Welcome to episode three of the Habits On Purpose podcast, You Might Be a Perfectionist If... Today we'll discuss the habit of perfectionism and all of the less obvious ways perfectionistic mindset shows up.
Welcome to Habits On Purpose, a podcast for high-achieving women who want to create lifelong habits and feel as good on the inside as they look on paper. You'll get practical strategies for mindset shifts that will help you finally understand the root causes of why you think, feel, and act as you do so you can learn to create habits that give more than they take, and now, here's your host physician and certified life coach Kristi Angevine.
Hello, there today I'm talking about one of my favorite topics, the habit of perfectionism. In this episode, I'll define perfectionism in a way that might be surprising to you and then discuss the problems with it and how it diverges from high achievement thinking. I'll go on to touch on the reason why about half of all perfectionists don't self-identify as perfectionists, and then I'll outline how it shows up and give you a practical step you can take to start changing this habit now.
Now, you must not consider perfectionism to be a habit. You might consider it to be an inherent personality trait, but I assure you that although some people are more prone to it than others. It's actually a habit, a habit that is learned and reinforced with repetition. As a habit at one point in time, it served a purpose, even if it's worn out of utility now, and as a habit, it encompasses behaviors as well as a certain habituated mindset.
Now, perfectionism is one of my favorite topics because probably one of the biggest surprise, AH-HA moments I had when I was going through coaching was recognizing my own perfectionistic tendencies when I never, ever, ever, ever, would have thought to self-identify as a perfectionist, but knowing what I know now I am definitely a recovering closet perfectionist.
So, as I was creating this episode, the irony of all ironies is that even with all of the progress I've made on my own habit of perfectionism, my brain offered my an enticing platter of perfectionistic thoughts. Things like, it has to be just right, it will probably be so lame, I should probably wait until I know exactly what to say before I start. When I feel confident, then I can do it.
I don't know how many presentations, workshops, talks I've given on this subject, and yet, that well-rehearsed part loves to surface, but just like I'll teach you, just because I hear those thoughts doesn't mean that I'm obliged to believe them. And yet, just because I know that I'm not obliged to believe thoughts just because they're there doesn't mean that I didn't grapple with them, and it wasn't pretty, and it didn't feel great.
I had to make space for that old perfectionism to come up. But because I've been doing this for a while, I knew to expect it, and that made it so much easier to handle. It makes me think of surfing like, I'm now aware that there's some strong currents or choppy water, but if I want to surf at my favorite spot, I still have to paddle through that shit to get where I want to go.
Now, to all the expert surfers out there, that can be a terrible analogy that doesn't work for you, but it's the image that comes to my mind. Now, this brings me to one of the things I want to reinforce throughout this podcast. You don't have to have your habits perfectly figured out in order to feel better and in order to do a pretty damn good job in your day-to-day life.
You don't have to be perfect to go through your goals, and as my five-year-old says, everything doesn't have to be perfect. Now, let's get really clear on what perfectionism is and why it's so easy to miss. Now, I have a lot of mentors and several teachers, many of whom have been instrumental to all of the personal work that I have done and to contributing to my knowledge base as a coach, and you're going to hear me mention them here and there on future episodes. If I had to pick one that inspired my work on perfectionism the most, it's definitely Kara Loewentheil.
She's a brilliant human whose work I was first introduced to through my life coach training program and by following her podcast, Unf*ck Your Brain. If you don't already follow her, you should totally get to know her. She does incredible work unpacking systems and structural oppression and internalized patriarchal mentalities. What I learned from Kara was a twist on the definition of perfectionism that shifted everything for me.
Now, often perfectionism brings to mind Type A personalities, immaculate homes, nothing ever being out of place, flawless execution of all things, but this definition makes it easy to miss the bulk of perfectionistic tendencies. Perfectionism doesn't mean you're perfect. Perfectionism is the belief that everything should be perfect.
That what you've done in the past should have been perfect and could have been perfect. That what you do going forward should be perfect. It's the belief that flawlessness is the only acceptable outcome, but it's more than just this. What I learned from Kara is that at the heart of perfectionism is the belief that it's always better to be better. Once I'm better, then I'll be okay. Once I'm better, then I'll believe that I'm okay.
So, let's take a minute to think about what happens when you believe that it's better to be better. When it's always better to be better and to do better, then you're always striving for a moving benchmark, and if your sense of self-esteem or worth is tied to that benchmark, then your sense of self is pinned to an ever-advancing line in the sand. This is at the core of the once-then mentality.
Once I balance work and hobbies, then I'll feel free. Once I'm caught up, then I can relax. Once I'm thinner, fitter, prettier, then I'll feel confident. Once I have a clear vision for my life, then I'll feel settled. Once my to-do list is complete, then I'll feel at peace. So, what's the real problem with the habit of believing it is better to be better?
