Perfectionism can make you feel like you need to do everything just right or there will be terrible consequences. Unsurprisingly, this kind of thinking can make it hard to be effective at work.
Sure, it’s important to be diligent and to prepare high-quality work on a regular basis. But, that doesn’t mean that perfectionism, which is very different from simply having high standards, works to your benefit at the office.
In fact, perfectionistic tendencies can really hold you back professionally, making it harder for you to see things clearly. It’s more difficult to solve problems when you’re overly focused on trying to be perfect.
Adaptive vs. maladaptive perfectionism
Not all forms of perfectionism should be judged in the same way. There is a big difference between ambition (adaptive perfectionism) and what is commonly referred to as perfectionism (maladaptive perfectionism.)
When does wanting to do a good job cross the line over into maladaptive perfectionism? When it becomes painful. For example, if you really enjoy writing and rewriting that email, if it gives you great joy and pleasure to find just the right words and phrasing, then you aren’t doing anyone any harm. This is what psychologists call “adaptive perfectionism.” It basically just means that you set incredibly high standards for yourself and you work toward meeting them in a healthy way.
However, if you worry, fear, and obsess over the email, or if you think it has to be absolutely perfect or some terrible consequence could befall you, that’s “maladaptive perfectionism.”
If you want to get ahead at work, you need to focus on your personal growth and on building strong connections with other professionals within your industry. Being too focused on needing to do everything absolutely perfectly doesn’t help you to meet any of those objectives. And, suffering through your work is an entirely different experience than being immersed in it. Wanting to excel and thinking that you need to be perfect are very different things
The first step toward eliminating maladaptive perfectionistic tendencies is learning to identify them in the first place.
Are you a Maladaptive perfectionist?
It can be difficult for maladaptive perfectionists to self-identify. This is mainly due to the perfectionism itself. Someone who’s too hard on themselves might say, “Oh no, I’m not a perfectionist. You wouldn’t believe how often I make a mistake.” Or, they might mention their messy and disorganized desk, for example. Surely a perfectionist would never be able to live that way, right?
Actually, what you’re seeing here hints at perfectionistic tendencies. There’s a lot of focus on what isn’t working. And, there’s a lack of ability to see the situation, and themselves, clearly.
At first, it might be hard to determine whether or not you struggle with perfectionism. So, take a closer look at a few of the telltale signs and ask yourself how many apply to you:
1. Feelings of happiness and satisfaction are fleeting
Negative perfectionism causes you to trend toward the negative. Even when things do go well, positive feelings of accomplishment don’t last. If feelings of satisfaction are fleeting and temporary, and if you quickly shift your focus over to what else needs to be accomplished, you may err toward perfectionistic thinking.
2. You remember it being passed down
You weren’t born a perfectionist. Something, or some combination of things, made you that way over time.
Perfectionism is often transmitted to children from their parents. Perhaps you had a mother or father who took themselves to task more than they should have. Or, you could have just picked it up from the culture at large. Maybe you were trained by your teachers to believe that everything needed be to just so.
You also could have learned to think this way in more direct ways. Were you ever scolded for getting a B rather than an A? Over time, these types of gestures can add up and send messages to kids. Do you have a memory of perfectionism being passed on to you during childhood? If so, it could be a sign that perfectionism is a burden you continue to carry during adulthood.
3. You obsess day and night
There is a correlation between perfectionism and lots of physical and psychological challenges such as anxiety, depression and insomnia. These tendencies are associated with eating and stress disorders.
Perfectionists tax their own bodies and minds by attempting to achieve an impossible standard at work and beyond. They might find it difficult to let go of a project at the end of the workday. Even when they are off the clock, away from work, or even trying to get to sleep, they still obsess.
If you find yourself worrying about work day and night, it’s an indicator that your perfectionism is holding you back.
4. You never have enough time
A lot of folks wish there were more hours in the day. But, for perfectionists it’s a little different. If you routinely struggle to complete tasks in a timely manner, it could be an indication of a problem.
Having a healthy level of drive and ambition helps you to complete tasks efficiently. But, if you’re writing and rewriting agendas and proposals and struggle to get to the point where you’re ready to submit, you might be a perfectionist. People with these tendencies never seem to have enough time because they rarely think that their work is good enough and they struggle to consider tasks completed.
