“I’m a perfectionist!” was my answer when asked the interview staple “what’s your biggest weakness?”
Aside from it being an absolute cliché of a response, it was also a whopping lie.
I knew that being a perfectionist meant I worked a little bit harder and a little bit longer than others but I didn’t actually believe it was a real-life weakness.
It had served me well, helping me get stuff done and get stuff done well. It was part of who I was and I wasn’t about to turn my back on it.
Perfectionism: A badge of honour
I wore perfectionism as a badge of honour.
My response was just a way to peacock my professional feathers. A way to show the interview panel that I was the perfect candidate and that I would consistently go above and beyond for them.
Jeeze, I’d even handled interviews with military precision.
Reams of notes on the company strategy, where they appeared in the news, employee reviews, things I loved, things I would challenge, thoughtful questions to end with that weren’t all about the money (goodness forbid I’d talk about that!).
My toxic levels of perfectionism* would set the tone from the moment I was interviewed and stay with me.
Perfection meant success in my eyes. I’d say “yes” to everything. Give a 110%, 24/7. I’d not stop until things were just right.
But “just right” is as a rare as a snowstorm in a desert for a perfectionist.
It was a feckless task.
Perfectionism feeds self-doubt
The little voice was always there, questioning whether I did enough, whether it could be better, whether people would think I’d done a good job.
It pushed me past any sort of reasonable expectation others may have had and smashed through any boundaries without a second thought. It undermined all my achievements and I didn’t even notice.
Then, despite my attachment to it, it left me in a bit of pickle.
Exhausted, unsatisfied, constantly on and questioning my ability and worth.
The outside world may not have seen it, but I felt it. Day in, day out.
IT. WAS. BRUTAL.
Perfectionism will burn you out.
As I got a bit savvier – i.e. lost the plot and burned out – I started to see perfectionism for what it really was…
A big black cloud that let slithers of light through on the good days and unleashed torrential downpours on the others.
Now, this isn’t to say I am out of the dark, wet space and basking in sunshine 100% of the time. I am very much a recovering perfectionist.
It’s still lurking. It still gets in my way. It still occasionally fills me with self-doubt.
Get acquainted with your perfectionism
But now I know what things trigger it and it looks like for me, so it’s easier to spot when it rears its ugly head.
And the easier it is to spot, the easier it is to stop (or at the very least, ease).
I’ve spent some time getting acquainted with my perfectionism. It usually shows up as….
“If you were good you’d be able to do all that and more by then.”
There I was, working weekends to deliver the things I overpromised myself and others.
“That opening paragraph doesn’t look good enough, you need to put in more effort!”
Queue rewriting the same 3 sentences until they lost all meaning.
Fear of judgement
“That was a really dumb comment, everyone will think you’re an idiot, forever.”
Hello, sleepless nights as I replay conversations over and over.
Excessive focus on results
“I’ll be happy when I complete [insert overstretched goal] and I’ll keep going until I get it.”
Forget holidays, ignore illness and plough on through regardless of how I feel.
I’m speaking about this in the context of work but it was oh-so-present in my personal life, too.
It would send me into overdrive at home when it flared up (which was often).
Spotless floors. Impeccable spice rack. Hotel-esque bed making. Excessively-plumped cushions. Way too much of everything.
Like all personality traits, perfectionism can show up differently for each of us. But I think that there are a few common things we can do to help us step away from the self-sabotaging thoughts and finally take off that badge of honour.
1) Know when it shows up
Awareness is key. Once we know what triggers our perfectionism it’s much easier to do something about.
Try writing a list of the sorts of things that might wake up the perfectionist monster in you. Have a look at your plans for the day/week and be aware of things that could unsettle the beast.
For me, sometimes just knowing I’m dealing with something that could set me off is enough for me to take a step back, be more objective and far kinder to myself.
2) Know how it shows up
Understanding how your perfectionism sounds, looks and feels can help you spot it when it pops-up unexpectedly.
Using the list you made above, think about…
- What you might say to yourself or others
- How you might behave
- What you might feel – emotion and physical
Again, this comes down to awareness. The more aware we are of how our perfectionism shows up, the easier it is to navigate it, and the easier it is to….
3) Call it out
Now we know where it comes from and what it looks/sounds/feels like we can more easily identify and label perfectionism when it shows up.
Then we can take it one step further and CALL. IT. OUT.
“Hi, Perfectionism! I see you, up to your old tricks again. That’s enough, thanks. I know you think you’re helping but I’m good, I’ve got this. You can take the day off. Byeee!”
OK, so it might sound odd but labelling my emotions and knowing where they come from really helps me. Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.
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