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Many high-achieving women struggle with an unseen battle with their own expectations for excellence. And while there is nothing wrong with having high expectations and striving for success the danger to our success and overall well-being is when we are driven by perfectionism. 

The focus in striving for excellence is on moving towards what we want, while the focus in perfectionism is in avoiding failure or negative consequences. Perfectionism tends to lead to setting standards for ourselves that are nearly impossible to achieve or are achieved only with great difficulty and often at great personal cost. Perfectionism would have us believe that anything short of perfection is unacceptable and that even minor imperfections will lead to terrible consequences. 

Being a high-achiever and being a perfectionist is not the same thing. In fact, those struggling with perfectionism tend to actually achieve less and experience decreased mental and emotional well-being than non-perfectionistic high achievers. To put it simply, perfectionism actually hinders success rather than helping, (while striving for excellence without perfectionism does not).

You may be suffering from perfectionism is you have trouble meeting your own standards or if others have told you that your standards are too high. Your high standards may actually get in the way of success, such as by making it difficult or impossible to meet deadlines or finish important tasks. Your own high standards may lead you to feel frustrated, anxious or depressed.

Learn to Recognize Patterns of Perfectionism

In order to overcome perfectionism it is important to first learn to identify how perfectionism shows up. Patterns of perfectionism can show up in our feelings, thoughts and behaviour. Below is a brief overview of how perfectionism can impact us in each of these areas: 

Feelings: 

Perfectionism can lead to increased feelings of anxiety, depression or even anger. Perfectionism can lead us to become overly critical or upset with ourselves when we are unable to meet our own unrealistic standards. 

Thinking: 

There are common unhelpful thinking styles that contribute to perfectionism. Black and white thinking is when we get stuck in all-or-none types of thinking traps. Either our work is perfect and therefore good or is all negative, with no in-between. Catastrophic thinking is when we overestimate the negative consequences of any result that is less than perfect. An example of this could be thinking one mistake ruins our whole presentation or professional reputation. Probability overestimation is when we overestimate the chances of a certain outcome. In perfectionism this is usually linked to overestimating the likelihood of negative or catastrophic consequences of any less than perfect result. ‘Should’  statements are another thinking trap to watch out for.  I ‘should’ do this or it ‘should’ have done this way. ‘Should’ implies a value judgement and leaves us feeling like we have fallen short if we fail to meet our own expectation. 

Behaviour

Common behaviours that are associated with perfectionism include difficulty completing tasks, chronic procrastination and giving up easily when things get difficult. Being overly thorough and cautious in tasks is another sign. If it takes you 3 hours and multiple drafts to complete an email that would take most people 20 minutes you may be suffering from perfectionism. Perfectionism can also lead to excessive checking and the constant need to try to improve things by re-doing them. Those suffering from perfectionism often agonize over small details, make overly elaborate ‘to-do’ lists and and even avoid trying to do things, especially things outside of their areas of expertise in an attempt to avoid the risk of making mistakes. 

Breaking the Grip of Perfectionism

If you find yourself being held back by patterns of perfectionism there are steps you can take to break the grip of these patterns. 

Practice Good Goal Setting

Prioritize Goals, Break Down Larger Tasks to Smaller Steps and Just Get Started. Practice SMART goal setting. Aim for goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable and Realistic and Time-bound. Practicing good goal setting helps us to get clear on what it means to get the job done and can increase accountability. For an added boost to accountability share your goals with someone you trust and set a designated time to check in on your progress.

Adjust Your Expectations

Examine your expectations for yourself to see if they are realistic. If your expectations are impossibly high you are setting yourself up for failure and disappointment. And failure to meet our goals takes away from motivation. Break down goals into smaller, more realistic steps. The achievement of smaller steps gives our motivation a boost.  Adjust your expectations to be more realistic and achievable. 

Aim for Good Enough over Perfect

You can still have high standards without aiming for perfection. Remind yourself that those with high standards actually do better and achieve more than those who are constantly striving for perfection. In the beginning it can be helpful to just aim to get started without worry about the end product. Give yourself enough time to make further refinements and edits until you reach ‘good enough’. ‘Good enough and done’ is much better than ‘perfect and incomplete’. 

Plan for Mistakes:

Make room for mistakes as a part of the plan for success. Know that there will be bumps along the way. Planning for at least a few things to go wrong can help you to roll with those inevitable bumps in the road when they do come up. 

Reward Yourself for Taking Steps 

Positive reinforcement is a strong motivator and is a better predictor of long term change than punishment. Set rewards for yourself for meeting smaller goals and taking steps to over come perfectionism. Reward yourself with a break and time spent doing something you love or treat yourself to something for meeting your goals. 

If you are Paralyzed by Perfectionism Seek Additional Support:

If despite your best efforts you remain paralyzed by perfectionism seek support to heal the deeper or underlying issues that may be contributing to patterns of perfectionism. It is a sign of strength to be able to recognize our own limits of what we can do on our own. Many people are able to break free from old patterns with the right therapy or coaching support.

Don’t let perfectionism rob you from what you are capable of achieving in your life or to drain the joy out of the journey of continuing to grow beyond your comfort zone. You can achieve excellence without the tyranny of perfectionism. Don’t allow perfectionism to con you into believing that you need to be perfect in order to achieve your dreams. It is possible to overcome perfectionism and to reach even higher levels of achievement, success and overall life satisfaction as a result.