The Flaws in Flawlessness
You don’t have to be Amazing Amy. You don’t even have to be Alright Amy. The internal pressure to be perfect, to look and act juuust right, can actually hold you back.
In fact, experts are finding that perfectionists succeed despite the desire to make everything perfect, not because of it. So stop being so hard on yourself. Here are six ways perfectionism can sabotage you — and how to beat it back.
The Problem: It Can Make You Sick
The pressure you put on yourself to be error free can take a toll on your health. According to a Trinity Western University study published in the Journal of Health Psychology, those with the highest need for perfection “ran a 51 percent increased risk of earlier death” as compared to participants with low perfectionism scores. The reason? The stress you feel to excel can raise levels of hormones like cortisol. Chronically elevated levels of cortisol cause everything from heart disease to memory impairment, says the Mayo Clinic.
The Fix: Admit You’re a Perfectionist
“A perfectionist's response to stress is actually to work even harder, so they may get headaches and feel tired a lot,” says Emma-Louise Elsey, certified professional coach and owner of Life Coach On The Go! The first step is recognizing the problem (sound familiar?) — so pay attention to your feelings. If you can put down your work fairly easily, then it's probably not perfectionistic behavior. “However, if you feel compelled, tense, tightly wound or grumpy, then that's a sign that perfectionism has taken over.” Once you recognize the signs, step away from the computer.
The Problem: It Can Make You Depressed
Perfectionists aren’t riding high in pursuit of flawlessness. Actually, they’re much more susceptible to serious mental issues like depression, say American Psychological Association research. When University of Florida researchers assessed the mindsets of subjects identified as perfectionists, they found many more “maladaptive” characteristics. Subjects experienced more self-criticism and a deep sense of failure that undermined much of the pride an impeccable project should foster.
The Fix: Make Mistakes
What? Yes! Screwing up is actually good for you. It’s called exposure therapy (neat, right?) and Kirri White, life coach and owner of Kirri White Coaching, highly recommends it. Make small errors on purpose at times and then don’t fix them. Gasp! You’ll see that those small errors, such as leaving a grammatically correct comma out of an email, don’t undermine the whole project — and that’s okay.
The Problem: You Don’t Know When to Pivot
Do you have a hard time giving up and trying something new? "Beware of ‘all or nothing’ thinking,” says Elsey. The tendency to think that anything short of perfect is a failure can cause you to miss out on amazing opportunities. By trading that feeling of negativity for a healthy dose of optimism, you may actually discover solutions in another direction that you never noticed before.
When things aren’t going your way, ask, What can I learn? “Knowing when to hold on and when to let go is wisdom,” says Elsey. When you experience a setback, Elsey recommends asking, "What is the wise thing to do here?” That way, you can pivot in a more successful direction.
The Problem: You’re Difficult to Work (or Live) With
When your hopes are sky high, it’s not a surprise that you project these same expectations on those around you. But in reality, this kind of pressure on colleagues (and loved ones) can backfire. When you raise the bar beyond a realistic reach, it can make others uncomfortable. “Organizations are all about relationships, and perfectionism can harm your career,” says Elsey. “When looking for someone to promote, companies look for results. But they also want someone they and others feel comfortable with.”
The Fix: Trust Others More
Learn to embrace good enough. “Perfectionists find it difficult to delegate, so they micro-manage and nitpick,” says Elsey. Who cares if the dishwasher isn’t loaded the “right” way? At least it’s loaded. When you pull back and relinquish some control to colleagues, subordinates, friends and family, you’ll find they will meet your expectations in surprising ways. And you might even discover that their way of doing things works just fine too.
The Problem: You Procrastinate
Have a hard time getting started on something new? Interestingly, there’s a link between those who seek to be flawless and those who have a hard time completing work. The reason? “Many perfectionists spend inordinate amounts of time preparing,” explains White. The fear of failure can run so deep that it hinders your ability to start a project.
The Fix: Set Priorities
Rearrange your priorities, says Elsey, so perfect doesn’t come first. Elsey recommends using the The Pareto principle, also known as the 80:20 rule. “Pareto said that we spend 20 percent of our time doing 80 percent of the work, then the remaining 80 percent of the time on 20 percent of the work.” When you find time is getting away from you because you’re fixating on one detail, step back and ask yourself, “Is this important enough?” “If you're not sure, ask your bosses,” adds Elsey. “I'm sure they will have an opinion.”
The Problem: You Don’t Try New Things
When you’re preoccupied with being perfect, you may avoid situations that can make you look bad. This means passing on opportunities and experiences that may have been worth the effort — even if you’re not the standout in the crowd. “The perfectionist is always trying so hard to get it right and get it right the first time,” explains White.
The Fix: Treat Everything Like a Rough Draft
“My favorite tip is to encourage approaching life as a draft copy and to be more welcoming of mistakes,” says White. “This means reminding ourselves that we usually have more than one chance to get it right, we are always able to improve and we can learn and evolve as we go along. If we do mess up our draft, it means nothing more than we are fallible human beings.” So go to that karaoke bar with your colleagues, even if you can’t carry a tune. Flaws can be fabulous.