Like millions around the world, I caught World Cup fever. Watching the best of the best compete stirs up our own drive for excellence. You don't have to play team sports to know that winning is the biggest high, and if you love chasing after it, some experts might call that an addiction. That addiction has a name, and its name is perfectionism.
Society has a grudging admiration for addicts like you. Charlie Chaplin made his actor perform 342 takes on one scene in the 1932 film City Lights.
Apple Founder Steve Jobs refused to buy furniture because none met his ideal. According to his biographer Walter Isaacson, Jobs deliberated on his decision for eight years. It would appear Jobs applied the same stringent deliberation to the mundane tasks of picking out furniture and washing machines as he did in building his empire.
Because society applauds your high standards of excellence, you become even more invested in your quest for perfection. You never questioned its logic. Why would you?
Well, for starters, your perfectionism is keeping you from being perfect.
If you're skeptical, maybe perfectionism has worked well for you; you believed it to be the engine that fueled your success. Researchers; however, say there is a clear difference between healthy striving and perfectionism.
Before we go further, let's first be clear about what perfectionism is or isn't.
What is perfectionism?
According to Brené Brown, researcher and author of the Gifts of Imperfection:
Perfectionism is a self-destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought: If I look perfect, live perfectly, and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of shame, judgment and blame.
Perfectionism is an addiction because you don't stop to question its faulty logic. It's unattainable yet you strive for it. It makes you think you are in control; only it's the one driving you.
What perfectionism is not
Perfectionism is not the same as self-improvement or wanting to be your best. Perfectionism is about managing your reputation, and what Brown calls "other-focused" rather than "self-focused." You are motivated by the desire to please others rather than self.
Why perfectionism makes you less than perfect:
An addiction that leads to other addictions. The downside to any addiction are risks to your physical and mental health, and perfectionism affects both. Physical exhaustion and burnout are common. Brown cites depression and anxiety. If you self-medicate, perfectionism becomes an addiction that leads to other forms of addiction.
Life paralysis. Life paralysis, says Brown, are "all of the opportunities we miss because we're too afraid to put anything out in the world that could be imperfect." When you never want to make a mistake, risk failing or disappoint anyone, you're paralyzed by your impossibly high standards. So then you play it safe or you put things off.
You are in danger of being a tweaker and not an innovator. If you always have to have it perfect, your vision as a leader is narrow. You may find yourself endlessly refining the same territory rather than introducing anything new. You create a climate of fear in your organization, and fear stifles innovation. Your people are afraid to take risks for fear of making mistakes because their efforts would be viewed as failures, and they won't ask for help because it would be seen as weakness.
Spin sucks. If you're a perfectionist, you are your own spin doctor. Perfectionism is about being perceived as perfect. Since you cannot control other's people perception, perfection then is simply unattainable. When things don't go as planned, you tend to turn the focus inward. You tell yourself you're not good enough so you strive even harder, going deeper into the addiction. Spin sucks the life out of you.
No one can relate to you. Brown calls perfectionism a shield. It's near impossible to obtain someone's loyalty and trust if they cannot relate to you as a human being. Think of the character "House" from the hit TV show. He's a genius but his abrasive, brutish manner is not one that inspires trust and loyalty. And great leaders know the value of both.
What to do about it
If you're a perfectionist, chances are you won't ask for help because you don't want to come across as weak. But since you read this far, you must have recognized that you need a new way of doing things. Start with these:
Cut yourself some slack. Self-compassion is kryptonite to perfectionism. According to Dr. Kristin Neff, a researcher and professor who studies self-compassion at the University of Texas at Austin, the practice of self-compassion allows you to give yourself the same understanding and kindness you so willingly give to others. You will be less likely to judge yourself harshly when you fail or make mistakes.
Weigh the risks. Perfectionists are often risk-averse and knowing this easy three-step risk management practice goes a long way.
1. First, identify the risk.
2. Next, assess. What do you have to gain or lose by not making a decision because of your wanting more detail, time or information? What do you have to lose in terms of opportunity costs when you don't finish or start something?
3. Third, mitigate. If things don't go as plan, what is your contingency plan? What is your exit strategy? That's risk management in a nutshell. Take it from a former risk manager; this simple three-step process ends procrastination.
Treat yourself like a toddler. If you ever spoke to a toddler, chances are that you exercise a great deal of patience and gentleness, and you fuss over what little progress they made. Apply the same mindset to your internal dialogue.
Quit being a teacher's pet. Many of us never outgrew our people-pleasing ways. As Brown points out, "Perfectionism is, at its core, about trying to earn approval and acceptance. Most perfectionists were raised being praised for achievement and performance. Somewhere along the way, we adopt this dangerous and debilitating belief system: I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it."
Put your brain on a witness stand. Play skeptic to your self-talk. Three questions to get at the heart of things: What am I ashamed of? Why am I judging myself? Why am I blaming myself?
Just know that habits take time. But the work is worth it. Letting go of your perfectionism allows you to be truly perfect at one thing that is attainable -- being a perfectly imperfect human being.
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