Updated: Aug 17, 2020
“I’m not a perfectionist!” said my flawlessly turned-out, not-a-hair-out-of-place client. “How can I be when nothing is ever good enough?”
I let this response hang in the air until slowly, she realized what she’d just said.
And then I saw the penny drop.
Throughout my career and in my business, I’ve seen endless smart, talented, enthusiastic people lose themselves and their dreams to the endless pursuit of perfection. Usually, they reach a point where they either give up or burn out.
The dictionary defines perfectionism as ‘refusal to accept any standard short of perfection.’
But is perfection really achievable? I don’t think so. I certainly can’t think of any area of myself, my life, or work that is ‘perfect’. I can think of ‘good’, and even ‘great’, but not ‘perfect’.
Perfectionists measure success not by their results, but by the absence of failure.
Realistically however, failure can never be completely eliminated, so those prone to perfectionism opt the next best thing: Avoidance. They can be seen procrastinating, hesitating, chasing themselves in circles, and having a really hard time being visible. They’re often very busy doing things that make them feel as though they’re making progress when really, they’re simply avoiding doing anything that could result in failure and a subsequent beating from their inner critic.
What perfectionists are really avoiding is the unpleasant feeling they believe they’ll experience if and when things don’t go according to plan. And so, they give up. In fact, they never really get started. They never see their behaviour as ‘quitting’ or ‘giving up’. Instead, they label it as ‘planning’, ‘preparation’, and ‘gathering knowledge’ and it’s not until someone intervenes and helps to break the cycle that they realize they’re sabotaging their own success.
Another consequence of perfectionism is burnout.
Perfectionists burn out because they operate from a place of fear and avoidance, not passion and enthusiasm. Their actions are designed to escape the wrath of their inner critic, not drive towards success. They’re not running towards their dreams, they’re running away from failure. And that’s guaranteed to suck the life out of you and leave you feeling empty, lifeless, helpless, and burned out.
Whether they give up or burn out, perfectionists often live seemingly ‘standard’ lives. Their passion is stalled, their success is hobbled, and their dreams are thwarted by their avoidance of failure. The sad thing is, they have the talent, ability, and know-how to achieve unbelievable things.
How do you know if you have perfectionist tendencies?
Take a look at this list and see if you recognize yourself in any of these statements:
Your inner critic berates you for not being good enough/smart enough/thin enough/fast enough/strong enough/anything enough.
You constantly compare yourself to other people.
You hesitate to start something unless you’re absolutely certain you can nail it or win. For example, I once had a client who decided not to compete in a tennis tournament because she thought she wouldn’t win. What she missed however, was a perfect opportunity to learn and improve. And she might have won!
You’re constantly chasing ‘happiness’. You live in the future and believe you’ll be happy only when you’ve made your first million/when you drive the Aston Martin/publish your first book etc.
You’re often [indirectly] critical of other people. You say things like, "She started this years ago, so of course she's successful." Or, "She has an Ivy League education, so her success was inevitable."
Frequently, you hear the words ‘should’ and ‘should not’ inside your head.
For all you perfectionists out there, there is hope.
Perfectionism is not who you are. It’s something you do.
If you hear yourself saying “I’m a perfectionist”, take it as a warning that you’re using the label as an excuse to avoid doing something that makes you uncomfortable.
You ‘do’ perfectionism. You are not a perfectionist.
Armed with that knowledge, it’s easy to see that you have the power to break free of perfectionism.
Liberation is possible!
If you lean towards perfectionism, there is one simple question that will help you break free. It’s the question I put to my clients when they give me long, drawn-out explanations about why they’re hesitating, procrastinating, or chasing themselves in circles. That question is, “What action have you taken to bring you closer to your goal?”
It’s a simple question, yet it has the power to break you out of perfectionism. If you feel a little irritated, defensive, even slightly annoyed by the question, that’s your cue to revisit your actions. Ask yourself if they’re moving you closer to your goal, or further away from your fear of failure. The chances are, it’s the latter.
So how do you break free of perfectionism?
Action. Action is the antidote to perfectionism.
Be very clear on what action will take you closer to your goals and take one small step in that direction. It will feel uncomfortable, and you will feel fear. But ignore your inner critic and do it anyway. The action - no matter how small - will give you courage and information which will inform your next step. Before you know it, you’ll be barrelling along towards realizing your dreams.
Letting go of perfectionism allows you to make mistakes and learn. It allows you to improve and get closer to your goal. Letting go allows you to try without fear of self-flagellation if things don’t go as planned. Letting go gives you courage, excitement, and energy. It is truly liberating.
Perfectionism is not about being perfect. It’s about fear of failure, fear of not attracting approval, fear of making a mistake. It’s about the fear of success.
If you have big dreams, there is only one way to realize them. Forget perfection. Take action and learn from it. You can adjust along the way. And the worst that can happen is you grow, succeed, and thrive.