5. You find it difficult to learn from mistakes
It’s perfectly normal and natural to make mistakes from time to time at work. In fact, missteps are a great way to learn and grow. However, perfectionists have a hard time reaping the positive benefits of their mistakes, because they often have a really difficult time accepting them in the first place.
If you cringe when you think back on errors you’ve made at work, it could be a sign that you’re a perfectionist. You can’t learn to do better in the future if you can hardly stand to review what happened in the present.
Here are some tips for letting go of perfectionism:
Letting go of perfectionism is a process. But, even just a little progress can go a long way. There are some things you can do, starting right away, that can help you to begin to release these tendencies.
Meditation has a ton of benefits that can serve you well in the workplace. It can go a long way toward helping you to be more present in the moment. It also helps combat stress, anxiety, negative emotions and so many other problems that are correlated with perfectionism. So, meditation and other mindfulness practices can be a great thing to try if you’re working to let go of these habits.
Don’t just try it once or a few times though. Like so many healthy habits, the benefits of meditation develop over time. Also, avoid the temptation to apply perfectionist thinking to your practice. Relax with it and know that showing up and putting in the time is all you need to do to “get it right.”
“Meditation is not difficult to learn,” said Stan Chapman, PhD, a psychologist in the Center for Pain Medicine at Emory Healthcare in Atlanta, speaking with WebMD. “You don’t need to see a therapist 40 times to learn it. But like tennis, it’s a skill. You need to practice. In time, people develop the ability to produce these meditative, very relaxed states very quickly. When they meditate several times during the day, they become more relaxed during the entire day.”
Stop managing impressions
“You probably wouldn’t worry about what people think of you if you could know how seldom they do!” – Olin Miller
Have you ever heard the expression, “what someone else thinks of me is none of my business”? Well, there is some real wisdom there. Because, here’s the thing — you can’t know what someone else thinks about you, anyway.
Perfectionists tend to waste a lot of time and energy trying to be all things to all people. They worry about what others think of them. But, it doesn’t stop there. They also tend to overanalyze interactions in an effort to fully understand, and maybe go back and correct, the things they said and did.
If you really want to begin to release your perfectionistic tendencies, stop trying so hard to manage other people’s impressions of you. Just relax and be yourself. Authenticity goes a long way in the workplace. It’s hard to get there though when you’re spending all of your time worried about what others think.
Learn from your mistakes
There are ways to turn lemons into lemonade when you make a mistake at work. But, that’s difficult for someone who’s struggling with perfectionism. That’s a shame though, because you can learn quite a lot from the things that go wrong at work.
Everyone makes mistakes. It’s part of the human experience. So, if you’re struggling to release perfectionism, remind yourself of that the next time you do something wrong. Instead of taking yourself to task over the error, take a moment. Tell yourself that it’s totally normal to make mistakes. Then, think about how beating yourself up about it isn’t constructive, but learning something from it is.
Really think about what you can take away from the process when you make a mistake. Make a conscious effort to learn from the error. Then, determine to let it go and move on. If it pops into your mind in the future, just remind yourself that it’s normal to make mistakes and that you grew from the experience and it won’t happen again.
Perfectionists tend to jump from one thing to the next mentally. The moment the finish a difficult presentation, they move on to worrying about the next big project on the horizon. But, this is a bad habit and it’s something you’ll want to try to stop doing.
When you complete a task, big or small, take a minutes to step back and celebrate your accomplishment. Instead of thinking, “Well, the only thing that didn’t go well was when I said X,” linger on all of the things that did work out. (It’s important to learn from errors, but you don’t want to overwork the process.) Think to yourself, “That went really well. I was prepared and articulate and I learned so much. I know I’ll do even better next time.”
Celebrate when you organize your office by telling yourself that it looks great. Do this instead of thinking something like you’re glad it’s finally done and you have to be better about keeping it tidy in the future. And, don’t just bounce down to the next item on your to-do list either. Take the time to tell yourself that you did a good job when you complete a task.
Also, share your accomplishments with friends and family. Tell them about your successes and what’s going right at work rather than just focusing on what isn’t working. It isn’t bragging to commend yourself. It’s healthy. So, vow to take the time to revel in your success at work, alone and with others. You don’t have to be perfect to celebrate.
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