You might be thinking, isn't that just the price you pay for having high standards? Now, if the habit of perfectionism were really useful, that would be one thing, but the habit of perfectionism actually increases stress, reduces productivity, and totally stymies growth, and it's really important to distinguish perfectionistic thinking is not the same thing as high achievement thinking.
Here, check this out, high achievers are ambitious, self-disciplined, and have a strong desire to obtain meaningful, bold goals. A high achievement mindset aims for excellence but, along the way, enjoys the pursuit and the learning. And high achievers know how to be satisfied with great work, even if it's imperfect. To a high achiever, their work is not paired to success, and fails are critical ways to learn and grow, not personal indictments. High achievers recognize that the enemy of good is perpetually trying to make something better, better, and better at the expense of getting the job done.
They understand that growth happens not despite the discomfort but because of it. Which means with growth, there's always a risk of failing and being judged, but the growth that comes with that risk is totally worth it. Staying on the safe side and aiming for perfection in order to reduce the chance of failing is the fastest way to do as Shirley [0:08:05.1] to decide you don't want to grow anymore.
Now, perfectionism comes in a variety of forms, but in general, in huge start contrast, the high achievement thinking perfectionism encompasses perpetual self-improvement, an ever-moving benchmark for self-esteem and worth, and for tolerance for anything less than just so. What happens is this, when you're always striving, you don't appreciate where you are. When it's never good enough, you aren't ever satisfied no matter how good you're doing.
And self-improvement isn't just to grow but to fix a deficit. This sounds like when I lose weight, get in shape, stop eating or drinking to fix my emotions, quit ruminating, quit numbing with work or exercise, stop people-pleasing, then I'll feel content, at peace, and I can relax, etc. From a perfectionistic point of view, failure is seen as a huge problem. So perfectionistic spend a lot of time and energy to avoid it. These efforts to be perfect happen at the expense of excellence.
Now, why does this happen? It takes so much longer to accomplish tasks because of all the fretting over making sure it's just right. So, all of the mental energy may go into worrying about hypotheticals like, what if they don't like me? What if they judge me? And imagining perfection or that reality or comparing oneself unfavorably to others, and since life is finite, why would you want to spend your precious mental energy doing this?
Now, if you like numbers and find pictures powerful, check out the fail flow.com sight. It's failflow.com. It gives you the number of weeks you have lived and the number of weeks you have left if you were to live to the age of 91. Now, seeing the image of weeks lived and the weeks remaining, it's really powerful.
So, if you're near my age, and you were going to live to the age of 91, you'll probably have around 2400 weeks until you die. So, we have this limited time, this limited resources, so why spend them believing it's better to be better? Now, on that cherry note, let's address the fact that many perfectionists don't realize they're perfectionists. Why is this?
There are two reasons. Many perfectionists have no clue that they have the habit of perfectionism because they think that perfectionists are perfect, and since they're nowhere near perfect, they can't be one. Or they think they're only perfectionistic in one area of their life like they're only perfectionistic with work or in the operating room, or with eating, or with their parenting. The truth is the mindset of perfectionism isn't one you can confine to one single area.
For me, I didn't see myself as a perfectionist because I was nowhere near perfect. In my view, I was barely getting by. I procrastinated because I had nowhere to start. I thought that for something to be high quality, it needed to feel easy to do, and I believed I was woefully incompetent no matter how well I did. I pulled things off last minute, and I assumed that it was always easier for other people. When something was easy for me, I just discounted it as nothing meaningful.
Yet, what drove all of my angst was this idea that I should always be better than I was, and yeah, I could get things done and do excellent work, but it was always so much harder than it needed to be if I could quantify the time I spent worrying about getting something just right and remove that I would have had so much more time and energy that could have been available for other things.
So, perfectionists aren't perfect. They just hold the belief that perfection is the goal and that it's better to be better, and being perfectionistic in one area is enough. The mindset may not seem to explicitly guide all of your decisions, but it's likely there more than you realized. Now, many of you who are listening either all ready self identify as having a perfectionistic habit, or you just totally do not.
If you're in the latter, you might be surprised in the ways it shows up, and that's what we're going to dive into now. How does this mindset that it's better to be better that things should be done as close to possible actually show up? There are four main aspects to the habit of perfectionism, rigidity, judgment, fixation on deficits, the fear of failure, and to focus on the destination rather than the journey.
I'm going to give you examples of the way that perfectionism can show up, and as you listen, you can take your own inventory. Now, the caveat is this, many of these actions I'm going to list off can arise from something other than perfectionism, but as you listen, see if you can connect how many of them are a natural extension from the value in perfect and believing it's better to be better.
Does this ever sound like you? Being bothered when things don't go according to plan? Bristling at chaos, unpredictability or not being in control, fixating on what's not right, focusing on the mistakes, harping on and trying to control the minutia, beating yourself up, maybe judging yourself harshly but not seeing as harsh. Having a perpetual self-improvement project, worrying what others might think of you, taking things personally, seeing criticism everywhere even in benign, neutral comments, comparing and despairing, desiring validation or reassurance but having difficulty taking compliments?
