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Perfectionism: Perils and Growth

Working with women, whether as a career coach or in my professional development courses and facilitation, perfectionism so often lurks beneath the surface of professional struggles, including the struggle to give ourselves permission to do what we long to do, and to realize the potential of our gifts.

I think of myself as a perfectionist in constant recovery. Perfectionism is a prominent part of my story, and I attribute that in part to my gender. Yes, studies with subjects ranging from adolescents to corporate professionals show women are more likely to be perfectionists. Working in the perfectionism-promoting space of academia for so many years has also played its part. Indeed, our contexts can fuel or temper our perfectionism.

But I’m also a partial perfectionist. Not everything has to be done perfectly for me. There have always been areas where I felt confident and in the flow (writing, editing, and mentoring, to name a few.)  

And I have found my way through those challenging contexts. As I have gained confidence in various domains over the course of my career, I’ve let go of perfectionism in some areas, such as preparing lectures for undergraduates, or writing reports that administrators above my level might not even be read. I settled on “good enough,” and became more strategic about where I put my energy.

I’m like a lot of people this way.  It turns out perfectionism isn’t a locked-in thing. It fluctuates. It’s dynamic, and we can grow and work our way forward through its liabilities.

Indeed, some people argue that perfectionism isn’t always a liability. Psychologists distinguish “perfectionistic strivings”--a.k.a. the “good” kind of perfectionism, when we’re using a combination of our angst and motivation towards our goals to reach higher–from “perfectionistic concerns.” That second category, the innocuously named but rich with peril “perfectionistic concerns,” makes us ruminate. It contributes to less risk taking, and basically, holds us back and drains our energy.

It also tends to silence us and dampen our creativity. It keeps us in our heads. When we’re thinking like perfectionists, we often create inordinately high standards for ourselves, we overperform and overproduce, and we catastrophize about potential negative outcomes that fall below those high standards. 

If we’re in this head space, we’re likely not working with the full capacity of our creative genius. We may well be–we probably are–preparing a great deal for every work assignment. But we’re likely hiding our light under a bushel in certain ways–hiding our wildest ideas, our spontaneity, our creative spark,  through our fear of imperfection, or considering ourselves imposters.  

I believe Anne Lamott said it best:  “Perfectionism is the enemy of the people.”

Perfectionism at its worst (and in my experience, that sunny side of perfectionism isn’t really all that great either) prevents decision and action, and keeps our best gifts bottled up.  And that’s too bad, because the world needs a freer version of us, and when we share that version, we inspire others to loosen up. The innovation and connection flow from there.

In my upcoming free webinar, “Confronting Perfectionism and Imposter Syndrome,” we’ll go deeper into the identity factors–like gender and race–that play into perfectionism, and we’ll talk about strategies to confront perfectionism and imposter syndrome.  

  • How does perfectionism show up in your life?

  • In what ways has perfectionism silenced you or kept you from being your most creative self?

  • How have you grown and let go of perfectionism in some areas of your work and life over time?

Photo credit: Jacalyn Beales


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