High standards are helpful — except when they’re emotionally crippling and stunt our growth…
As a (partially) recovered perfectionist and coach to high achievers, this is a topic I know all too well. Here are 5 ways to replace perfectionism with healthier forms of striving. Embodying these and routinely practicing them in your work life will go a long way toward eliminating this exhausting and self-defeating pattern.
- Celebrate and reward your progress. Perfectionism is “never enough” and “never done,” so celebrating in a heartfelt way — gasp, even before you’re finished! — breaks up the pattern. Simply taking a moment to stop and smell the roses can be enough to remind you to come from a place of “enough” versus always running at a deficit. For larger achievements, ramp up to larger celebrations and rewards to reinforce yourself. And if you’re someone who’s more prone to self flagellation, no, it won’t tank your motivation. It will help it long-term, it’s just a different skill set. I have a lot of coaching clients who resist this at first or feel awkward about it — they’re the ones who need it most. Treat yourself with healthy, wholesome rewards aligned with your values (a cup of herbal tea, an extra hug, a post COVID-pocalyse social gathering).
- Throw the shoulds out the window. Perfectionism-prone people play by stringent rules. These rules may be reflective of their genuine values and independently formed beliefs, but usually they’ve been socialized without conscious awareness or permission. When you noticing yourself in a right/wrong or should/shouldn’t cycle, thank it for its righteous intentions and gently set it aside. Or write it down on a post-it note/electronic stickie and trash it (or mentally litter by throwing it out the window). I’ve found that while people love and benefit from a good fist shake at their disempowering patterns at first, a softer, more joyful approach is most useful long-term.
- Highlight what you did well or what you appreciate about your work. For perfectionists, focusing on the flaws usually leads to only incremental improvements, because the quality is already good. It’s the same idea as 80/20. Amplifying strengths and positives in the long-term is more motivating, efficient, and stimulates more creativity and thinking out of the box than constant critiquing, for example applying strengths or advantages of an approach to different problems and topics. It’s a lot harder and more valuable in my opinion to come up with a good idea than to critique an imperfect one.
- Create standards based on your personal values or core desired feelings. This is a two-step process. First, identify what your values or core desired feelings are to begin with (you will likely need some support for this). Doing so ensures they’re meaty and meaningful versus being about looking good. Then create measurable, specific goals aligned with those values or feelings (or update your current goals). You might be more inclined to start with Step 2 and validate it against the value/feeling desired, depending on how you operate. Core desired feelings is a concept I borrowed from Danielle LaPorte and are a more experiential, ethereal take on values and character traits.
- Challenge fears of failure with supportive stretch goals or learning goals (and give yourself a break). The worst kind of motivation performance and well-being wise is something known as “performance avoid” motivation, which is essentially motivation to avoid failure or perception of incompetence. In addition to hurting performance and feeling generally unpleasant, this kind of motivation will usually keep you in a relatively small comfort zone. Supportive stretch goals and learning goals encourage you to take risks. The former may actually exacerbate perfectionist patterns at first so it’s important for you to keep the big picture in mind (e.g. see #4).
As Brené Brown highlights in Daring Greatly, perfectionism is about what other people think, where striving for excellence is striving to be one’s best. Excellence is empowering. Perfectionism? Not so much. And in a very messy and complex world, “perfection” isn’t what inspires us or creates change. Excellence does.
Want to create a work life that works for you? Check out my services at caseyonder.com.