Everyone wants to do well at work. We all want to perform at our best, growing and achieving in our careers. However, according to Katie Rasmussen, a researcher at West Virginia University, over 40% of the population turns this desire for growth into a career-limiting characteristic – a characteristic that can begin in childhood. While there’s nothing wrong with most career ambitions, safely expressed and pursued, a certain personality trait can stop you in your tracks. It’s a trait that can torpedo your career, crush your relationships and bring a steady stream of struggle and frustration. In fact, Harvard Business Review says that this quality might be the cause of increased mental illness, brooding and anxiety. And it’s not just because of the pandemic.
When the desire for achievement morphs into the pursuit of perfection, there’s a dangerous self-deception at work. Namely, that perfection is attainable. Perfectionism, according to HBR, is a misleading trait. Many believe that holding yourself to an impossible standard delivers motivation and performance, but research shows the opposite is true. The desire for perfection is a source of frustration, indignation, and stagnation for many. Here’s how to break free from the shackles of perfectionism, one imperfect step at a time.
- Revise Expectations: when your happiness relies on your own perfection, suffering is often the result. The world is full of imperfections – and so are we. But the perfectionist sees the world not as it is, but as an “all or nothing” binary place where happiness and disaster are the only options. “There are studies that suggest that the higher the perfectionism is, the more psychological disorders you’re going to suffer,” according to Sarah Egan, a researcher from Curtin University in Perth, Australia. When your standards are based on a misunderstanding (people can be consistently perfect and so you should be to0) suffering is your destination. Disguised as “working hard” or “striving for success”, perfectionism creates unrealistic standards that go beyond being diligent. Andrew Hill, a professor at York St. John’s University in the UK, says that “Perfectionism isn’t a behavior. It’s a way of thinking about yourself.” Frustration, anger, and even depression can be the result of this unrealistic mindset. Alignment is the antidote: accepting things as they are, and seeing that imperfection always exists. Understanding that nobody’s perfect, not even a perfect fool, is the first step towards forgiveness. Can you find a way to let yourself off the hook? Start with recognizing what it means to be human – and get comfortable with that!
- Stop Projecting Perfectionism: my wife is the perfect woman for me. But is she a perfect woman? I’ll leave it to you to decide, after you ask her if I’m the perfect man. Projecting expectations of perfection onto other people is both unrealistic and hurtful. In relationships, unmet expectations take a variety of forms: hidden, painful and unrealistic. Andrea Brandt, a PhD specialist on anger management, shares in Psychology Today, “You might expect your partner to know what you need without your having to tell them. Or you might expect your teenage child to make agreements and keep them all. But that isn’t how people work.” How can Perfectionjectionists change the game? By bringing expectations into the open. And turning expectations into agreements. Share your desires and goals, don’t keep silent over what you might be able to co-create with your boss, your team…or any of the people you care about.
- Letting Go Is the Challenge of Perfectionism: the pursuit of perfection often starts in childhood, when we are rewarded for a job well done. The child seeks approval, pursuing what he or she “should” do. But too many “must’s” and “should’s” can cause behaviors that can ultimately lead to a deep misunderstanding, as we grow into adulthood. Namely, that we have someone else to please – or that someone else knows exactly how we need to behave. We grow up, unable to hear our own voice. Or make our own choice. Because that choice might not be perfect in someone else’s eyes, even if it’s perfect for you. There is a place of freedom – freedom from perfectionism – that occurs when you change your relationship with all those “shoulds”. Ownership is the antidote. What happens when external obligations become internal objectives? What happens when the voice you are hearing isn’t a parent or teacher, but it’s your own? When your values and actions come from a place of ownership – what psychologists call “an internal locus of control” – the conversation inside your head changes. In fact, it can become more compassionate. Kinder. And more useful.
The pains of perfectionism are many. I know, from my own personal experience. Perfectionism isn’t a long-term strategy, unless you want to be discouraged, pressured, disappointed and unfulfilled. Instead of seeking perfection, do the do-able. Be better tomorrow than you were today. Move forward with forgiveness – for yourself and for the imperfect world around you. That’s not an excuse to stop trying, or to give up on things like social justice. Striving for something is different than chasing perfection. Can you move forward with a deeper understanding, and a clear distinction on which behaviors will serve you best? You don’t have to pressure yourself, or others, or rage against imperfect circumstances. Because, no matter how hard you try, people will still be imperfect (and that means you, too).
If being hard on yourself were going to work, it would have worked by now. Can you find a way to forgive yourself, and accept who you are? Can you turn your silent expectations into agreements and clear possibilities? What’s one thing you could share with your partner, or team, to make things better (even when they may not be perfect)? Don’t chase the unobtainable, or hold yourself hostage over your own humanity. If you’re really focused on your career, the only way to move forward is by being who you are. Even if that person isn’t exactly perfect.
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