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Strategies and Mindsets to Confront Perfectionism

Perfectionism can be a hidden enemy for so many of us. How do we work with our perfectionistic tendencies and grow through the challenges they create?  

 

Here are a few of the tactics we’ll explore in my upcoming free webinar on this topic on June 25.


In each case, we’ll talk about how we need to balance our individual strategies with an awareness of how we can temper cultural norms around perfectionism in our workplaces.


1. Learn from–and normalize– imperfection and mistakes, for yourself and others.


When you don’t do a thing perfectly, you learn something. You provide an opportunity for reflection, and/or to receive feedback. When you don’t do it perfectly, you become more human to everyone around you.  You create a space for other people to be a little less perfect, to let down their guard. 


Of course, this works SOOO much better when you’re being supported, especially by a supervisor and/or a team.  If making mistakes is so hard to normalize in your work space, that’s important information for you to think about in terms of whether your workplace is a good fit for you–not whether you’re too “sensitive.”


 Will you be forgiven for your mistakes?  Hopefully. Probably. And, in a given moment or with a given person, possibly not, or not immediately. There is good evidence, for example, that people judge women leaders more harshly for making the same mistakes that men make. 


But most mistakes or misunderstandings are a bigger deal to you than they are to people around you, and even the ones others do notice usually get forgotten in time if you develop strong workplace relationships. In the meantime, if you can control nothing else, you can control forgiving yourself. Remember, too, that the alternative to not making mistakes is not taking risks. Even the risk averse (and I count myself among them) need to stretch into risk taking sometimes in order to grow.


2. Normalize missed opportunities. 


This is especially important for leaders, but really for anyone feeling they have a lot to prove. 

When I was a university department chair, I spent some effort harnessing my goal-driven personality in an opposite direction of its usual orientation.  I set myself a goal of having “one missed opportunity a week.” In that role, there were so many opportunities every week–to further our students’ education by putting energy into a collaboration, to get ahead of a bureaucratic project that would be coming up later, to lend my service or expertise to a project. 

 

And yet, the possible ways to do things better and better, more and more became overwhelming. To chase every opportunity was to chase perfectionism. When I declined an opportunity offered by someone else, or let myself off the hook for not following through on something that seemed like a positive action, but wasn’t really necessary to the overall functioning of my unit, I made it an actual crossed-off item on my to do list.  A missed opportunity! Check!  An actual goal, since goals and to do lists drive me.   


In being able to make some of these choices, it helped that I was secure in my position. It helped to have various privileges, including white privilege. But the things I checked off my list were often about over-performing my job, not just staying secure in it. For any of us, it helps to know what our core functions are and what our personal values and goals are. Moving from this core, we can make decisions about what to crop off our list, when we’re able to do so. This allows us the focus and even the vision to understand the core contributions we’re making, and to concentrate on those instead of all the things we might have been able to do if we were endowed with more superpowers and more than 24 hours in a day. 


3.  Nurture Social Connection as Prevention, and Balm


Perfectionism is so often cast as a personal problem, but systems and cultures actually do a lot to create or reinforce it.  Also, being marginalized, being the only, being “othered” can create or reinforce perfectionism, and perfectionism’s frequent cousin, imposter syndrome. 


Jenny Vazquez-Newsum, in her visionary book, Untapped Leaders:  Harnessing the Power of Underrepresented Leaders (Prometheus, 2023) explains this well. Questioning the pathologizing “syndrome” piece of the label of imposter syndrome, she reflects on how racialized experiences contributed to these kinds of challenges for her: “During fundamental moments of identity development,” she says “I became very aware of how little I belonged, and that sensibility permeated how I moved through the world…I cannot ignore the factors in my environment that subtle told me I was an imposter.”


If perfectionism and imposter syndrome are socially constructed and reinforced–or not–in the social situations of a workplace or educational setting, it follows that coping with these challenges is a team sport–not just an individual “problem.”  Making space for unlearning perfectionism–especially for marginalized people–is work that we all need to do together.


Focus on doing your part to build (or rebuild) connections and trust in your workplace, contributing to making the place where you give your talents one that’s characterized by flexibility, forgiveness, learning–a growth mindset. Developing honest, authentic connections with the people you work with will give you–and others–space, breathing room, a kind of net for when you do make mistakes.  


Lean on your people outside of work, too.  Overidentifying with our work can feed into perfectionism.  Spend time with people who love you just for who you are.  Often our perfectionism withers under the gaze of people who know us as larger and more interesting human beings.


In my webinar, “Confronting Perfectionism and Imposter Syndrome,” we’ll create a learning space where we explore the interplay of helping ourselves while also helping others, so we can enjoy our work more fully, develop more authentic connections at work, unleash our genius, and have a little more fun along the way!





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