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Of Perfectionism and Other Demons

I didn’t know what perfectionism was when I was most struggling with it. I couldn’t see the signs, not to mention the possible ways to overcome it. Nobody ever told me “can’t you see that trying to do everything perfectly will not get you where you want?”

As I finished reading Andre Agassi’s autobiography Open, I’ve been thinking a lot about perfectionism and all the ways in which it manifests, like an invisible fence that prevents us from experiencing the world in all its abundance. When Brad Gilbert started to coach Agassi, he quickly realized that it was his perfectionistic tendency that led him to the inconsistent and unpredictable performance that became his signature during matches. He wanted to hit every ball perfectly, play every game perfectly, while losing unnecessary energy in the process. When it didn’t work out as expected, he was breaking and gave up.

Perfectionism can be rooted in our biology be part of our innate personality traits, but it is also strongly influenced by how our parents raised us. When we had a demanding parent who was always comparing us to others and expected us to perform better, we unconsciously internalized that behavior. It’s equally dangerous when our parents continuously praised us, as a sign of being special and better than others. It becomes a label that we later struggle to maintain.

When I was in school, my perfectionist behavior showed up in two ways. I would either procrastinate until the last moment before a test or exam, fearing that despite all the effort, I was not smart enough to get a good grade anyway. Then I would get completely disappointed with myself and overwhelmed and would binge study the day before, with the result that I would feel insecure and extremely anxious during the actual exam.

Other times I would give 150% and put more effort in preparing than it was actually needed, while completely ignoring my wellbeing: no breaks, no water, no eating well and no caring for myself. If I was studying in the public library, I would get completely absorbed by the subject and felt that I needed to understand each additional reference and resource, so by the end of the day I was surrounded by a pile of books that were not even on the required curriculum. And when after investing such a disproportionate amount of effort, I was still not getting the grade I wanted, I just felt disappointed with myself and thought I hadn’t done enough.

If I could send a letter to my 20 year old self, it would be a very short one. “Stop trying to do everything perfectly. Focus on one thing at a time, take care of yourself and trust the process.”

Perfectionism comes from a sense that we’re not enough the way we are and that we have to prove to the outside world, that we are competent and worthy of love and acceptance.

The Many Faces of Perfectionism

There is this misconception that perfectionists are people who are obsessed with having everything well organized, planned to the last detail and executed perfectly. This would imply that perfectionists are actually getting tons of things done, while in reality, they get little done.

Perfectionism creates this huge gap between an idea and the standards in someone’s mind and the reality. Perfectionism comes in many different shapes and forms and it hides behind a wide range of behaviors.

1. Perfectionists have a fixed mindset and believe that mistakes and failures are dangerous as they will uncover their incompetence and lack of worthiness. Fear of failure paralyses the perfectionist and blocks any action to move forward. The anxiety that comes with the fear of failure actually makes many perfectionists under achievers. They do not realize that perfectionism blocks them from learning and further growing. As Brené Brown points out, perfectionism is not the same thing as striving for excellence. Perfectionism is not about healthy achievement and growth, but it’s a defensive move.

2. Perfectionists have an “all-or-none thinking”. They believe that the only valid achievement is when the outcome of their effort is 100%. A 99% equals failure. I remember when I was discussing with my change strategy coach about my effort to get into a daily habit of meditating and how disapointed I was that I had only managed to meditate 25 days instead of 30. To me, it was almost like a failure, while he told me: do you realize that you meditated 25 days in a month? That’s a great achievement. Perfectionists either see the glass full or the glass completely empty.

3. Perfectionists fear rejection and disapproval of others and through everything they do, they hope that if everything looks perfect, they will avoid being rejected. What they miss to understand is that by doing so, the one person they actually reject and disapprove, is themselves. If we can be compassionate, caring and accepting with others, we also need to learn to do the same with ourselves.

4. Perfectionists seek to constantly prove themselves and to earn the approval of others. They see external validation of their efforts as a token of worthiness and they end up doing what they do not because of their interest and intrinsic motivation, but to meet the expectations of others. This is a dangerous path that can lead not only to burnout, but to increased dissatisfaction, lack of energy and eventually living an unfulfilled life.

5. Perfectionists constantly compare themselves with others and set unrealistic standards for themselves. They believe that doing things perfectly is the only way to stand out, be noticed and appreciated by others. Numerous studies have shown that women are more likely to feel that they are not meeting the high standards set for themselves. As women wear more hats and juggle more roles, they have a higher tendency to expect doing everything perfectly in all those areas. And all that while looking good, rested and ready for an Instagram pose. Social media and society’s unrealistic expectations create an additional layer of complexity and pressure.

6. Perfectionists put more energy than necessary and tend to overcompensate, just to make sure everything will turn out perfect. This is again counter-productive because we don’t always need to give 150%, but instead preserve some energy for other creative activities. This tendency to do more than necessary is also the reason why perfectionist are often not the highest achievers. The ratio between effort invested and results obtained is disproportionate, hence they don’t get the best results.

Overachieving perfectionists will strive to do more and more, as the bar is continuously rising. They are not able to enjoy the process for the learning and fun it brings, but will be hyperfocused on the the outcome. They tell themselves, “I’ll be happy when I finish this one more thing”, without realizing that there will always be another “one more thing” to do. They we are self sabotaging themselves by not enjoying the moment.

7. Perfectionists are constantly organizing, overthinking and making lists, at the expense of actually doing what they need to do. They seek to be in control and get reassurance from others that a task has been done well enough and that all standards are met. In organizations, managers who are perfectionists tend to be micromanaging others, out of fear that they can lose control and end up looking bad in front of others. Needless to say, this is the worst type of boss one can have.

