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How to Overcome Perfectionism

A cup of coffee on a work desk.

Perfectionism and excellence are not the same. Nevertheless, to our detriment, when it comes to our careers we frequently confuse the two. Perfectionistic tendencies can derail your career and leave you feeling frustrated. As author Julia Cameron explains, “Perfectionism is not a quest for the best. It is a pursuit of the worst in ourselves, the part that tells us that nothing we do will ever be good enough.”

The good news is that letting go of unrealistically high standards is achievable. The key is to differentiate between healthy and unhealthy perfectionism.

Do you have an inner critic?

You’re not alone! No matter how successful many of us may appear, be it at work or in our personal lives, it can be difficult to avoid an internal voice of self-doubt and self-admonishment.

If you listen too closely to your inner critic, this voice can lead you astray. It can be easy to lose sight of your priorities when you fall into the trap of looking outward to the expectations of others instead of looking inward.

As a career coach, I work with clients whose goal is to pinpoint the “perfect” job rather than seeking the right job for their particular talents, skills, and career level. This type of perfectionistic thinking can force you into an “all-or-nothing” trap, where you feel compelled to stick with the status quo unless you find a precise and ideal version of what you think you should be doing with your life.

While our culture often considers striving for perfection desirable, the reality is that perfectionism is self-defeating and creates an unattainable goal while blocking you from what you could effectively achieve.

Are you a perfectionist?

Even if you’re not rearranging your sock drawer on a daily basis, perfectionistic tendencies may still be holding you back. Here are some red flags to look for:

  1. You rarely delegate at work.You don’t trust others to complete a task, so you do it yourself. My client Bob is a good example of this behavior. A director of procurement at a university, Bob had difficulty delegating to his staff for fear that they would let him down. This resulted in his team feeling disengaged, and Bob frequently falling behind in meeting deadlines.
  2. You are often overwhelmed. If you are unable to delegate, you probably find yourself not having enough hours in the day, missing deadlines, or working late into the night.
  3. You procrastinate. Like Bob, if you keep perfecting your work, awaiting a sign or signal that it’s beyond criticism, you may have unknowingly developed a reputation for being risk-averse.

In her article, 9 Signs That You Might Be a Perfectionist, Elizabeth Lombardo shares additional, harder-to-spot habits of a perfectionist that could be holding you back professionally.

Beyond perfection

Here are some ways to work through your perfectionism. By pushing yourself to look beyond your perfectionistic habits, you'll open doors and break down walls that may have been holding you back due to a subconscious fear of the less-than-perfect.

  1. Reframe failure. Rather than think of a setback as a humiliating experience, ask yourself what you’ve learned instead. You may also want to confer with trusted members of your network as they'll often be able to share useful feedback from a different perspective.
  2. Ask for feedback. As Manfred Kets de Vries discusses in his article, The Dangers of Feeling Like a Fake, asking managers and subordinates for feedback can help you see yourself more objectively. Many organizations use a tool known as a 360-degree assessment that enables colleagues to provide input on your strengths as well as areas for improvement.
  3. Embrace risk-taking. In her article, You’re Not Faking It: Don’t Let Imposter Syndrome Hold You Back, Jennifer Abcug discusses the benefits of embracing ambition; going after projects or jobs that interest you instead of passing on them for fear that you’ll be turned down or mess up.
  4. Set deadlines. Setting deadlines and collaborating with a partner who is less detail-oriented than you is an effective strategy for accepting “good enough” results. Your partner will help you focus on completing a project without perseverating on inconsequential details.

The good news about having perfectionist tendencies is that you have high standards and attention to detail. Accepting that every one of us is imperfect and has weaknesses will make you a better colleague and mentor.

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About the Author | Susan Peppercorn is a career coach and writer with a passion for helping individuals go from surviving to thriving in their careers. Through her knowledge of personal branding, hiring practices and social media, she enables professionals to realize their career goals. Susan is founder and CEO of Positive Workplace Partners and author of the soon to be published book, Ditch Your Inner Critic: Let Go of Perfection to Thrive in Your Career.

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