‘The Dangers of Being a Perfectionist’

15 Dec ‘The Dangers of Being a Perfectionist’


What is it that drives so many of the highly successful yet anxiety prone executives I’ve had the pleasure of coaching? For example, not so long ago I was working with a talented and dynamic leader, let’s call him John. John had an enviable menu of successes and was seen as a great asset to his business and certainly appreciated by his peers and managers alike. There was one issue though – he would get angry. Now this anger would sometimes overtly seep into his behaviours, though more often than not John would keep it inside (or ‘internalise’ the feeling) and this would have a direct and negative impact on his work. By the time I saw John he had realised that his responses were in fact inhibiting his capacity to progress and reach the career heights that he knew he was capable of.

John and I worked together for some time to unearth the issues. Here was a smart, successful, switched on individual who literally felt emotionally eaten up inside. On the face of it, it didn’t make logical sense, though it was through this unearthing that John discovered the damaging effects of his constant and consistent internal narrative which repeated in his mind over and over again, broken record style. This narrative (known as ‘self-talk’) would constantly berate John for even the smallest misfortune of human error, such that any perceived negative feedback (i.e. the trigger event) would often feel excruciating. He would try to hide his response as best he could, though the more he tried, the more he would ruminate and the angrier he would become. And guess what? The anger would cloud his thinking and judgement, and would eventually undermine his capacity to meet his real potential. A self-fulfilling prophecy!

In my experience, John’s thinking style is not uncommon amongst successful and driven professionals. Sure, setting oneself challenging goals is often a key ingredient for success. However, tip that balance such that your measure of success is based on objectively unattainable goals, and the path of (self) destruction lies ahead. Heard of the saying ‘nobody’s perfect?’ Well it’s true.  The research (Leonard and Harvey) tells us that some aspects or types of perfectionism serve the individual well, for example when the person derives a real sense of internal satisfaction for completing a job well done. However, when the individual uses the success (or lack of) as a measure of self-worth then they fall into the category referred to as Negative Perfectionism.

Perfectionistic tendencies are usually developed in childhood through messages given to the individual via their role models. The thoughts are habitual and unrelenting, meaning that they revolve around the mind, and whilst they might be avoided for a while, unfortunately they don’t easily disappear. The thing is that they are often not particularly rational or true, though their owners tend to treat them with utmost esteem and authority. The real concern is that over an extended period of time such perfectionism is likely to lead to “negative emotional states which include depression, anxiety, neuroticism, job stress and psychosomatic disorders that may lead to a decrease in performance” – exactly as John was experiencing.

But what of external influences on perfectionistic tendencies? As we know, humans are not islands, and it is widely believed that organisational culture can significantly influence the individual’s emotional state and behavioural presentation. In fact some environments may well exacerbate existing maladjusted feelings and behaviours. One example that springs to mind is the conventional billing system which is de-rigour in most law firms today. Lawyers have often remarked to me that the established system sets an air of internal competitiveness, and the conveyor belt of output (most commonly measured in 6 minute increments) can be unrelenting, particularly as it is constantly monitored by the powers that be. Based on this feedback it would seem that lawyers are indeed groomed to live up to a set of pre-established expectations with metrics to match their every (billing and perhaps non-billing) move. Furthermore, control over how and what they bill is relatively limited. Overlay that with an individual who displays perfectionist tendencies and you can end up with a situation whereby their maladaptive thoughts are constantly reinforced. The long term outcome, as you may imagine, is not healthy and can often manifest itself as “procrastination, increased conflict, chemical use and abuse, eating disorders, coronary heart disease, chronic pain and even suicide” (Leonard and Harvey).

 So how can you avoid this gremlin called perfectionism from interrupting your capacity to reach your true potential?

  •    Listen to and observe your self-talk for one week. What do you tell yourself at work? You’ll be amazed how revealing a bit of self-observation is !
  •    Keep a diary and write the thoughts down as you go (don’t leave it until later as memory has a tricky way of distorting reality).
  •    At the end of the week look at your list. What is your dominant pattern of thinking? What words are you using? Look out for thoughts starting with “I must…” “I have to…” and reframe them into a set of more flexible options “I will try to…” “I prefer to….” “I choose to….”
  •    If it’s too difficult to get rid of all the ‘musts’ in your working life, set yourself a couple of high priorities for the week which ‘must’ be achieved – though remember that by definition not    everything can be high priority.
  •    Above all, ask yourself whether you would treat a good friend the way you treat yourself. If the answer is ‘no’ then perhaps it’s time to invest in a little self-forgiveness and compassion.
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