How Perfectionism Gets in the Way of Personal and Career Growth

failure, stressed woman, female leaderIn our modern world, it can seem that high paced action is rewarded. Do more. Be more. Get up at 5am. Fit five actions in before 8am. Be more creative. Buy a bigger house. Get the perfect life.

We Tweet the latest wisdom about getting enough sleep at 12:30am while catching up on the news of the day. We attend workshops on the latest tips for improving our focus with our devices set to silent yet still buzzing for attention.

Perfectionism, or as we call it at Heartstyles, Striving, is all about proving to the world that we’re ‘good enough’. But this also comes with a price and is also the path to stress, burnout, even depression. I call striving the evil twin of achieving. Of course, nothing about it is ‘evil’, but it does an excellent job of masquerading as achieving and then taking all of the joy and fulfilment out of accomplishment. When we’re striving, we are attached to how well things are done, or how good things look, or how good we look to support our self-worth and identity. Think of the military-precision organised linen cupboard with beautifully ironed sheets where no one allowed to mess up the order or just throw things on the shelf.

Striving can be so subtle to those of us in its grip that it can start making an appearance in our everyday life. For example, even when we are making a salad – having to have everything just so. Even worse, after letting someone else make the salad after they asked to help us, yet we continually tell them “you’re not doing it right!” We can suck the joy out of potentially lovely relationship time by being so focused on making sure a task is done just right (because our self-worth is attached to it), that we totally miss the moments of relationship with others who wanted to help out. Really, let’s face it: is the entire lunch going to be a disaster because Johnny cut the tomatoes for the salad in a different way than you would?

We set up a paradigm in which it is impossible to feel we’ve achieved something with excellence and feel positive about ourselves. The harder we go at something, the more emotionally invested we become, and become even more devastated if we fall short.

Many of us believe that without striving/perfectionism, we wouldn’t have the motivation to achieve excellence so we set ourselves impossibly high (and unrealistic) standards – oh and expect those for everyone else too. It just creates a damaging cycle.

It’s time to silence that inner critic that judges us to be less than we are – or at least prune it back! In reality, and if we’re honest with ourselves, that inner critic is a bit nuts – the great calamities it predicts don’t come to pass, yet we go round and round in those negative thoughts.

It’s time to silence our inner critic by moving into our authentic selves. It sounds easier said than done but it can be done with consistent, paced steps. The key to breaking out of the inner critic Striving loop is to focus on what we are doing well, rather than what we’re not accomplishing, and to believe we are enough without having to have the perfect outcome to prove it.

Try these steps.

  1. Every week for a month, challenge yourself to focus on one thing that you did well. It can be something big or something small (e.g. I asked Johnny to put away the towels in the linen cupboard, and I did not go in after him to straighten them up). It may sound funny, but that devious striving behaviour is sometimes hard to identify for the nasty little thing it is! It is critical and punishing, so it makes others feel not good enough too, and can cut to the heart. Allow yourself to congratulate yourself in just being who you are and the way you went about something – not necessarily the outcome/result. At the end of each week, debrief yourself: what were my praises and what could I learn from. What one thing will I do differently next week – set my goal.
  2. Practice gratitude for all the things in your life that allow you to grow – it will help you stop and smell the roses, not just rush by them in a sweat of stress. Make yourself a gratitude jar – get some lovely paper and make a note for each thing you’re grateful for every day. At the end of each week, take out a handful of notes and read through them. Allow yourself to recall the information on that note. Feel those good emotions flow through you.
  3. Practice the ‘5 Minute Beat-Up’. Be authentic with yourself when you’ve made a mistake, or realise you didn’t perform at your best. Ask yourself: “What is happening for me?” Do this when you’re alone so that you can focus and really answer the question. If your mind chatter begins to take you to a place of blame or attacks yourself or others, try to stop and refocus on your role in what happened and your thoughts and feelings about it. Admonish yourself if you need to but have a good wallow for five minutes only! But stop yourself at the five-minute mark! It’s about chipping away at the time you usually take to attack your worth or value. At the five-minute mark, or thereabouts, ask, “Now what am I going to do about it, and what can I learn from it?” This helps us remember that it’s about what I did, not who I am. The goal here is to acknowledge a mistake and then quickly move on to a place of positive action.

You, and everyone else around you, will be happier because of it, and your relationships will become more heart-felt. Prune that inner critic daily, and you’ll come up smelling like roses.

Mara KlemichAbout the author

Dr Mara Klemich is the co- founder of Heartstyles and co-author of ABOVE THE LINE: Living and Leading with Heart (Harper Business, January 2020). Mara is a consulting psychologist and she uses her grounding in neuroscience to inform her work as a facilitator. In the process she’s helped thousands of people gain a deeper understanding of their behaviours and better their lives.

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