Taming the cruel taskmaster, perfectionism

Dec 12, 2011

In my Nov. 22 blog post, I reflected on an important insight I learned from an interesting coaching technique, in short: cycles of change is what life is made of, and there’s no one perfect steady state. I also ruminated on the importance of focusing on process and not just the end product, which for some carries the highest possible standard. I suppose it’s becoming clear . . . defeating perfectionism is an ongoing theme for me.

I’ve had the recent opportunity to coach a couple of clients about their perfectionist ways and their desire to obtain more goals while reducing overall stress. Here are some of our joint learnings about taming this “cruel taskmaster” (with a few borrowed tips I found in various places online) . . .

1. When asked about their innate talents or core qualities, perfectionists might find it difficult to come up with answers.When you hold yourself to a standard of perfection, it’s almost impossible to know what your natural gifts are. Listen to positive feedback from others and let that sink in – we all have assets.

2.  A standard of perfection actually has nothing to do with “the real you” but what one thinks others might be expecting. It gets in the way of being in touch with one’s own inner self. Listen to and learn to trust your personal inner voice, intuition, first instincts, your gut. 

3.  It’s good to bring into focus each of the downsides of perfectionism – what happens to your personal feelings, short- and long-term goals, and impact on others when perfection is serving as your taskmaster? The quality of your efforts might be high, but at what cost? Is this sustainable? What might happen if perfection didn’t drive your behavior – what would be the results?

4.  Having perfectionist tendencies isn’t something we simply have to accept about ourselves. We weren’t born this way – it’s learned behavior, and with time and practice, can be “unlearned.” The bottom line is that irrational thinking is behind it for the most part. Once we become aware of what these lifelong, auto-pilot thoughts, convictions, beliefs are, then we can consciously work to replace them with new ones. The one I now say on a regular basis to myself and my children is, “It doesn’t have to be perfect – nobody and nothing is.” But what works for me wouldn’t for everyone. Other possible new mantras are: “I can trust my own instincts to know when it’s good enough.” “Progress, not perfection.” “Continuous improvement is better than delayed perfection” (a quote from Mark Twain).

5.  The best friend test: Take note of your own personal high standards, for example when you are being particularly hard on yourself or. Once you have identified these areas, ask yourself “Would I want my best friend to treat him/herself this way?” If your answer is no (highly likely), you know you are being too hard on yourself.

6. See the positive in making mistakes. Change, growth, development, no steady-state – it’s all about learning, and what better way to learn than by making mistakes? They provide us with wisdom, humility and insight that might otherwise elude us. Think back on vital mistakes in your life that led to new perspective, growth, discovery. We don’t always see their value, but who doesn’t make (perfectly good) mistakes?

7.  Have you ever felt unable to reach a decision out of fear it’s the wrong one? Perfectionists can spend a lot of time and effort making sure each decision is just right, and therefore finding it difficult to come to final decisions. Sometimes they avoid them altogether. It’s good to keep in mind that there generally is no one perfect decision and not all decisions have consequences.  Removing the unrealistic expectation that you will be wrong allows for complete freedom of choice without any consequences for failure. The pressure can be removed when you make a decision without consequences. Try asking yourself: “If I knew I would not be wrong, what would I do?” Also, to avoid inaction, it can be better to move forward with a quick decision, i.e. first instinct, than it is to think about it too much, which allows doubt and the desire for perfection to dominate your thought process.

8. It’s important to know that high quality can still be delivered without being a perfectionist! Try this exercise: take a few minutes to think of what the term “expert” means to you. . .

You probably did not include the image of someone who gets lost in the details, can’t delegate, waivers in decision-making, and has problems with time management. You probably did think of assets like high-quality output, decisive, highly capable and respected in at least one field or skill. What would happen if you start to see yourself as an expert? Does that help reduce the need to be flawless in all aspects of life?

Cara Crisler
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