material. The result was fantastic — and she was surprised at how fast she completed the work. She found the gems in her drafts and polished them, got feedback on a fresh draft, and tweaked it just a bit more. 

Best of all, she enjoyed the process, and was thrilled to get it done and onto the site.

Whether you are writing an article or a report, or planning a new initiative, or aiming to conceive of solutions to knotty problems, or learning a new skill, start with taking imperfect action. That imperfect, messy action gets momentum going, which means you’ll complete the work more quickly as you let your talents shine.

3. Make commitments to yourself

Anything we really want to do or accomplish entails commitment. In this case, the commitment begins with a focus on self-love in as many ways as you can think of. Commit to being alert to the sneaky ways that perfectionism shows up for you, so you can consciously respond differently. And, commit to talking imperfect action, and to taking a playful approach to start tackling the tasks at hand. And finally, commit to following through with your best efforts.

Your best efforts, consistently brought to each challenge, will lead to great outcomes — outcomes you can feel really good about. 

I welcome you to share your experiences related to perfectionism — from questions you have to ways you’ve been able to ease that pressure — in the comments below.