I remember a conversation I had in my 20s, with a mentor who was helping me to prepare for an interview. “Think about that question, what are your strengths and what are your weaknesses.”
Trying to be clever I saw this as a sales opportunity, to disguise a strength as a weakness.
“My weakness is that I'm a perfectionist, and I recognise that that is something I need to work at.”
I thought I was being smart, that this was a way of shoehorning in a brilliant character trait. But it's true, and 20 years on, I'm still struggling with perfectionist tendencies. Over time I used this as an excuse for all sorts of things. Tidy my bedroom? I could do but it always takes me about four hours because everything must be in its rightful place and just so. It’s impossible for me to shove it in a drawer and walk away. Sorry Mum!
There's a really fine line between being a high achiever and having perfectionist tendencies. As a positive, my drive has given me seamlessly endless capacity to take on more, to squeeze in more, to make sure that it is as good as it possibly can be. But it's also stopped me in my tracks, being afraid of what other people think, being afraid that I'm not as good as other people, feeling an impostor. Just making small tweaks, small excuses to stretch out the task because it's not just ready yet, not releasing my ideas my thoughts into the world because they aren't quite ready.
At its most damaging, my tendencies unleashed my propensity to criticise. It’s a tendency that has always been there and I would wrap it in a bundle of nurturing and helping people go from good to great. There was a genuine intent around that, to help others to continuously improve , to reach further into their potential. During my most stressed or busiest times it turned quickly to judgement combined with a reluctance to delegate, to criticise and at times display unbecoming behaviour.
What was worse, was the level of abuse that I inflicted on myself. Before, during and after my inner critic would be present – digging away at my confidence. She was unrelenting. She sucked out hope, ambition and energy. Put simply my inner critic had become my inner bully.
Perhaps that's why so many people within therapeutic fields believe that perfectionism is a flaw, is unhealthy. I don’t think the perfectionist label is appropriate – ironically I think there are scales, it isn’t all or nothing, or ever present. I don't think that I will ever be a person who is completely without the tendencies. I think it will take effort day in day out, to let down barriers, to deliberately set standards that sit closer to good than to perfect. As an entrepreneur perfectionism could cost me valuable time, resources and energy if left unchecked.
So, what tools have I learned to use to manage?
I've learned that a gratitude journal, for example, can shift the emphasis to the outside, to recognise the good that is all around and to distract that voice from looking inside and judgement. Journaling has been a godsend. That might not be the right word, but it is the right sentiment. Through journaling I have given a voice, an external voice to the inner critic. She wanted to be heard and acknowledged. She was scared, and the internal judgement was a form of voicing those fears and anxieties. Through writing I was able to engage another voice, to reason with that critic without dismissing.
I've learned to that acts of self kindness and self compassion are really important. In the main, I am a generous, patient and kind person (even if I say so myself); people see me as a sunny and optimistic person. Consciously shifting that optimism and positivity back onto myself, by giving myself time or other treats, by complementing myself I have reconciled the difference between my inner bully and myself, those two halves of my ego. I recognise that it's easy, when times are busy, so let this practise slip. But I'm getting better at noticing when that happens and taking time out.
Finally, mindfulness has giving me the ability to pace those thoughts. To let them drift on by, to observe them with curiosity, but to not give them the space and time to take hold.
So, here I am, warts and all. If this resonates with you, don't worry. The first step is spotting those traits. The next step is letting go of judgement of yourself. The third step is building in praise and positive action.
I have come to learn that I can never be an ex - perfectionist. At times if pressure, this comes back through. As I embark on new projects, my inner critic is there watching on. But I thank her because she shows me that I am pushing myself.
Just as someone on a bungee jump might feel nerves, anxiety, concerns about the engineering. Those feelings are real. Those are all things that you check off in your mind (or at least should). Identifying objectively what’s causing that fear helps my inner critic to play to her strengths of protecting me from danger.
Courage isn’t the absence of fear, it’s acting in spite of the fear. At times it takes as much courage to stand up to a fear of failure, of rejection or judgement in that drive to be perfect as it does to sit in a pit of snakes.
If you’d like to explore perfectionism further or how you can get more balance for your inner critic do follow our thought pieces here or better still get in touch! For us growth is about individual mindset and corporate mindset and we have a great range of tools on offer to help you and your business to take yourselves to the next level.