Hi. I’m Alex, and I’m a Recovering Perfectionist.
I have struggled with the demons of perfectionism as long as I can remember. Without getting too deep into the gory personal details of my upbringing, suffice to say I was raised to be a Perfectionist. Not just any Perfectionist, but the Most Perfect Perfectionist.
I learned from an early age that effort was not enough, if it resulted in anything less than excellence. I was that child who was a superior student, involved in activities, volunteering in the community, working a part-time job while applying to Ivy League colleges. In some ways, perfectionism helped me achieve, but in many others it crippled me with anxiety and destroyed my self-esteem.
I have spent years working on my own thoughts and behaviors to embrace a gentler way of regarding my self worth and my accomplishments at and outside of work. I started by setting a mantra for myself: Done is better than perfect.
When I became a Business Analyst over fifteen years ago, I was new to the discipline and didn’t have formal training. I used the domain knowledge I had as a network engineer to support the network engineering team as a BA. I agonized over my requirements, because I wanted to do well by my team, and I worried I may not get the chance to fix any mistakes I’d made. This led to moments of Analysis Paralysis: I was considering so many potential outcomes and planning contingencies I didn’t really get started on the real work in front of me. This would lead me to procrastinate on tasks until I was spurred by a looming deadline to set aside my worry and just get the work done at the last minute.
Unfortunately for me, I didn’t learn the lesson that procrastination / crunch time work is fertile ground for mistakes, because I worked well under pressure, and I had set vastly higher standards for my work than anyone else expected of me. Because my work done in a deadline-fueled panic was still good work, I was just kicking the can of consequences down the road.
When it did finally become time to pay the piper, I was breaking down under the stress of a big project with high stakes and even higher amount of work. I was crying alone in my car in the parking lot at my office after working a 14 hour day, because part of being Perfect is never letting anyone see you crack under the pressure.
I had colleagues and friends telling me, “Alex, your worst day at work is probably better than most people’s best day,” and I’d laugh it off as them being flattering. I really believed that killing myself to do everything to a high and exacting standard was just adequate. I needed to find a more humane way of treating myself and my work so I didn’t collapse under the weight of my own expectations.
I started reading about the signs of perfectionism. And I saw that I met every last criterion for perfectionism, like:
- Struggling to meet my own expectations, and feeling angry or frustrated by this
- Thinking in black-and-white terms, and thinking catastrophically
- Fussing over work for hours that should have taken minutes to complete
When I started examining the source of my perfectionism, it became clear it was a coping mechanism for an unpredictable and toxic home environment growing up. The best way to feel worthy and avoid rejection is to be Perfect.
So I did what any Professional Overthinker would do: I started applying my analytical thinking skills to my own problem. I asked myself questions about what perfectionism had given me, as well as what it had taken from me. Questions like:
- What has perfectionism helped me attain?
- When has perfectionism kept me from accomplishing my goals?
- Where has perfectionism improved my sense of self-worth?
- How has perfectionism eroded my confidence?
After examining my patterns of thought and behavior, I could come to a solid conclusion. Unsurprisingly, perfectionism was harming me more than helping me to attain the things I want for my life, whether it was at work or in my personal life. Now that I’d been able to identify what I wanted to change, I could start putting some practices in place to get there.
It’s pretty easy to find lists of steps to take to overcome perfectionism with a quick Internet search. I don’t claim to have all the answers, here. I’ll just highlight what has worked for me. Your results of course may vary, so the key is to try a few different tactics until you find what is effective for you, starting with accepting that you won’t be struck dead if you attempt something that doesn’t work perfectly the first time. (Avoidance of trying new things that you may not execute flawlessly the first time is a feature of Perfectionism, which is a terrible Catch-22 when you need try try new things to overcome your Perfectionism!)
Alex’s Tips for Overcoming Perfectionism
- Choose a goal and choose how you want to be as you get there — I chose a mantra of “Done is better than perfect” to encourage me to finish the things I start. I chose a guiding principle of “Just enough, just in time” as the spirit with which I wanted to complete my work, and be open to letting go of details that just don’t matter in the long run.
- Be your own best friend — If your best friend were coming to you about her problems with perfectionism, would you criticise her as harshly as you do yourself? Probably not. Try to be kinder to yourself, as if you were advising your friend.
- Gain an appreciation of imperfection — Whether it’s embracing the 80/20 rule or learning the Japanese principles of wabi sabi, learn to appreciate that we are all imperfect, and yet we are all still valuable.
- Get some distance & get some perspective — Will the details you’re fussing over matter in 5 years? Probably not. Think about whether your efforts are yielding big boosts to your results. Get a trusted friend or colleague to review your work and really listen to their advice if you’re struggling to step away from a task.
- Embrace being a beginner, part of which is making mistakes — This was the hardest for me, but also the single thing that brings me more daily joy than anything else. I started by reading Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind as a starting point, I found I could dismantle a significant amount of my self-imposed pressure by letting go of being an expert, and embracing being a beginner as I tackle new challenges. I don’t have to be immediately excellent at everything I try. By giving myself permission to make mistakes as part of the learning process, I can enjoy learning more and be open to more possibilities in both my work and personal life.
If you’ve got tips to share about overcoming perfectionism, please share! I’d love to hear your ideas.