I’ve always recognized that I tend to run on the perfectionistic side.
I’ve always liked things neat and orderly. When I have a project to do I strive to get it done as soon as possible because I don’t like projects hanging around. Also, when working on anything, I want to do it right the first time because I don’t want to waste time having to do it again.
On the one hand, I appreciate my intention to do my best at whatever I do, but on the other hand, I see how this mentality can paralyze my efforts and prevent me from taking risks and reaching my goals.
I have since come to learn, in the past decade, that I will get more out of life, and strive farther if I am more relaxed and flexible regarding some of my actions. My perfectionistic attitude hasn’t completely left me but there is a part of me where I’m learning to expand my perspective, be okay with some failure, and on occasion work on tasks allowing more room for error.
We all have the choice to change.
We can choose to shift our perspective and tell a new story. I’ve written, in the past, about how we all can change our stories. We don’t have to continue living with the struggles we place on ourselves. We all can write our new life story that includes imperfections and it’s benefits.
All of this reminds me of a woman I once worked with.
Forty-five year old Jane* is a CEO of a large company with many employees who report to her. In addition to her typical CEO responsibilities she also is part of the training program and does monthly workshops teaching those in middle management how to be successful in their jobs, which ultimately benefits the company.
On one hand Jane appreciates the opportunity to share her sharp business sense and to improve the job skills of those in middle management, but on the other hand she lives with hidden intense anxiety that is destroying her daily living. At the end of the day she’s exhausted and by the time she gets home she takes out her anxiety and stress on those closest to her.
When I first met Jane I could see an unhappy woman, who enjoyed little, but she had an amazing job making great money. I asked her to tell me details of why she came to therapy. Then, we had the following exchange.
Me: Think for a minute, Jane. You're home alone on Sunday with anxiety gnawing at you. What goes through your mind the second before you begin to feel that way?
Jane: Tomorrow is work and a training day.
Me: Okay, but what do you tell yourself that is so horrible about that?
Jane: I might make a mistake. What if I tell middle management something wrong? I’ll embarrass myself.
Me: Ah! So what if you did? Why would that be so horrible?
Jane: I don't want to make a mistake.
Me: I know and that's good. Wanting to do well keeps you motivated. But, what I'm hearing you say is that, not only do you not want to make a mistake, but that you must never make even one mistake.
Jane: I’m a CEO. I’m supposed to know everything about my business. They expect that of me. I can't afford a mistake.
Me: But, Jane, how in the world can you pull that off? How can you go through your professional life, much less even a single day, and never make a mistake? Sounds impossible to me. Even CEO’s are imperfect, fallible people. Aren't they?
Jane: Of course, but I got where I am today because I was taught to do everything right. My father started the company, worked hard, grew it to where it is now and had high expectations of me. I have to be sure I put out quality work, to not accept anything but the best. God forbid I make a mistake! He’s gone now but I still can’t fail.
Me: Well, that's a shame, because that sets up the anxiety you suffer. Think about it. You've taken an admirable desire to do the very best you can with each of your managers. And then you've convinced yourself that you absolutely must, or need to be, God's gift to perfection. With that “must be perfect” expectation banging around in your head, you bring on this misery every time you’re in front of people. Do you see that?
Jane: Yes, I guess, I see it.
Me: What does this demand for perfection get you?
Jane: I suppose my anxiety.
Me: Yes, and little, if any, happiness and pleasure in your work.
Jane: Sad, but true.
My synopsis: Jane had a strong desire to do well, which was appropriate, and it motivated her to give each manager her very best. But, she went beyond this desire to believing that she must—absolutely must—perform perfectly, never overlooking one piece of data or making even the slightest mistake. To her, it would be horrible to make an error and she feared being humiliated in front of her managers so much that her anxiety began to take over her life. Even past her father’s death she fears letting him down. She hated Sundays because that meant the following day was the pressure of being perfect at work.
Me: I’ll bet you hold these perfectionistic expectations in other areas of your life as well, not just at work. Right?
Jane: I’m sure I do.
Me: Well, like where?
Jane: I get nervous at family functions.
Me: What's your attitude about that?
Jane: What if I do something stupid? My extended family knows I’m a CEO of a company my father started and they have expectations that I carry myself a certain way. I don’t feel like I can “let down” and relax. I’m always on edge.
Me: In other words, Jane, you must do well at all times and look good, or else.
Jane: Yes, that’s right.
Once we got to the core of Jane’s anxiety we began to focus our therapy goals on her perfectionism. As Jane learned to relax and let go some of her perfectionism she began to realize that her managers were seeing her in a more real and authentic way. She did make a mistake in one of her presentations and she learned the world didn’t collapse. She saw that when her managers saw her mistake, it took the pressure off of them to be perfect and their own anxiety reduced. Jane’s happiness began to increase and her Sunday’s were much more enjoyable. Her family also saw her more authentic, relaxed and fun to be with.
Here are four benefits to being imperfect:
1. Less Stress - Ditching the “shoulds” and all-or-nothing thinking will allow you to find more peace and enjoy your daily accomplishments and successes while you learn from your mistakes and less than perfect outcomes.
2. Improved Relationships – When you can accept your limitations and imperfections, you give others the permission to be imperfect, as well. As your expectations and impossible standards for yourself lessen, so do those you held for the people in your life. Our outer world is a reflection of our inner world, so when we begin to value ourselves regardless of what we do or achieve in any area, we then begin to value others for who they are and not what they do.
3. Increased Energy – When all of your energy is no longer concentrated on worrying about what you SHOULD be doing and how you SHOULD be doing it, you free yourself up to focus on what really matters.
4. Healthier Self-Image – Accepting and appreciating our imperfections creates room for self-nurturing, compassion, and love. You can begin to appreciate the qualities, characteristics, and experiences that are unique to you without the need to be perfect.
Bottom line, if you are struggling with perfectionism accept that you are a fallible human being, one who, by your nature, cannot ever lead an absolute perfect existence. Strive to do well and work at creating positive experiences throughout your life. But what is most important is to be authentic and realistic. Make the effort to let go of your perfectionism and you will see the positive results.
* While the main parts of this client exchange are true, main facts have been changed to protect the client's anonymity.
Liz Birch is a licensed Marriage & Family Therapist who provides services in her office in Tustin, CA. Her areas of expertise are in communications, relationships, marriage strengthening, stress reduction, depression, trauma, anxiety, anger, personal growth, and ptsd (civilian and military). She can be reached via LizBirchTherapist.com, email at LizBirchMFT@gmail.com.
I'm a licensed Marriage & Family Therapist who works with individuals, couples and families. I hope I inspire you to take risks and step out of your comfort zone. You might be surprised what you discover.