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Tame Your Perfectionist

I am an actor, and one summer I was lucky enough to play Nina, in the Stumptown Player’s production of Looking held at the O’Shaughnessy Center in Whitefish, Montana. There were four actors starring in this funny, heartwarming look at dating life at middle age. We each worked extra hard to make sure our lines, blocking, pacing, diction, volume, costumes and connection with each other were spot on. However, theater, unlike the movies, is live, so things happen.

One night, while I was waiting to go on, I saw my co-star, Alicia Blake, who was playing Val, go on stage wearing a dressy outfit, yet popping out from the bottom of her black pants were bright white tennis shoes. A big jolt of adrenalin went through my body. I was horrified, fearing the worst. As I breathed, I noticed that Alicia, on the other hand, was calm and in character, as if Val meant to wear tennis shoes with the outfit. Once off stage, all Alicia said was, “Oh, well.” I was amazed. I would have been beating myself up silly. Alicia’s attitude was a like a breath of fresh air.

You see, I am a perfectionist… in recovery. For those of you who are lucky enough not to have perfectionism—jump up and down for joy! The Perfectionist inside is a mean little tyrant. It whispers to us that we don’t look good enough, we’re going to disappoint others, we’ll be judged harshly, and finally, how the price of not being perfect will cost us success, status, and friends. Yet in reality, the rest of the world barely notices!

Usually, the perfectionist is driven by an underlying fear that they are not good enough. They crave the positive feedback of others. So they push themselves extra hard to be better to avoid any criticism. This drive, however, can be exhausting. Getting things “perfect” (like anyone knows what that really means!), takes a lot of time and effort. It seems to follow the 80-20 rule: That 80% of extra effort is used getting that last 20% of perfect.

Perfectionism is like a drug or addiction. It is never enough. There is always the next time, or the next thing, that has to be perfect. Some would call this type of striving healthy. While striving does move us forward in our lives towards our goals, there is a point where that extra effort becomes unhealthy, painful and exhausting, and not just for the perfectionist but the people around them!

As a performance coach, I work with athletes, actors and business people who are prone to suffering the same perfectionism malady.

One of my clients, Janna, was an executive who was always beautifully attired, her house perfectly clean, her children dressed impeccably, and her work done on time and extremely thorough. When we began working together it was hard not to miss how shinny everything appeared in her life. So I asked how she did it, and this elegant, well-put-together woman broke down in tears. She was exhausted and didn’t know if she could take it much more.

Then there was Mary, who had left a secure job and started her own event planning business. She produced beautiful events, which impressed everyone. However, Mary was quickly approaching burnout both emotionally and physically. When she came to me, she had been diagnosed with chronic fatigue and was ready to fold the business and go back to her secure, boring job.

Both of these women were suffering from a bad case of perfectionism. The perfectionist inside of us has a way of grabbing our throat and pinning us against the wall so that all we see are its big, scary, disapproving eyes. It is a slave driver that runs us ragged, telling us lies about how we are not good enough. So how do we deal with the big, red, scary perfectionist monster?

Try this:

  1. Listen and Notice. How often is your perfectionist’s voice goading you, encouraging you to do more, more and just a bit more so it will be just right? You may be surprised how sneaky and persistent your perfectionist is. Try inquiring, “Whose voice is this anyway?” Usually, it harkens back to a disapproving authority figure that long since gone, yet we continue to work so hard to please.

  2. Define the Cost. Most people don’t change their ways unless it starts to hurt. So if you are happy with your perfectionism, you go! However, if you are starting to suffer emotionally or physically you may want to make another choice. Actually, stop and look at what you are missing or longing for in your life, what you don’t have the time or energy for now? Good health? Time with kids? Creative expression? All that extra time and effort you spend on making things perfect may be used in other ways.

  3. Try Being Good Enough. Look at something you have been over-efforting on and see if you can let yourself do “good enough” work on it. I know, crazy scary, right? I can hear the perfectionist in your head shrieking from here. I didn’t say start with the riskiest item. Just start somewhere and see what the results are. We try so hard to be the perfect parent, the perfect spouse, the perfect host, the perfect employee. Stop! Just try being good enough, and see who notices and how they respond. You might be surprised.

As for as my clients:

Janna realized she was responding to her critical mother, who never thought she looked perfect enough. The cost of Janna’s perfectionism was in doing the same thing to her kids and not pursuing any of her creative hobbies. So Janna decided she would dress good enough in social settings and save her kid’s perfect outfits for only special occasions. After a while she realized wearing jeans and sweatshirt wasn’t going to destroy her social standing. In fact, her friends commented that they now felt more relaxed around her, since she now appeared human. Plus, she figured she was saving her kids from spending money on therapy in the future. The bonus was she had time to add painting back into her weekly activities.

Mary realized that her perfectionism was sneaky and would start to slowly raise its’ volume right as Mary was finishing up for the day. This often caused her to work extra hours past her physical fatigue level. She also recognized that she had become her father who used to work long hours at his job trying to get ahead.

So when Mary approached the end of her day, and the voice chimed in, she would look at her list, pick one thing to do good enough, then do it and go home. Mary realized that there will always be more work, but if she was going to be around to do it, she needed to take care of herself. Over time, her health bounced back.

For me, the perfectionist in me is trying to come up with a perfect ending for this article. So, taking a bit of my own medicine, I am going Tame My Perfectionist and call this good enough.

CrisMarie Campbell and Susan Clarke are Master certified life coaches, business consultants, speakers and authors of The Beauty of Conflict. They believe real relationships are the key to creating great business results. They’ll take your team from mediocre to great.

Interested in coaching? Check out CrisMarie’s executive coaching and personal coaching, or Susan’s personal coaching and equus coaching.

Want to take a class? Sign up for one of their virtual classes: Get Unstuck, Relationship Mojo or come to their signature retreat Find Your Mojo in Montana. Click here to check out all their service offerings.

Click here to contact them to coach with you, consult with your team, or speak at your next event.

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