“I’m a perfectionist.”
Nod your head if you’ve ever heard these words from a coworker, a classmate, a sibling or even from yourself.
A word with a pretty self-explanatory definition is much more complicated when used as a personal descriptor. Many of us strive for this label, believing that it justifies our hard-working character or explains why we spend hours upon hours working late at the office or editing unsent emails for the nth time. Is perfectionism real, or is it merely an excuse to cover up a deeper meaning?
According to researcher, activist and Ted Talk presenter Brené Brown, the pursuit of perfectionism may in fact be our way of hiding our deepest fear: failure. A legitimate fear, the feeling of failure is one that penetrates our souls deeper than any other emotion - even more so than anger, irritation or jealousy. Often times, failure is linked to what we call shame, a feeling that not only makes us feel bad but also makes us feel bad about who we are as people. Therefore, we use the faux shield of perfectionism to minimize the lingering stings of pain failure leaves in its wake. And this could be why so many of us use our perfectionist qualities as excuses for working overtime, never cutting ourselves slack or becoming teary eyed at criticism.
So what? We live in a competitive society, after all, and can’t afford to fall behind. Since when has striving to our limits been a bad thing? If you’re still nodding along in agreement, consider these three pitfalls of perfectionism:
1. You’re settling.
As a result of perfectionism, we tend to stick to what we know. We refuse to reach higher simply because we are scared to fall short. We’d rather do what we know perfectly than risk stepping out of our comfort zones and not meeting expectations.
The Fix: Expect the unexpected.
What we tend not to realize is one risky step outside of your comfort zone could lead to even greater accomplishments. And when you find the courage to take that step and begin to open your mind to new paths, you are choosing freedom. You are expanding the boundaries you created in the first place by learning plans B, C and D have the potential to surpass your original lifeplan if you give them the chance.
2. You’re focusing on others.
In a 2013 interview with Forbes Magazine, Brown noted perfectionism is all about pleasing others rather than ourselves. We are hyper-aware of what other people expect from us - our bosses, our spouses, our friends, our coworkers. Focusing so much of our time and energy on other people sucks away at our personal happiness.
The Fix: Shift your perspective.
What if your workplace was no longer an environment to earn a raise but rather a space to create? What if dating wasn’t about winning a spouse but rather learning about new and different types of people living in the world? A simple shift in perspective redirects your focus to you, your goals and your ambitions.
3. You’re not learning.
Failing and learning go hand in hand. When you fail or don’t live up to your expectations, there is a lesson to be learned. And with that newfound knowledge, you can expect to be propelled even further the next time you give whatever you aim for a go.
The Fix: Practice vulnerability.
Brown revealed that those who are able to stand being uncomfortable are able to rise out of failure quicker. Why? Recognizing your flaws and your weaknesses means being vulnerable, and the more we are willing to be vulnerable with ourselves, the easier it will be to venture out of our comfort zones. Try keeping a journal and practice vulnerability by jotting down what you learned when you didn’t achieve your full potential. Remember, the fight isn’t against our perfectionistic qualities. The fight is against our fear that not being the best means not being good enough at all.
“Perfectionism is a 20-ton shield that we lug around, thinking it will protect us, when in fact it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from being seen.” – Brené Brown; interview with Forbes