At the risk of stating the obvious, we all have to deal with change. Some of us deal with it better than others but it is safe to say whether personal or professional, very few of us like it. And if you are a perfectionist, like me, there is an even better chance the thought of change can be petrifying. The idea of trying something new and not getting it right straight out the box, can leave the perfectionist paralyzed with indecision and fear. However, the truth is when you strive for perfection in an environment of change, you are almost always guaranteed to fail.
I recently started a new job in a new field–something not so unusual for a fifty-something boomer these days. After several years of being a coach, and twenty-five years in a single industry prior to that, I felt it was time to try something new. It wasn’t an easy decision, but a necessary one. It turns out to have been one of the best (and worst) decisions I have ever made. Although I was excited to start a new chapter, I found myself setting the bar too high, expecting too much, and pretty much doing everything I coached my clients to avoid.
Any time we take on something new, we are at our most vulnerable. Just as a child learning to walk will fall countless times before standing on his own, a person faced with a new task or situation will undoubtedly make mistakes. Sometimes big, sometimes small, but mistakes nonetheless. For a perfectionist, those mistakes can seem like the end of the world. It’s as though we are exposing our flaws to the world, admitting we aren’t good enough or smart enough to complete the job as it should be done. Perfectionists will set very high standards for ourselves, ones that are almost guaranteed to be unrealistic, unattainable and ultimately self-defeating.
Although it seems like being a perfectionist would be a good thing, I have come to realize that nothing is further from the truth. Trying to do things perfectly leads to sleepless nights, incredible amounts of negative self-talk and catastrophic thinking. It can even cause depression or anxiety, especially if you constantly criticize yourself for not doing something well enough or worry incessantly about what others are thinking.
If you find yourself constantly procrastinating at work or home, finding it difficult to complete tasks or giving up too easily, you might be suffering from perfectionism. Perhaps you spend more time on small tasks than they are worth, sweating the details when they don’t really matter. After all, does it really matter if you begin an email with “Good Morning” or just launch into your message? Or you spend so much time worrying about how something may turn out, thinking about all the ways it could go wrong, you end up giving up or not starting at all. These are just a few examples of how striving for perfection can prevent you from feeling successful and satisfied at work or at home.
One of the first ways to change perfectionist behavior is to change your attitude about your own expectations. Try to look at your situation from another person’s perspective. Would you honestly expect your best friend to knock each presentation she gives out of the park? Or expect her to exercise daily and eat perfectly when her entire schedule has changed? Probably not–so why would you expect the same from yourself? Lowering standards does not mean giving up. In fact, it is really more about allowing yourself to accomplish more by allowing mistakes to occur. Fear of making mistakes is one of the major reasons so many of us give up or fail to move forward. Accept mistakes or lapses will occur. It is all part of the learning process.
When you obsess over small details at 2:00 am, it is probably time to take a step back. Ask yourself where this detail fits in the big picture. Will you remember what was keeping you up this time a week from now? How about next month? Or next year? As perfectionists we tend to blow the smallest details out of proportion and lose sight of the bigger picture. Keeping the smaller issues in perspective can help reduce anxiety (and promote a full night’s sleep).
Another powerful tool to help battle perfectionism is compromise. Let’s face it, whether we are talking about home or work, there is just too much to do on any given day. And while we may want to accomplish everything ( and thus show we are perfect) that mindset just isn’t very realistic. Look at what is on your plate each day and list the top three things you need to address. Notice I didn’t say accomplish. Break larger projects into smaller tasks to keep from becoming overwhelmed. Set a block of time to work on each task so you don’t become hyper-focused on the smallest details and lose an entire afternoon getting nothing accomplished.
Allowing yourself to make mistakes, lowering your standards (to a realistic level) and accepting that compromise is not a bad thing are three ways to battle perfectionism. It isn’t an easy thing to do by any means. But it can be a start to a fuller, happier life. When you stop spending all your time and energy chasing an impossible goal, you may find you have the energy to appreciate what you do accomplish. And while that may not seem perfect, you may just find it is a happier, healthier way to be.