Michael is a successful business owner who came to coaching because he felt he was doing something wrong, even though his business was doing well. He had a persistent underlying feeling of being a failure, even though all the evidence pointed to the contrary.
Michael began by saying that he’s always believed that “If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing right.” When I asked, “What does ‘right’ mean?” he said it means that everything has to be perfect. Always! All the time!
It turned out that Michael came from a family in which his parents’ standards were beyond reach and reason. They were never satisfied with anything he did. If his school grades were all A’s and an A minus, the focus was immediately on why there was a minus. If he missed a catch in football, his father would yell, embarrass him in front of his team, and make him practice for hours. When he was young Michael was always in a no-win situation where nothing he did was ever good enough.
Consequently, Michael now sees mistakes as evidence that he is incompetent and unworthy, and feels that only perfection will gain him the love, respect, approval and acceptance he so badly wants. As a result he drives himself to exhaustion and still doesn’t feel the sense of success and fulfillment he craves.
The reality is that there is no such thing as perfection. We are all human, with strengths and weaknesses. Nobody is excellent at everything, and trying to be perfect can be emotionally, mentally and physically exhausting. Ironically, striving for perfection is often a set up for failure.
Michael believed that the only way he could be successful was to be a perfectionist. However, when we compared perfectionists with healthy achievers, he saw that achievers accomplish just as much as perfectionists, and also avoid many of the negatives that he was experiencing.
Perfectionist or Achiever
Some of the differences between perfectionists and healthy achievers are:
- Perfectionists see mistakes as evidence of unworthiness, while achievers see mistakes as opportunities for learning and growth.
- Perfectionists feel they are only valuable and loveable if they are performing perfectly, while achievers know that their value as a human being is not measured by how perfectly they perform.
- Perfectionists are often preoccupied with fear of failure and disapproval (which can cause procrastination, not finishing a project, and constant self-devaluation) while achievers feel normal anxiety but don’t let it turn into fear.
- Perfectionists never allow others to see that they don’t know something, while achievers happily admit they have much to learn and are open to learning from others.
- Perfectionists often become overly defensive when criticized, while achievers appreciate helpful, constructive criticism.
- Perfectionists set unreasonable standards while achievers set standards that are high, but achievable.
- Perfectionists focus only on the goal and are never satisfied by anything less than perfection, while achievers enjoy the process as well as the outcome.
What You Can Do
Once Michael became aware of how his perfectionism was depleting his energy, causing him to feel depressed and interfering with his relationships, he decided it was time to make some changes in how he approached his life. He began by:
- Ø Making a list of the benefits and consequences of trying to be perfect. He realized that although his business was successful, relationship problems, low self-esteem, compulsive behaviors, anxiety, feelings of inadequacy, depression, and workaholism were also the results of his perfectionism.
- Ø Listing all the things he likes about himself, and realizing that he has much value as a human being, even when he isn’t producing a perfect result. He realized that he is loveable because of who he is, not only because of what he does.
- Ø He began to be more realistic about what he can and cannot do. Instead of setting unreasonable goals and then beating himself up because he doesn’t achieve them, he set more realistic goals, which he can achieve and be proud of.
- Ø He changed his view of criticism, to see that it is usually not a personal attack, and therefore does not have to be met with defensiveness. His focus now is to take criticism objectively and appreciate the lesson. He also realized that criticism isn’t about his value as a human being, and that someone can objectively criticize something he’s done and still accept and respect him.
- Ø He realized that if he stops making mistakes he will stop learning and growing, so he changed his definition of mistake from ‘failure’ to ‘growth opportunity’.
Michael is now allowing himself to experience the joy of achieving without negatively judging everything he sees as imperfect. He is also being more supportive and less demanding in his relationships with others. He has been surprised to see that others actually like and respect him more now that he is not so driven, and he feels happier and more fulfilled in every area of his life.
If you are a perfectionist, you may want to ask yourself what toll it’s taking on you, and if being an achiever might actually help you accomplish more and feel better about it.
It’s something to think about.
Please comment so others can benefit from your wisdom and experience.
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