Let’s unpack what we mean when we use the term perfectionism.
This term can be used a little too light heartedly and dismissively to describe a character trait that the Harvard Business Review describes as increasing in prevalence and as being linked with burnout, workaholism, anxiety, and depression.
As a recovering perfectionist, I have definitely been guilty of this.
Light heartedness when exploring personal growth is good, but I wasn’t paying proper respect to the big and powerful feelings perfectionism evokes. Big emotions have strong influence over our behaviour (even without our explicit awareness).
Without acknowledging the true qualities of perfectionism and how it showed up in me, I wasn’t giving myself the best possible chance to change the way it negatively influenced my behaviour.
Liz Gilbert said, “perfectionism is fear in fancy shoes and a mink coat”.
As always, Liz gets to the heart of it. Perfectionism is based in fear, and the term perfectionism glosses over the raw fear-based vulnerabilities that are the heart of perfectionism
Consider the classic interview question, ”What is your greatest weakness?” To which the savvy (but unimaginative) interviewee might reply; “Well I suppose I’m a perfectionist, I just work too hard…”
Let’s replay that scenario without the proverbial shoes and mink coat of the term perfectionism covering up the raw truth.
“What is your greatest weakness?” “Well, I hold impossibly high standards for myself and at times others, and my self-worth is tied to my productivity. Research shows that this approach to work doesn’t mean I’m more effective, but that I am more susceptible to burnout.”
Not so smooth right!?
Perfectionism may present in a range of behaviours, including excessively high standards and drive, high stress, and anxiety. Perhaps surprisingly, it can also manifest as procrastination. Doubtless, some of the procrastinators out there have been dismissing their lack of progress as “laziness” or “lack of motivation”, when really perfectionism is the dynamic at play.
I used to always get swept along by my perfectionist responses to situations which left me exhausted and feeling trapped by circumstance, for example not being able to leave work until that big task is done. Through my training as a coach and working with other coaches, I’ve learnt new ways to respond. Of course I’m still working on these skills and am not perfect. Pun intended.
By recognising perfectionism’s roots in fear, we can see it in a new deferential light and are motivated to look a little deeper because we don’t want fear controlling our decisions unnecessarily.
So next time you identify as a perfectionist, perhaps pause a moment longer and consider how much this trait is shaping your life? Is it helping you create the life you want?
With compassionate mindful action the beast of perfectionism can be tamed.