Perfectionism: Is That Too Much to Expect?

While we might smile at this perfectionism subtitle because we know it is impossible to achieve, many find ourselves at least at times expecting perfection of themselves and those around them, especially executives and leaders I coach. And I watch for it in myself!

What is the problem with perfectionism? It is a powerful potential blocker.

Striving for perfection results in:

1. Paralysis/Procrastination. What inventions, books, works of art might we have missed out on if their originators had waited for the perfect idea, hypothesis, time, etc?

“Trying too hard and never trying at all are two sides of the coin of perfection.  Unfortunately, it is a coin that never pays off.” Anne Wilson Schaef

2. Over-Criticism of self, others

a. Self criticism and continual negative thoughts can lead to depression.

b. Over-Criticism of others can result in employees (and family members!) walking out, which can be emotionally and financially costly.

3. Stress symptoms: physiological and emotional

4. Eating disorders: trying to reach physical perfection, which can result in death.

How to go for your best self and reap rewards rather than costly perfectionism:

When you catch yourself with perfectionistic, negative thoughts, ask yourself:

1. Is this a reasonable expectation of myself, others, the situation?

2. If someone else told me they were thinking this way, how would I respond? (You probably would encourage them-practice this on yourself!)

3. Is this thought 100% true, useful, productive, helpful? (Byron Katie has a 4 question approach I use with coaching clients and sometimes myself about whether our thought is true)

4. Am I striving for my personal best, which is attainable, or for perfection, which is unattainable?  What is the first step?

Additional coaching tips to move from perfectionism to your best:

1. Remember you are more than your performance and appearance. “You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t save the world.” Attributed to Marianne Williamson and  Nelson Mandela

2. Happy couples give 20 positive comments for every 1 negative, according to Gottman’s research.  If this is a divorce preventing pattern, how might applying this in the workplace, on yourself as well as decrease turnover, “down days” and reap rewards? Below 5 to 1 positive to negative comments the couple, and possibly you, your employees, are at risk. Use it on yourself as well!

3.Leaders and coaches, apply for a strategy session on how to move past costly perfectionism to reaping the rewards of you and your team being your best selves.

Janet Metcalfe, a Columbia University scientist…”confirms to The New York Times for Kids: Yep, messing up is a good thing. ‘It’s the way you make progress,’ she says. ‘If you already knew everything and were already perfect, you’d have nothing to learn.’ The important part, she stresses, is what you do next.” The entire March 31, 2024 New York Times for Kids section, “Everyone Takes Mismakes, the OOPS issue” contains examples of kids, performers, scientists, space engineers, etc. making mistakes and what to do after, like how to say you’re sorry. And some mistakes led to new discoveries. Example: an uncovered petri dish mold leading to the discovery of the first antibiotic, penicillin.

I look forward to hearing how you are moving past perfectionism paralysis to reap rewards. Do not be like my dad in this regard! I was driving him to present and could see him getting anxious. I asked, “What are you afraid of, not being perfect?” and he laughed and relaxed. Because he still was striving for perfection, he knew it was unattainable and it was still hard for him to let it go in his 90’s. When I was in first grade he brought home a giant eraser “I never make big misteaks” for the four of us children to drive home this lesson. (mistake misspelled on the eraser, I still remember this!)

Stay tuned until next week. Thank you.

To your full potential, prosperity and peace (and our success, we are in this together!),

Marilyn O’Hearne, MSW, MCC, LLC; CQ MCC Unlocking potential, prosperity and peace with executives, coaches and their organizations through Leadership & Team Coaching, Retreats, ICF Mentor Coaching and Coaching Supervision, ICF Circle of Distinction Award
First published as a blog March 5, 2015 and updated