In a culture that expects us to be able to do more with less time, to be available 24/7 and take on heavier workloads than ever before, it should come as no surprise that many of us suffer from perfectionism.
With more research showing the strive to be perfect can lead to health concerns including stress, depression, strained personal relationships, and eventually poor work performance, it’s clear we need to take another look at what it means to be perfect.
Psychologist and Physical Therapist Dr. Elizabeth Lombardo, author of Better Than Perfect says while some aspects of perfectionism can be positive–no one would argue that striving for excellence and being motivated to succeed are bad things–the problem with perfectionism is that it’s an all-or-nothing mentality. “It’s either perfect or it’s a failure and if it’s a failure, then I’m a failure,” says Lombardo.
Overcoming perfectionism means silencing our inner critic–the voice inside us that tells us that something isn’t good enough. Lombardo offers up four tips to overcome the inner critic:
While our inner critic can be a motivating force that pushes us to work harder and achieve more, Lombardo says the problem with the inner critic is that it’s a negative voice that is connected to fear. Rather than being motivated by fear–that you’re not good enough, that you’re going to fail, or that you’re going to be judged by others–Lombardo argues we can find even greater success by changing our motivation to something more positive, such as passion. “When you have a more positive motivating force to help you excel, you don’t need the inner critic,” says Lombardo.
“For a lot of people, that inner critic is like constant background music and they don’t even know that it’s there,” says Lombardo. Throughout the day, take breaks to notice whether your inner critic is speaking to you. If you step into a meeting and begin to feel anxious, your palms sweat and your stomach knots up, ask yourself what’s causing these emotions.
Is it your boss sitting across the table who looks extremely unhappy? Or is it your inner critic telling you that you messed up on a project and you deserve to be fired? Once you recognize where the emotion is coming from, you can more easily control it.
For a perfectionist, even the smallest mistake can be paralyzing. Mistakes, for a perfectionist, are interpreted as failures. Lombardo advises perfectionists to see mistakes not as failures, but as data. Say, for example, you deliver a sales presentation and the company decides to go in a different direction. Rather than blame yourself for the lost sale and allow your inner critic to shame you, telling you that you should have done more, you’re not a good salesperson, you’ll never meet your sales targets and you might as well quit now; ask for feedback and use that information to improve upon your next sales presentation.
“Act like an investigative reporter. You’re not judging the situation but asking what’s going on, explore the situation and use the data to move forward,” says Lombardo. Seeing failure as an opportunity to collect data can help you turn it into a win later on.
Perfectionists view the world in an all-or-nothing state. If they don’t have an hour to spend at the gym to do the workout that they want to do, then they won’t go at all. If they don’t think their report is perfect yet, they won’t file it (even if it’s overdue). The drive for perfect often results in putting off completing tasks. Lombardo encourages perfectionists to overcome these desires by striving not to be perfect, but to be “better than perfect”–that is, to take any step in the right direction.
Perhaps you don’t have an hour to go to the gym but you do have 15 minutes to take a walk around the block. The report may not be perfect, but presenting it in it’s good-enough state is better than submitting a perfect report late. Taking small steps in the right direction and celebrating those small wins tells your inner critic that you’re on the right path and helps to overcome this negative voice.