Confessions of a Recovering Perfectionist

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Hello. My name is Stacy Oldfield and I am a perfectionist – or at least, a recovering perfectionist.

Sounds like an introduction at a support group session, right? I wish I could find such a group. My own perfectionism, while being a huge driving force in my life, has also kept me from being the fearless individual I was meant to be. I first heard the term “recovering perfectionist” from TEDx speaker Mitch Matthews and immediately laughed out loud. I had always thought that being a perfectionist was a good thing. It meant that you always put your best foot forward, you act deliberately – not impulsively, you do not accept anything less than the best, and you have the highest expectations of yourself and everything you do. But can being a perfectionist be detrimental? Research says it can.

The more we know about perfectionism, the more we understand how it drives more than just ambition but also overly critical self-evaluations that not only negatively impact our self-esteem but also our confidence. Unfortunately, studies show that this is largely a female issue and is displayed throughout our entire lives.

Women tend not to answer questions until we are entirely sure of the answer. We also tend to not apply for jobs unless we’re sure we are perfectly ready and perfectly qualified. We obsess over just about every aspect of our lives – as professionals, mothers, wives, sisters, daughters, friends, athletes, etc. Bob Sullivan and Hugh Thompson, the authors of The Plateau Effect, call the tendency the “enemy of the good.” Basically they state that striving to be perfect actually keeps us from getting anything done – which is counterintuitive when thinking that perfectionists tend to be very driven individuals.

In the 2014 article, “Perfectionist Traits: Do These Sound Familiar?” Elizabeth Scott, a stress management expert, points out that perfectionists and high achievers are very similar but with some key differences.

  1. GOALS: Perfectionists and high achievers both set high goals. However, high achievers are happy with doing a great job in working toward that goal while perfectionists will see not achieving the goal as a complete failure. Take weight loss as an example. My weight has been a perpetual yo-yo since college. One year I lose 30 pounds and then two years later I’ve gained 20 of them back. The perfectionist in me can only see the final number as the goal, while a high achiever will take each day in stride and celebrate even the smallest win while keeping their eye on the prize. So, instead of celebrating not eating that third cookie, I will be completely disappointed in the fact that I did not complete the day without going off track even once. This disappointment causes frustration and depression that makes me eat even more. You can see how quickly this can create an out of control spiral.
  2. PRIDE: Perfectionists are very critical of themselves. While high achieves take pride in their accomplishments, perfectionists spot every little mistake in themselves and focus on them rather than the accomplishment. I was a competitive gymnast growing up and always wanted to finish first in every competition. However, I found that finishing first wasn’t enough, what I really wanted was the perfect score. While this kept driving me to work harder, my expectation was so high that it was impossible to achieve and therefore, my accomplishments were impossible to enjoy.
  3. BABY STEPS: High achievers are happy with steps toward their goal, while perfectionists are only concerned with successfully accomplishing the goal.
  4. PROCESS: High achievers enjoy the process of attaining the goal. On the other hand, perfectionists can only see the goal. This all or nothing attitude will make the journey less enjoyable or impossible to enjoy for the perfectionist.
  5. DISAPPOINTMENT: Perfectionists become very depressed if a goal goes unmet. High achievers are much more able to see the small wins, even if they don’t achieve the goal, and are therefore able to bounce-back from disappointment. (High achievers don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.)
  6. FEAR: Because perfectionists are unable to accept anything other than success, they fear failure much more than high achievers.
  7. PROCRATINATION: Often times, perfectionists are also procrastinators. Their desire to do something perfectly and their fear and anxiety over being perfect can paralyze them into not doing anything at all. Then, believe it or not, that feels like a failure and the cycle repeats. When I was launching Minerva Management Partners, I was so afraid of it not being perfect or not being complete that it delayed progress in many areas. The pressure of having the perfect logo equated to weeks of cutting out copies of the drafts and individually matching up colors to get the perfect look – which of course, held up business card and web site design. Painstakingly going through web site copy until every word is perfect keeps the web site from going live. I found that sometimes you just have to hit “publish” with the understanding that you can keep refining and editing. Kind of like life.
  8. SELF-ESTEEM: High achievers, as you might guess, tend to have high self-esteem. Contrastingly, perfectionists tend to have low self-esteem due to being so self-critical.

If perfectionism can rob you of happiness and self-esteem, then it must be true that ridding yourself of this behavior trait can greatly decrease stress. So, what can we do help ourselves become a recovering perfectionist?

  1. Alter self-talk: Don’t be so hard on yourself! Shifting your mindset from perfectionist to high achiever can be done. Find joy in the process and begin to accept less than perfect outcomes knowing that less than perfect does not mean failure. Keeping a gratitude journal can be really helpful with managing negative self-talk.
  2. Set smaller, more realistic goals so you can enjoy the small wins. Allowing yourself to be present for each step instead of only focusing on the goal will reduce stress and make the journey more enjoyable.
  3. Aim the trait outside of yourself by volunteering or helping others. Focusing our perfectionist tendencies on areas outside of ourselves transfers the spotlight from internal to external, again reducing stress and silencing the self-critic.

Just so you know, the first draft of this article was written 5/18/15. It’s still not perfect. It’s not even great. But sometime, you just have to hit “publish” and see what happens.

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