The Perfectionist Trap
How the search for perfection can make us miss the point.
Do you find yourself obsessing over your performance at work or in life?
Does everything have to be perfect for you to relax or "feel enough"?
The need to be perfect is a topic that needs addressing with a number of my clients, and I can relate. I used to be so obsessed with being perfect. If you told my younger self that I did a task 99.99% well, I wouldn't class it as a job well done. I would fixate on the 0.01% and torment myself about how I could and should be better.
Let me give you an example. I used to be a pretty good wakeboarder; I even won the odd competition. I used to love wakeboarding, the feeling of being out on the water, surrounded by nature, connecting with friends; it was my happy place. At some point, it changed from being a passion to being fundamentally important to be perfect. I wouldn't allow myself to have fun unless I executed every trick perfectly, and if I fell in the water, everyone needed to be prepared for the grumpy bruised ego that came out of the water.
The more time and money I invested in being the perfect boarder, the more miserable I became. I couldn't go out and have fun and connect with the reasons I loved the sport in the first place. There was some weird story I'd tell myself that "I must be the best, otherwise what's the point?". Being the best didn't have anything to do with other people; it was to do with the expectations I put on myself. Every time I landed a new trick, I would celebrate for a second and then set my bar even higher.
To some of you, it may sound like a winning mindset, the ability to keep progressing and having the motivation to succeed. I'd agree with you apart from the fact that I was miserable. I was motivated by fear of not being enough rather than motivated by having fun and improving.
The bottom line is that I was loaded with self-judgement about not being enough, which led to a lot of stress and unfulfillment.
In terms of how this shows up for my clients, there are endless examples. One client felt like they were a different version of themselves when they went to work. They were so caught up in needing to prove themselves or please others that they couldn't recognise the person they had become. Another client needed to be the best at everything they did; otherwise, they would see themselves as a failure. Any developmental feedback was taken as a personal attack, and they would chastise themselves for days about being a failure.
Now it may sound like I'm demonising having drive and motivation for progress, but that's not the case. As a coach, it's my job to cultivate passion and drive my clients to achieve.
The critical difference is changing the internal story of judgment to realise we're enough in this very moment, and perfection is an unattainable myth.
I want people to realise that progress in work, sport, or life doesn't need to be a grind where you beat yourself up every time you fall short of the mark. What if we could drop our ego, feel enough right now AND still chase progress? The less we're in our heads comparing ourselves to others or getting "analysis paralysis", the more we're in the present moment and being ourselves... rather than the versions we think we need to be for others.
Moving from a perfectionist mindset to a growth mindset is not easy; it takes practice and is uncomfortable. I like to use the analogy of going to the gym. When we work out a muscle, we feel discomfort, but that doesn't mean we stop! We're actually aiming for that discomfort as we know the muscle will grow and become stronger. It's the same premise for changing your mindset: get the reps in, and aim for discomfort!
So how do we do it?
1. Acknowledgement - Highlighting that you have perfectionist tendencies and want to change them is crucial. Some of us are on autopilot and don't notice our behaviour or wish to change it.
2. What's the story? - Get curious about the internal dialogue that drives these tendencies. For example, "I must deliver a perfect presentation to my team, or they will see I'm a fraud". Most of the self-dialogue will be to do with judgement from others or self-judgement. When we get clear on the driving forces of perfectionism, we can start to uncover why we don't feel "enough" in the present moment. I would always recommend a deep dive with a coach to clarify.
3. Find the fun! - Whether it's in our job or our personal life that we seek perfection, we need to reconnect with why we started in the first place. We usually don't take jobs just for a paycheck. There was something about the company, the role or the people that made you work there. When you connect with the reasons, seek them out regularly.
4. Now fail - Now that we've connected with the fun, we need to practice not being perfect. A client of mine loves to golf, and they are never happy with their performance, and they desperately wanted to be better and enjoy being on the course. Every week, he plays a round where he doesn't keep score. The purpose is to connect with the love of doing the sport, being in nature and being in the company of others. To begin with, the perfectionist in him saw it as wasted time, and that's the point. It felt like failure, and it was uncomfortable. The more he got used to taking the pressure off, the better he started to play and enjoyed being on the course.
My point is when we step out of the perfectionist trap by dropping our ego and turning the volume down on our internal stories, we get out of our own way and show up. When we show up, good things happen!
5. Practice moving on - Perfectionist tendencies can make us like a dog with a bone, especially in a work capacity. Take this article, for example. I would have spent hours re-reading and messing with the past content, which was driven by fear of not sounding professional enough. My own coach had me practice a process that meant when the timer went off; the article was good enough. Wow! I was uncomfortable pressing the publish button the first few times. Now, it's second nature, and I feel relaxed when I write because I know that even though the article isn't perfect, I'm connecting with something fun and being of service to the people I want to help.
So, in summary, perfectionism can seem like helpful behaviour because it feels like it's driving us forwards.
It's counterintuitive, but striving for perfectionism will limit your ability to be all you can be.
If we can get clear and address our self made stories of why we're not enough, connect with fun and give ourselves permission to fail and move on, we will flourish in everything we do.
If you feel like you've fallen into the perfectionist trap, I want to help free you! By cultivating a growth mindset and stepping into discomfort, you will achieve more than you imagined possible...and have fun in the process! Please click this link to find out more.
Here's to your journey.