“I’m a perfectionist.”
This is the clever reply I sometimes gave in interviews to the famous question “what is your weakness”?
At the time, I was proud to be seen as a perfectionist but I’ve since understood that it’s like seeing the tip of the iceberg and thinking that the tip is all there is. We forget what exists below the surface.
What’s more, in today’s society, we’re regularly bombarded with photos and ads of “perfect” bodies, careers and lifestyles, with the subliminal message that this is the goal we should all be aiming for.
I suppose then that it’s not surprising that a lot of people, including myself, struggle with perfectionism.
Where does perfectionism come from?
As a child, we want to feel loved and secure. Pleasing our parents and teachers is part of that need. Because when we please, we get praise. We get validation.
At school, we’re taught that we have to get the right answer, that mistakes aren’t good. We’re often complimented more for our intelligence than our effort.
Little by little, we turn our gaze outside of ourselves and prefer other people’s approval to our own. We give our power to others to make us feel good.
That was the case for me.
Reinforced by my good grades at school, encouragement from my parents and praise from teachers, I strove for perfection and top marks as the outside validation made me feel better about myself.
And so I continued.
In my previous career, I took pride in trying to “get everything done”, starting early, leaving late. I wore a smile at all times and rarely showed if I was stressed or tired. I was doing my utmost to gain “top marks”, just like at school.
But I was often caught in an emotional battle: when I was working late, I’d feel guilty about not spending time with my family and when I was with my family, I’d feel guilty about not working. It was a vicious circle.
After 7 years in this rewarding but increasingly role, I decided to change lifestyle and aim for a greater quality of life with my husband and child. We moved across the country with the objective of buying some land, building an ecological house and starting afresh.
A Fresh Start
I took some time out for myself and developed a passion for personal growth, which I still have today. Maybe at the start, it was my way of trying to improve myself? You can tell the difference when you’re more often consuming content than digesting and applying it.
Then I did two things that really brought out my perfectionist tendencies:
- I created my own business (as the sole employee of my business, I attached my identity to it)
- I became a qualified teacher, language coach and life coach (so I put more pressure on myself to be perfect so that I could be a guide and an example to others)
In short, I had to be even more perfect than before to prove who I was – a smart coach and business owner. If I didn’t manage to live up to that potential, it was like I was worthless.
As you can imagine, this created a lot of “not enough” fears at the beginning:
- I was afraid fear of getting “out there”, being seen and perhaps judged;
- I was afraid of not being enough, of not having anything of importance to say (imposter syndrome);
- I was afraid of making mistakes, of not earning enough, of not being successful enough.
This of course made me put off certain actions until I could “become” more, through more self-development, more courses, more books. It was like driving with my foot on the accelerator and the brake at the same time!
Why do we do this?
It’s often a fear of negative judgement, of being rejected, of feeling shame (Brené Brown talks widely about this and you can find an overview here).
I learned later in life that perfectionism is like a pain-relief pill against the feeling of inadequacy. In my case, I felt that I was gaining control over life and avoiding pain by striving for perfection.
What has helped me over the past 2 years?
- Understanding more about fixed mindsets and how to develop a growth mindset;
- Learning more about mindfulness and essentialism (focusing on what matters);
- Reframing my identity, changing my perspective, how I see myself;
- Getting more comfortable with feeling uncomfortable and “not knowing”;
- Trusting myself and life more;
- Reading, journaling, reflecting;
- Connecting with other coaches and sharing our stories;
- Coaching my clients, who are often my mirrors;
This doesn’t mean that procrastination, people-pleasing, all-or-nothing thinking or any of the other aspects of perfectionism are forever in the past. But the good news is that now I’m aware of these tendencies, I’m able to apply the tools and techniques I’ve learned to help me take action and create new healthy habits that serve me better. And I want to help those of you who suffer from perfectionism to do the same.
A Final Word & Tip
Ultimately, the worst consequence of perfectionism is this: not taking action and not becoming all that we can be.
And I know that I don’t want anything to stand in the way of my growth or the growth of my clients.
So the next time you’re hesitating about speaking up in English, instead of asking: “what if I make a mistake?” Ask yourself: “what will this cost me if I don’t speak up”?