8. Perfectionists are top procrastinators and masters at avoiding any challenge that presents them with a risk of failure. They think “I will never be able to meet these expectations, so others will think I’m incompetent and a failure. But if I never start something, I cannot fail.”

The piece of advice that Brad Gilbert once gave Andre Agassi, is a good reminder that perfection is an illusion:

“When you chase perfection, when you make perfection the ultimate goal, do you know what you’re doing? You’re chasing something that doesn’t exist. You’re making everyone around you miserable. You’re making yourself miserable. Perfection? There’s about five times a year you wake up perfect, when you can’t lose to anybody, but it’s not those five times a year that make a tennis player. Or a human being, for that matter.”

Perfectionism is rooted in our deepest fears. The fear of rejection, the fear of failing, the fear of not being enough. But while being trapped in our fear mode, we forget to put in balance the consequences of non action. The opposite of avoiding a risk, is not being safe and happy. It’s failing to live your life to the fullest.

Overcoming Perfectionism. What Helps?

There are many things we can do to overcome our perfectionist tendencies and I am saying this as someone who’s a recovered perfectionist. As I navigated through life and career and accumulated more and more experiences, I embraced new roles with new standards and expectations. Instead of making choices and giving some things up, I thought I just needed to work harder and do more, so I could perform each of my role perfectly. I wanted to be the perfect manager, the perfect mother, the perfect partner, daughter and friend, while also taking up additional hobbies and things I liked to do. This came at a cost and that was my own mental and physical wellbeing.

The first step we can do is to acknowledge our perfectionist behavior and learn to accept the idea that we all come with our own package of imperfections.

Zoom Out

What helped me in this long process of recovery was to put all the areas of my life in perspective, decide what the top priorities were and clarify what mattered most for me in each area. Instead of trying to do everything, I started to eliminate some activities and focused on fewer areas that I valued most. It’s a process of editing and curating your own life choices and the truth is, eliminating is always more difficult than adding more stuff to your list.

By re-calibrating all areas of our life, self-care, work, relationships, family and hobbies, and resetting our standards, we have a more realistic view of what is possible to achieve. We need to ask ourselves “how do I measure achievement in this area?” How do I define being good enough? Once that measurement is set, track it regularly and take the time to celebrate the small wins.

Ask Yourself “What If?”

Whenever I am faced with a new challenge and my inner critic starts spreading self-doubt and telling me “you can’t handle this”, I remember this exercise from Tim Ferris, that he calls “Fear setting”.

You do this exercise with pen and paper, and you start by asking yourself “What if_____(insert your fear here)___” First you define your fear and think about all the things that can possibly go wrong, so it becomes clear what you actually fear.

Secondly, you start thinking about what you could do to prevent these worst case scenarios to happen.

Thirdly, in case the worst case scenario actually happens and you could not prevent it, you think about what you could do to repair it. Are there other people who maybe experienced that same problem and managed to overcome it?

Once you defined these 3 points, you continue by visualizing the benefits of partial success and lastly, you write down the cost of inaction. We are often scared that if we act, we might fail and a disaster will strike. But we sometimes forget that inaction has also a price, and with time, it might turn into a haunting regret.

“Hesitation is grounded in a sense of risk- a sense that a new move presents us with appaling dangers. But our inaction is not in itself cost free. In the wings, out of conscious awareness, there is something arguably far more frightening still than failure: the tragedy of wasting our lives.” The School of Life

Embrace a growth mindset

I have written often about growth mindset, because I truly believe that our attitude towards learning and growing is one of the cornerstones of a fullfulled life. When we embrace a growth mindset, we embrace the journey with all the obstacles that come up our way. We are not afraid of making mistakes, as mistakes are an integral part of the learning and development process.

When we have a growth mindset, we know that our intelligence and capabilities are not fixed, but they develop with every new experience and the effort we are investing. Effort is not a sign of incompetence, but a necessary element in the path to mastery. And the feedback we get from others, is not personal criticism, but an opportunity to learn and improve.

Pickup a Creative Hobby

From all the creative activities I practiced as hobbies throughout the years, writing helped me most in overcoming resistance and fear of failure. It wasn’t until I read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, that I started to realize how perfectionism overwhelms and paralyses us. I learned to let go and embrace the “shitty first draft”. I still have this quote written on a small post it in my wallet:

“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it”.

If doesn’t matter if it’s writing, drawing, juggling, cooking, playing music or just building random things, a creative activity will immerse you in a flow experience and will help you use your creative right brain more than your left one. Not only will it help you learn how to accept mistakes, but it will teach you how to love them as part of the process, while you’re still having fun.

Recognize Your Emotions

Self-awareness starts with the ability to recognize one’s emotions. Many of us have been raised by parents who were not very skilled at naming and talking about emotions. So our vocabulary is rather limited. If we want to be able to overcome our perfectionist tendencies, we need to learn how to identify and name our emotions, so we can recognize certain patterns in our behavior that trigger us. I use a simple emotions tracking template that helps me re-calibrate whenever I feel overwhelmed. You can download it here, or create your own customized version.

Think About Your Favorite Pet

In her book Big Feelings, Liz Fosslien remembers one of the first sessions with her therapist, when she was asked to describe an experience she enjoyed with a pet. She immediately remembered Sophie, the grumpy Persian cat of her boyfriend’s uncle. Although she was breathing loud and gave the impression that she was completely put off by the world around her, her mere presence, her warm furry little body purring, made her lovable and cute. The therapist pointed out “So she made you happy just by sitting next to you. She wasn’t cracking jokes or impressing you with her counterintuitive facts. She was just there, existing, and that was enough”.

How would it be if we could see ourselves in the same kind and loving way we see our favorite pet, without correlating its level of lovability to any achievement or performance? It makes us happy just by sitting next to us, existing. Wouldn’t that be liberating?

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