When high expectations are held of us from an early age we can start to nurture an internal drive to meet the standards set for us and feel chronically unhappy or dissatisfied if we don't achieve the level of success we set out to accomplish. This develops into perfectionism in adulthood and results in the relentless quest for excellence.
Although not all perfectionists are necessarily high achievers, perfectionism propels many people forward to push themselves in often unhealthy ways in personal, professional and sporting pursuits.
How to spot the signs of perfectionism
• You are highly critical of oneself and others
• You take criticism personally
• Often you set hugely ambitious goals and stop at nothing to achieve them
• If expectations are not exceeded or first-class results are not achieved, you feel empty or unsatisfied
• You are always moving the goal posts to go above and beyond targets
• It's difficult for you to open up and be completely authentic with others
• You set such high standards that consistent success becomes impossible to achieve, resulting in shame and guilt
• You lack patience
• You are a workaholic
Do any of those signs sound familiar to you?
Perfectionism can prevent you from following your true desires and keep you chained to your desk, working far longer hours than would be necessary if you were willing to take the pressure off yourself and accept things being completed when they are 'good enough'. Of course, there are times when paying incredible attention to detail is essential but investing that level of concentration to every project you work on leads to overwhelm and is not a sustainable strategy for success.
Perfectionism can prevent us from acknowledging the best in ourselves, because our attention becomes focused on overly obsessing with the worst in ourselves. As a result, perfectionists often beat themselves up with negative self-talk and self-defeating behaviour.
For some perfectionists, an overwhelming fear of failure can cause procrastination and result in risk-adversity. This inhibits self-esteem. It can lead to intense fear of rejection and of making mistakes. It can also result in all kinds of psychological, behavioural and physiological issues ranging from depression, withdrawal and chronic fatigue to eating disorders.
Fear of failure can result in indecisiveness and prevent people from moving forward, not just in their careers but in other areas of their lives too. When procrastination due to perfectionism perpetuates, it can lead to severe hoarding issues, time management problems, relationship ruptures, intimacy issues, excessive worry, and financial concerns.
Judy Hobbs, a former executive for a global tax, auditing, and advisory firm, felt that fear of failure that had held her back from following her true passions and starting her own holistic healthcare business. She also identified that perfectionist tendencies had caused her to push herself since she was a child. In her career she had felt so unfulfilled that she began to experience each day a continuous uphill struggle to keep going.
Eventually Judy burned out. When she approached me about working together she said she was experiencing an 'identity crisis'. She had spent the previous 6 months signed off sick from work. When she described what had been going on over the past few years she highlighted excessively exercising to help her switch off. "I used to run until I was too tired to think" she told me. Surviving on just 4 hours of sleep per night, she eventually became so physically and emotionally exhausted that she lost all confidence and felt "helpless and hopeless".
I helped Judy uncover the root cause thinking behind her fear of making mistakes so that she could permit herself to follow her heart and re-adjust her approach to risk taking. Now Judy has completely transformed the way she approaches exercise, relationships, and work. She is running her own business and says she can "barely contain her excitement" because she is so "upbeat and motivated". She has released her fear of failure and says her new favourite quote is:
"I've learned so much from my mistakes... I'm thinking of making some more." Cheryl Cole
If you struggle to take action for fear of 'getting it wrong', producing 'average' results, or appearing a fool, practice becoming an imperfectionist by allowing yourself to do something 'good enough'.
Getting something done is better than getting nothing done. Give yourself permission to lower the bar and allow for mistake making.
Wherever possible practice patience instead of perfectionism. Remind yourself daily that great things can be achieved by taking small steps, making mistakes, permitting playfulness, indulging in your passions, and allowing for rest and relaxation along the way.