How to Curb Toxic Perfectionism
I’m a recovering perfectionist. It’s true. In high school I was known to stay up until 2 am doing homework, dreading the prospect of turning in anything less than my absolute best. In college that turned into pulling all-nighters. And when I started my own business, especially one as personal as Bossed Up, my work product felt like a personal reflection of who I am.
But my work isn’t my worth. I’ve had to learn that over the years in order to free myself from the perils of perfectionism, which make you less willing to try new things, experiment, and frankly, grow!
I sat down with Bossed Up Trainer Team member and career coach Lisa Lewis, who knows a thing or two about helping her clients shift gears from compulsive perfectionistic behaviors to healthy striving instead.
Emilie Aries: How can you tell the difference between working hard and taking pride in your efforts versus being a perfectionist?
Lisa Lewis: You’ll know the difference between being a hard worker and being a perfectionist by the presence of two things: a level of “enough-ness” in your work product, and compassion towards yourself.
If you can work your booty off to do a great job and step away from the work feeling satisfied — and can also be gentle with yourself about the potential imperfections that may still have slipped through — you’re a hard worker. But if you beat yourself up because you’re trying to achieve robot-levels of perfection, you’re not in the healthy zone anymore.
Hard workers can step away from their end product and be satisfied with their accomplishments. Perfectionists tend to hold themselves to such high standards that they’ll never get there. So they feel a looming sense of dissatisfaction, anxiety, disappointment, or anger at themselves even when they’ve given their best effort.
Emilie: Do women and girls struggle with perfectionism more than men and boys? If so, why do you think that is?
Lisa: The research from the last 20 years around perfectionism and gender identity is fascinating. Study participants identifying as female show consistently higher levels of stress, conscientiousness and perfectionistic behaviors than men. So on average, the data indicates that it isn’t all in our heads: women really do struggle more with perfectionism than men.
From either the way our genes are encoded or the way that women are socialized, we’re very sensitive to what others are thinking, which might be why we create a critical voice inside of us that demands impossibly high performance standards and creates the stress that’s a hallmark of perfectionism.
It’s also probably why other issues that show up for women more than men are related to how we’re perceived by others: eating disorders, procrastination, lack of self-confidence, depression, and anxiety.
Emilie: As a habitual overachiever myself, I used to feel like perfectionism was a harmless, victimless crime. But what are the risks of always striving for perfect?
Lisa: I hear you! But striving for perfect absolutely comes at a personal cost: it makes it harder to be satisfied with your work product (or even yourself)! That means that your baseline happiness on a daily basis is starting from a lower place. And, in order to bring your happiness back up where you want it, society doesn’t give you a whole lot of great options outside of your own brain: you might turn to less-healthy ways to comfort yourself like food, substance abuse, or compulsive over-exercising to get the endorphin hit you need to feel happier.
And perfectionism isn’t a victimless crime, either! When your first response to someone complimenting your work is, “Well, I messed up XYZ,” you’re taking someone’s attempt to create connection with you and telling them that their opinion is wrong. Do that enough, and you’re bound to create distance and separation from coworkers, friends, and family. Which then leads to feeling isolated, not valued, and can spiral into anxiety and depression.
Emilie: How can you begin to overcome perfectionism?
Lisa: You can often tell a perfectionist from their black-and-white, all-or-nothing thinking, so it’s easy to assume that if you’ve fallen victim to perfectionist thoughts once, you’re a lost cause. However, overcoming the debilitating parts of perfectionism is possible! It’s a bit like developing a new muscle at the gym, so imagine that your brain’s new workout regimen involves practice with lifting new mental weights. Retraining habitual thought patterns isn’t always quick, but the results can be totally profound.
To start, we have to remember that your perfectionism and super high standards are a product of your integrity — which we want you to keep! However, we want your instinct towards integrity to be in check with reality, too. So the first step to developing new thought patterns is to acknowledge that when striving for success starts to spiral out of control, it’s coming from a good place. You can be kind to yourself about it! Perfectionists are great at being mad at themselves about imperfections, so we have to start from a place that isn’t angry to be able to change things.
Once you notice your perfectionism is going into overdrive, your next step is to say: if anyone else was working on this, has the work already been done to a reasonably high standard here? (This is where we’re inviting reality to be a part of the conversation.) This is a great place to ask a friend, coworker, or supervisor if you don’t feel like you can trust your brain. This is exactly the time when you can learn to take a compliment: if your boss says it’s great as it is, believe them!
Another place perfectionism can crop up is in preventing you from starting something new, because you’re afraid you won’t do it perfectly. This is a great place to invite reality into the conversation: would it be realistic (or fair) to expect anyone else on the planet to start this new project and do it without making a single mistake? If not, you can adopt a “beginner mindset” and look for ways that you can treat your new project as an opportunity for growth and learning rather than a place to have to hit certain performance standards.
The more ways you allow yourself to play and explore, the more you’ll move past the paralysis that perfectionism often creates.
Emilie: What does healthy striving look like in contrast to perfectionism?
Lisa: The two things that are hallmarks of hard workers who don’t wrestle with perfectionism are having a point of “enough-ness,” and giving themselves compassion. Those are great starting points to develop a healthier sense of achievement. When you start a new project, make a decision before you begin about what constitutes “enough” for you. Is it a certain amount of time invested? A specific number of rounds of edits? A particular type of feedback? A budget? Create boundaries about how far a project can expand before you call it a day and step away from the work.
Then, once you lay out your boundaries for when enough is enough, you’ve gotta extend yourself some grace. Boundaries are only effective if they’re enforced, and they can only be enforced if you give yourself permission to quit (and compassion when you do). So let yourself do the best you can within the constraints you laid out, and then call it a day. Pat yourself on the back for what you did, and give yourself some sympathy for what you weren’t able to do.
Let yourself learn from these lessons for next time, instead of obsessing over applying these lessons now and burning yourself out. Remember: this is all a practiced skill, so you won’t get it 100% right 100% of the time. (I know, it’s a perfectionist’s nightmare!) But the road to perfectionism recovery is paved with extending yourself lots of empathy and understanding.
Do you struggle with perfectionism?
How can you shift your approach towards healthy striving instead? Share your experience in the comments below, boss! And learn more from Lisa Lewis at LisaLewisCareers.com
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