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  • Writer's pictureJill Lynch Cruz

The Dark Side of Perfectionism: 4 Ways it Gets in the Way of Achieving your Goals

Perfectionism is not striving for excellence. It's actually a fixed mindset holding us back from reaching our full potential. Here are 4 ways it may be showing up for you and how to get out of your own way.

Funny thing...My own perfectionism almost got in the way of my publishing this blog on...well... perfectionism. I know, the irony! I am passionate about empowering others through the ideas I share in my blog series, Getting Out of Your Own Way, but often felt drained by my relentless compulsion to make it "perfect."

Truth be told, I’ve struggled with perfectionism my whole life, especially in areas where I feel most vulnerable to the judgment, or worse, criticism, of others. One of these areas for me is writing for an audience of smart, ambitious, highly educated women – like yourself!

Perfectionism is Not Striving for Excellence

I have come to realize that the desire to be perfect isn't about striving for excellence. It's about our need for other people’s approval.

When we pursue excellence, we strive to become our best selves. Perfectionism, on the other hand, is really about appearing to others as flawless in hopes of avoiding shame, criticism and judgment.

The pursuit of excellence requires a growth mindset focused on continuous improvement and steady progress. Perfectionism is a fixed mindset that protects us from fear of failure and what we make it mean about our own worthiness.

Perfectionism is not self-improvement. Perfection is, at its core, about trying to earn approval...I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it...please, perform, perfect, prove. Brene Brown

How Perfectionism Gets in the Way of Achieving Our Goals

The dark side of perfectionism is that it keeps intelligent and ambitious women like us from reaching our full potential. While most of us struggle with the pursuit of perfectionism from time to time, consider these 4 ways it may be getting in the way of you achieving your most important goals:

1. Perfectionism Keeps You from Getting Started

Do you have difficulty getting started working on an important project or goal? This was often the case for me with my blog. Overwhelmed by my own high expectations of what I expect the finished product to look like, I often procrastinate, feeling the need to do more research or be better prepared before jumping in.

Many of us don't immediately recognize the link between perfectionism and procrastination, but it often goes hand-in-hand. Procrastination is just an attempt to avoid feelings of anxiety about not meeting our own expectations. Because of our unrealistically high standards, we procrastinate fearing we won't complete the task flawlessly.

If you think you just work best under pressure, know it’s just another symptom of this perfectionist-procrastination cycle. Faced with the tight deadline, perfectionists have no choice but to recalibrate their standards and get down to work.

How to Get Out of Your Own Way: The way to counteract perfection-based procrastination is to focus on the process rather than the result. Instead of becoming overwhelmed by your high expectations for the finished product, focus on just getting started making incremental but steady progress toward your goal.

This is an approach I’ve adopted in my own writing process. Rather than being paralyzed by my expectations for the final article, I focus on just writing on a consistent basis. I celebrate small wins along the way as I craft the pieces that will ultimately come together as the final product.

2. Perfectionism Keeps You from Getting Stuff Done

Do you often feel overwhelmed by all the items on your to-do list? Perhaps you attribute this to a time management problem - you just need a little more time, or a few more resources, etc. However, the root cause of your falling short is likely due to perfectionism.

While procrastination-based perfectionism can make it difficult for perfectionists to get started, the compulsion to do everything perfectly can also keep you from getting work done. If you are like me, agonizing over the smallest of details of every task, email, or article, this will cost you greatly in terms of the time and attention better spent on other (more important) matters.

Furthermore, if you have difficulty delegating work to others, it likely because you don’t trust others to meet your high standards. Instead of freeing yourself up to complete the most important tasks that could help move your career forward, you become burdened with having to do the work of others.

How to Get Out of Your Own Way: Take a critical look at where and how perfectionism impacts your ability to complete tasks efficiently and what it may be costing you. While providing error-free work may be more important it some areas, it’s unrealistic for everything.

Done is better than perfect because perfect never gets done.

Determine where you can lower the bar for yourself and others and where “good enough” will work just fine. If this is challenging for you, perhaps start by practicing to be imperfect where the risks are lower. Maybe even rip off the bandage and throw in a few minor tipos here and there to appear less purfect. And if you have the declaimer on the bottom of your emails that says something along the lines of “please disregard typos,” please know this is a sign to others you are a perfectionist!

3. Perfectionism Encourages Achievement for Achievement’s Sake

As a chronic overachiever, I’ve pushed myself to excel in school and throughout my career. However, regardless of what or how much I achieved, I never really felt totally satisfied. Always looking for the “next thing,” I thought if I just got the next degree, promotion, raise, new job, etc., I’d (finally) be content. The constant striving for more and more was relentless. It got in the way of my ability to savor my accomplishments and set me up for stress, anxiety and burnout.

If you are a perfectionist, it’s likely that regardless of what or how much you’ve achieved, it’s never quite enough. This is because perfectionists often believe they are what they achieve. We feel pressure to constantly acquire more as evidence of our worthiness. Healthy achievers strive for success because they enjoy the process, whereas perfectionist achievers are often in it for the gold star.

How to Get out of Your Own Way: If you often find yourself chasing achievements for achievement stake, consider what may be underlying this drive. While a promotion, raise or other forms of recognition may be validating in the moment, know this feeling is often fleeting. Take stock in the accomplishments you’ve already made and celebrate and savor these victories. Before moving onto the next endeavor, critically evaluate how it actually supports your overall vision and goals for your life and career.

4. Perfectionism Keeps You on the Sidelines of Life

Where in your life are you staying small and playing it safe? One of the ironies about perfectionism is how it keeps us from achieving the very thing we believe it enhances – our full potential.

Perfectionists’ all-or-nothing mindset and deep fear of failure keep us paralyzed from moving toward our dreams if we aren’t guaranteed success. This is especially true in the most important areas of our life, where the risks of failure to our self-esteem are highest.

Rather than stretching ourselves outside our comfort zone and risk the possibility of failing, we downsize our ambition. The cost of our perfectionism is living on the sidelines of life rather than becoming the powerful women leaders we are meant to be.

How to Get Out of Your Own Way: Following our dreams requires a growth mindset that encourages risk taking, making mistakes and sometimes even failure. It also takes courage. Courage isn’t taking action in the absence of fear, its feeling fear and doing it anyway.

If you feel fear and uncertainty about pushing yourself outside your comfort zone - Great! This is a sign you are in the process of growing. So, if you want to get off the sidelines and play life full out, get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

How is Perfectionism Holding You Back?

If any of these examples of perfectionism resonate with you, know you are not alone. I struggle with them too.

Yet, here we are. You are (hopefully) reading this blog, so what changed?

I’ve shifted my mindset. I realized how my perfectionism was actually the very thing that was getting in my own way of actually publishing this blog. So instead of spending a week or more agonizing over this post, I completed it in one afternoon.

I’m taking a leap of faith that my imperfect blog post will somehow be more inspirational than the perfect version you’ll never see. I still consider myself a bit of a (recovering) perfectionist, but I am now more aware of how its showing up for me so I can get out of my own way.

If you’d like more information on how I can help you overcoming perfectionism in your life, please contact me. You are also welcome to schedule a complimentary coaching session to experience the power of coaching to help you "get out of your own way" so you can realize your full potential.

Jill Lynch Cruz, PhD, CPC, GCDF, SPHR

Executive Coach & Career Development Consultant


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