All or nothing black and white thinking, or how about overgeneralizing. Saying the entire thing was a fail because of that one fumble. Thinking if it's not 100%, why bother or thinking a job worth doing is one worth doing well. Your flavor of perfectionism might include a fear of failure. This presents with things like difficulty starting tasks, procrastination, thinking you have to know everything before starting or deciding, rationalizing things like exhaustive pros and cons list, and research, as just being thorough when really it's simply shields you from taking action where you might actually flop.
Taking small strangulated actions or last-minute action having trouble making decisions for fear of making the wrong one the analysis paralysis procrastination rush cycle. Which results in not doing as well as desired, labeling it a huge fail, and then going on to fear future fails. Maybe it shows up for you by holding an unrealistic definition of success and worrying about not doing things right.
Disliking learning in front of others, thinking that public failure is to be avoided at all costs. So, you might avoid trying things that are new, or act like you know what's going on even if you don't, or maybe your habit of perfectionism shows up by fixating on the results or the future at the expense of being present in the present moment.
This shows up as setting goals that are completely out of reach, unrealistic, and unsustainable—and trying to do too much all at once in too little of time and do it all perfectly. You may miss enjoying the present or the pursuit. You might be always shoulding yourself. Believing you should be doing something better or differently. You might be very quick to discount or discredit anything positive or any progress that you make.
You might downplay achievements as flukes, or you might just have a fantasy of what things will be like when everything is perfectly in order, and enjoy how amazing it feels when you enjoy the fantasy. But, you've rarely relish or savor or bask in your wins or in your present moment before you just move on to the next thing. Which of these things can you relate to? Consider when you spend your time showing up from this place, ultimately you'll never feel you're good enough, no matter what you do or how hard you try.
So, while you may have up until this point thought of perfectionism as a strength, it actually takes more than it gives. It interferes with excellence, and when it's used as a metric for work, all it does is create more stress and more striding as you hustle for your work, and this is how perfectionism keeps us small, limits growth, and actually decreases enjoyment of the present moment.
Now, whether you hear this list and think, yup, that's me, or you hear this list, and your jaw is on the ground because you're thinking I never knew I had a perfectionistic habit. All is not lost since all of these behaviors are actions. They're simply behaviors driven by feelings, and many feelings can drive these actions, but in general, it usually boils down to things like anxiety and fear. Things like insecurity, self-doubt, some flavor of not enough-ness or fear of failure, and since it's our thoughts that create our feelings, the way we change this habit of perfectionism is to first be aware of the thoughts that precede our behaviors.
Remember, like all habits, perfectionistic thinking, developed as a solution and served a really great purpose on a very basic level. The habit of perfectionism keeps you safe by helping you avoid failure. And we're designed to see failure as very dangerous. So, in this way aiming for high quality and hoping to avoid messing up is really quite adaptive.
At one point in time, it had fueled really hard work. It seems to help avoid mediocrity, and frankly, it's a mindset that's really rewarded and prized in many fields. So, now what? How to change the habit of perfectionism? Well, first off, there's no quick fix. Unwinding perfectionism requires understanding why the habit developed in the first place. It calls on us to do deep work with things like examining why the habit made sense to us in the past?
What we make failures mean, how we may have coupled achievement with worth, and why. But the process can start with one simple thing; the one simple thing is awareness. Awareness of when you're believing it's better to be better and when you're believing that perfection is the goal. And the way you do this is you pick one behavior that you heard from that list that you notice that you do that seems like it's coming from a perfectionistic mindset; maybe it's over editing an email reply?
Maybe it's ruminating on what's not going well? Maybe it's should-ing yourself, or having once than statements. I should work out more. Once I'm in better shape, then I'll be less of a loser. This week just notice when you do that behavior and when you notice it step into the watcher role or the curious research student role and say something like, I notice I'm should-ing right now.
I wonder why? What am I feeling? What am I thinking? What am I worried about? And this simple step is the first place you go to start developing awareness. So, let's recap, perfectionism is a habit, and as a habit, it has served some purpose. Perfectionism is the idea that it's better to be better and that the only acceptable outcome is flawlessness. Now, many perfectionists don't realize they're perfectionists because they erroneously think that perfectionists are perfect.
And noticing the perfectionistic habit is really tricky because it doesn't always sound as overt as I must be perfect; otherwise, I'm not worthy. Perfectionistic thinking masquerades as just having high standards, but it's much different than high achievement thinking. There are many, many ways that the perfectionistic habit shows up, and most of the time, it's driven by feelings of anxiety and fear.
Ultimately, it's an impediment to growth and productivity. The antidote to it starts with your awareness and curiosity. So, have a great rest of your week, and I'll see you in the next episode.
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Thanks for listening to Habits on Purpose. If you want more information on Kristi Angevine or the resources from the podcast, visit habitsonpurpose.com. Tune in next week for another episode.