There are many articles about how perfectionism is a negative character trait and how bad it is for you. And it’s true. Perfectionism taken too far can harm you and sabotage your life. But there is now also more talk about the positive aspects of perfectionism.
Perfectionism, like the pleaser traits, usually develops in childhood. That was certainly the case for me. I frequently heard the following messages:
- You can do better.
- You need to work hard to succeed.
- Don’t delay until tomorrow what you can already do today.
To get sufficient approval, I tried to get everything right and avoid mistakes by focusing on details. I felt that I would only be accepted if I ‘could do even better’ and behave according to the expectations of my environment.
With time, I realised that perfectionism has nothing to do with good performance. After all, there’s nothing wrong with working hard and trying to do better. Perfectionism is when you take things too far. It’s the ‘excess mode’. Wanting to do overly well, working too much, choosing too harshly, structuring excessively, over-pleasing. Perfectionism is the harmful ‘too much’ that makes you unhappy and tired, which can lead to burnout and other illnesses.
Men can also be perfectionists. But in my experience, it’s predominantly women who are more perfectionists. In today’s society, women wear a lot of different hats. Colleagues, leaders, mothers, sisters, daughters, friends. And we’re expected to do it all perfectly.
Completely getting rid of your perfectionism is not the answer. By trying to get rid of it, you’ll be in danger of losing your identity. And what is perfect for you is maybe not perfect for somebody else.
How your perfectionism has already benefited your life experience.
It’s important to see that perfectionism has also brought you a lot of positive things in your life.
Thanks to your perfectionism, you’ve likely studied hard. It’s meant you’ve been accepted to good schools and universities. You’ve done well as a student and it’s given you different job opportunities.
In your workplace, you’ve been promoted for your excellent work. You’re earning a decent salary and the respect of your colleagues. You’ve put the hard work in and you’re reaping the rewards.
Through your perfectionism, you’ve developed other desirable qualities. Other people see you as trustworthy and dedicated, and they come to you for advice. You’re observant, responsible and professional. You’re a constant learner and use your knowledge to impact others. All of these characteristics have helped you move forward in your life and career.
What else has your inner voice to be perfect enabled you to do in your life?
How can you recognize out-of-control perfectionism in yourself?
It’s only when you take your perfectionism too far that it can block your progress. Do you recognise the symptoms of excess perfectionism in yourself or in others?
- You’re obsessed with details
- Prioritising is difficult for you because everything seems equally important
- Decision-making is difficult because you need ALL the information
- You find it difficult to ask for help
- You prefer to do EVERYTHING yourself so that it’s up to your standards
- You’re overly demanding of others
- You’re afraid of being criticised
- You don’t feel seen or valued for all the work you do, and it can lead to resentment
All this extra work your perfectionism creates can make you feel frustrated. And it’s for good reason. You’re not imagining that you’re stuck. Your overly developed perfectionism might actually be holding you back.
How your perfectionism can block your development and keep you stuck
What are the consequences of high levels of perfectionism on your life? Here are some examples that you might relate to:
- You keep going beyond your limits: When you keep going and never stop, you risk going beyond your limits, which leads to stress and irritability. This in turn makes you feel overwhelmed and can have a negative impact on your self-esteem and health.
- You are not easily satisfied with yourself: You feel small and unimportant and are always insecure about your own abilities. You compare yourself with others and feel inferior, which leads to low self-esteem.
- You need approval from others: You need validation from others, so you do everything you can to make them happy. You can’t say “no”, you avoid conflicts and ignore your own needs.
- You have too much sense of responsibility: You take on too much responsibility for your work and your children. Your strong urge to control can weaken your communication and teamwork. Your colleagues might feel that you’re micromanaging. Or that you don’t give them enough responsibility. That you’re not letting them make mistakes and learn from them. Your colleagues will then feel demotivated or not do their share of the work because they know you’ll re-do it all anyway.
- You have difficulties in your relationships: The above points cause you to have difficulties in relationships. It’s especially true if it’s combined with the pleaser personality and trouble saying “no”.
- Your fear is stopping you: When you prioritize perfect results, you can miss out on opportunities at work. Your fears (of failure) and the extra work you put in instead of going for a drink with your colleagues, can lead you to miss out on a chance to network. Being visible and networking is also crucial to your future career. Or you might be scared to take the unknown path that can lead to new opportunities.
- You can miss out on a promotion: You’re often seen as an expert and your boss wants to keep you in your function because you’re so valuable to the team. Or, you might be waiting to learn EVERYTHING perfectly before you feel ready to put yourself forward for promotion. Neither of these situations will propel you into an exciting future.
- You are procrastinating: Because you want to do everything perfectly, you don’t start. You’re afraid that you won’t master your task and can’t motivate yourself to get going. Instead, you are busy with trivial things and then experience stress to meet the deadline.
What has your inner voice limited you to do? What things do you continue to overdo to satisfy your perfectionist streak?
How to manage your perfectionism to benefit you
Despite all the negatives, there are ways to make your perfectionism work for you and not to take over your life. Remember, your perfectionism has helped you get this far. Managing it, and putting it down a notch, can help you move towards a better future. It’s not about removing it completely.
Your perfectionism can manifest itself in different areas of your life. In some professions, like surgeons, lawyers or accountants, it’s very important to be a perfectionist. Peoples’ lives, sometimes literally, can depend on it. But perhaps there are other areas where you don’t have to be a perfectionist to such a high level.
To slightly start changing your perfectionism behaviour, reflect on the following questions:
- In what areas of your life can you reduce your perfectionism?
- In what areas are the costs of your perfectionism too high?
- Are there areas of your life where the return you get, vs. the effort you put into it, not worth it? For instance, is it worth spending another two hours on a report? Will that extra work bring added value, and if so, how much?
- What tasks can you delegate?
- What can you do if the tasks you’ve delegated are not on the right track? How can you help the person you’ve delegated your task to, to help them learn and grow?
When you challenge parts of your perfectionist thinking, you begin to take control. Becoming a healthy perfectionist will open up your future.
Conquer your unhealthy perfectionism through coaching and gain confidence
The long term solution to conquer your unhealthy perfectionism is to map out your talents, values, needs and strengths. It will give you a confidence boost and you will look at yourself in a much more positive way. You will start believing in yourself, your self-image will improve and you’ll become more assertive. As a result, you will stand up for what is important to you.
Working together with a coach makes this process easier and quicker, and you will feel more empowered. As a coach, I help you find your pitfalls and which situations are difficult for you. Together we look at how you can deal with them differently. It will make your life and work a lot more pleasant. Small adjustments often give amazing results.