I was recently invited to sit on a panel of organization leaders to share stories about our career journeys. In preparing for the panel, I realized I’ve had a lot of meaningful experiences during my career, but one moment in particular struck me as being key to unlocking my leadership potential – becoming conscious of my tendency towards perfectionism. As I shared this insight with the audience, many heads nodded. I don’t think I’m alone in this experience.
I’ve always been a hard worker. In high school, I was a straight A student and valedictorian. But when I got to college, I suddenly found myself failing freshman calculus. I was horrified and full of shame. Determined, I re-read the entire textbook and worked through every single exercise until I got it right. I managed to get an A on the final exam, which brought my grade up to a C. I re-took the class the next term and got an A, which replaced the C on my school record. That first college semester, my reputation felt at stake. I feared that others might see me as an imposter, this black gay kid masquerading as smart, so I doubled down on being perfect. I got hooked into this over-achieving. It got me through college and graduate school with high marks, but its consequences stacked up over-time and its usefulness soon wore out.
What is perfectionism?
The most common definition of perfectionism is the need to be perfect, or the desire to appear that way. While it might seem a common trait, the causes and implications of perfectionism are complex. The desire to be “perfect” can be a competitive motivator or a slippery and self-destructive slope.
In her book, Never Good Enough, author Monica Ramirez Basco describes two types of perfectionism, inward and outward facing. She writes:
- “Inwardly focused perfectionists struggle with the idea that they or their ideas are not good enough. Although they seem successful to others, deep down inside, they think there’s something wrong with them, that they’re flawed. They tend to hide what they believe are their incompetencies by working very hard, but still fear that at some point someone will figure out that they are not what they seem to be.”
- “Outwardly focused perfectionists are frustrated by the way that others seem to do their jobs. In their opinion, people around them neither care about doing a good job, nor take pride in their performance. Sometimes these perfectionists feel that they would be better off doing a job themselves rather than having to clean up after someone else.”
Many people express both types of perfectionism, depending upon the situation or context. To the average observer, this might simply appear as a pursuit of excellence. But both types of perfectionists can suffer a great deal and cause loved ones and co-workers to suffer as well.
My flavor of perfectionism
I am an inwardly focused perfectionist; my critic is largely focused on myself. On a good day, my perfectionism produces innovation, creativity, an elevation of beauty and exquisiteness and an inspiration for others to reach higher. I push myself hard and the results are often notable.
However, on a bad day, my perfectionism turns into an obsession over details, nit-picking, self-criticism and self-doubt, setting ridiculously high standards and not being able to accept “good enough” in myself or others. I find myself in the grip of hyper-vigilance, over-sensitive to what “might” go wrong and who might criticize me. When this occurs, I am constantly filled with worry and cannot quiet my anxious mind.
To make matters worse, my “bad day” behavior leads me to feel even less perfect.
Everything begins to look like a potential catastrophe and this thinking feeds a quick slide into a negative feedback loop where I can never win. Learning how to “catch” myself at the top of that slope has been essential to my health and career growth.
I was forced to face the negative consequences of perfectionism as I climbed the ranks in my career. As the stakes got higher, my desire to perform well got the best of me. I began to suffer under the pressure and realized that continued hard work could only get me so far. When my dentist recommended a mouth guard to prevent anxious teeth gnashing at night, I knew I needed help! It’s estimated that 15% of Americans experience similar stress and anxiety and make use of a nightguard. I am not alone.
For some, their bad days can lead to darker outcomes. In a 2007 study, researchers conducted interviews with the friends and family members of people who had recently taken their own lives. Without prompting, more than half of the deceased were described as “perfectionists” by their loved ones. Similarly, in a British study of students who committed suicide, 11 out of the 20 students were described as being afraid of failure. Perfectionism is a serious matter.
Learning to manage perfectionism
The weight of keeping up appearances and striving for perfection reached a point where the energy suck was just too great. In her best-selling book, The Gifts of Imperfection, Brené Brown writes that courage, compassion and connection are antidotes to perfectionism. I couldn’t agree more. Rooted in these three drivers, I’ve adopted the following mindfulness practices to help leverage perfectionism to my benefit:
- Increasing self-awareness. Understanding the source of my perfectionism has been essential. Where does this tendency come from? What is it serving? Seeking the help of workshops, books, counselors, coaches, friends and family has been necessary to answer these questions.
- Self-compassion. Seeing and appreciating who I am, as I am. Being kind to myself as I let go of being perfect and let others see the real me.
- Interrupt catastrophic thinking. Asking myself what is the worst that could happen! Amplify that thought multifold until the outcome is clearly preposterous.
- Re-framing. Accepting that my perception is not reality. Opening up to seeing the opposite of my version of reality and challenging my own mental models.
- Letting go. Acknowledging the noise in my head when I am in the grip of perfectionism, and letting it pass. Using mindfulness practices to help me get out of my head and into my body.
- Seeing life as an ongoing experiment. Practicing vulnerability by taking small risks and recalibrating my self-image based on the results.
- Seeking feedback. Seeking very specific feedback to prevent rumination over what I think went wrong.
- Improvisation. Practicing planning less, and being more open to the spontaneous moment. Learning to laugh at myself and take life less seriously! Taking part in improv workshops has been transformative for me.
- Trust. Trusting that I am enough and that more hard work will not always be necessary nor helpful.
- Letting friends in. Breaking the secrecy, letting others know of my perfectionist tendencies, and allowing them to help and support me… even laugh with me as I deal with it.
This is a practice.
Like any other commitment to personal growth and wellbeing, this is a practice that takes intention, patience, trust and long-term commitment. I will and have “fallen off the wagon” but accept this as part of the journey to enjoying life more. It is in the imperfection that I have learned what I am really made of and I can now appreciate the beauty in that ordinariness.
I will always be a perfectionist, but with mindful practice, I can manage to have more good days than bad ones and experience greater peace. You can too!