For a long time, I thought doing everything perfectly was the way to get on in life and in my career, but it turned out it held me back.
Early on in my career it helped my progression – management knowing they could trust me to do a fabulous job every time meant I was given more responsibility and I was rewarded with, you guessed it, more work! But it also meant working longer hours and juggling more. That was overwhelming.
Perfectionism can be a massive time zapper. Just making sure that font is right, that the labels are perfectly straight on your samples – these are all important skills to learn, but they all take up time. And I have lost count of the late nights I spent re-labelling product samples that weren’t quite perfect or just adjusting “one more thing” on a presentation.
What happens when you’re trying to juggle all the different projects that you need to be perfect at (whilst trying to juggle the perfect home life, have the perfect social life, be the perfect mum) is that you get stressed and overwhelmed. And when you get overwhelmed, you stop speaking up as much at work.
You want to keep your head down and get on with stuff and if you speak up, another project to perfect at will come your way. You also start to make mistakes (!) because you are trying to be superhuman and spoiler, it just isn’t sustainable.
The other thing perfectionism can do is create an inability to delegate (for fear that no-one can do it as perfectly as you can) which just perpetuates the overwhelm and frankly isn’t a very endearing leadership style (think micromanager!).
So, now you’re juggling everything, getting your head down, can’t ask for help and won’t delegate – you know what that is a recipe for? Burnout! (see my https://amywilkinsoncoaching.co.uk/2021/01/11/from-buzzing-to-burnt-out/ Buzzing to Burnout story and what happened to me)
The reality is there is no such thing as perfect in a world where everyone will interpret your work or what you have to say in a different way. So why do we do it?
Perfect, or just too afraid to drop the mask?
Perfectionists (me included) are often wearing a “perfect” mask. We were brought up to always “try harder”, “be the best you can be” and for a long time that worked. Our parents, care givers or teachers wanted us to do well, so they taught us how to always do better and we learnt to “put on a brave face” and continue being good (or trying our hardest) at everything.
This well-intentioned encouragement meant you may have excelled at school academically or you may have completely nailed an extra-curricular activity. More than likely if you’re reading this, you have learnt at some point in life that working hard and doing a really good job is super important. And it is… until it’s not.
Wearing the mask of perfect is tiring. But we are often too scared to drop the mask because we truly believe trying your hardest and being your best is what matters. It’s what makes us worthy and its what makes us likeable. And we want to be liked.
Perfectionism is linked to a fear of shame
The fear that is rooted in dropping that mask is shame. Remember that feeling when you were little and the other kids pointed at you because you said or did the wrong thing? That feeling is shame. And our fear of not being good enough and therefore trying hard for that to never happen again, it is rooted in that fear of shame.
I suffer with a chronic illness and for a long time I hid it at work, due to shame. I wore an “I’m Fine” mask every day (and a lot of make up on the bad days) but you know what? When I took that mask off and admitted to not being perfect, that is when the magic started to happen in my career. It helped others relate to me better and it helped them to open up too.
Turns out people often like you a bit more if you take off that mask and let them know you’re not perfect!
I still find letting go of perfect hard today (I put out a social media post today and the logo colours were all wrong, old me would have had a meltdown over that but I’ve let it go!) but I have found that doing so does lead to a lot more positives that it does negatives.
Letting go of perfect gives me:
- More time (which equals time to do fun stuff)
- More perspective (it turns out often – it really doesn’t matter)
- More contentment (it allows me to be more “me” and be ok with it)
- A better ability to learn from my mistakes and see failures as learning opportunities.
How to let go of perfect
I call myself a “recovering perfectionist” because I think like other habits and addictive behaviour it is something you constantly have to be aware of and manage. Here are some of the ways in which I manage my inner perfectionist:
- Start small but let little mistakes go:- you know the social media post that I let go out with the wrong brand colours on? I made a conscious decision in the moment I realised, to just let it go. The more you let some little things like this go (wrong font, misaligned text), the sooner you realise that it doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. Practice being imperfect, it makes it easier.
- Get some perspective: be it your line manager, colleague or friend – sometimes an outsiders view on how much effort versus reward you are putting into a project is really helpful. I had a great manager who recognised my perfectionism and encouraged me to do a 70% good enough job (in fact, she chastised me if I did more than that). Find the person you need to hold you accountable to letting go of perfect and talk to them!
- Change your mindset: There are lots of mantras out there that you can use to change your mindset from a “it has to be perfect” mindset to a “good enough is enough” mindset. If perfectionism leads to procrastination try “Done is better than perfect”. Or if you suffer with self-depreciation when you don’t nail perfect try “I am enough, just as I am”. Repeat these phrases in your head when that moment of shame, or fear of shame, kicks in
- Try something new: Perfectionists often don’t like to try new things because they need to be perfect at Day One. But that just isn’t realistic and as babies, if we hadn’t kept trying every time we fell over on our bums, we wouldn’t be walking today! So, try a new hobby, sign up for a new course and allow yourself not to be the best at it. This starts to teach you that the world doesn’t end if you don’t have it all figured out. It may even help with relieving some of the stress of perfectionism you are suffering elsewhere.
I work with women every day and see that their need to be perfect at certain things can often lead to stagnated careers. We have all heard the statistics that women will only go for a job if they are 100% sure they can do it (whereas men only need to be 60% sure). That’s not to say that if you are a man reading this, that perfectionism won’t be holding you back in some way.
What I do know is that just as it’s a behaviour we have learnt throughout our lives, it is one we can learn to let go of and free ourselves from. We have to start in a place where we recognise that striving to be perfect can have both up and downsides – and we have to commit to doing something about it.
If you would like more help on letting go of perfectionism, I offer 1:1 coaching. Book in a free, no obligation call with me using this link: https://outlook.office365.com/owa/calendar/AmyWilkinsonCoachingLtd1@amywilkinsoncoaching.co.uk/bookings/s/FLZp5r5vqEOw1aBFKRWBQg2