Perfectionism or Healthy Striving?

images-6Are you a perfectionist or a healthy striver?

What’s the difference? Perfectionists are hypersensitive to imperfection, weakness, and failing. They believe their acceptance and lovability is a function of never making mistakes – they deeply struggle with the thought of good enough. It is all or nothing thinking. Perfectionists set unrealistically high standards and evaluate their and others behavior by them.

UnknownPerfectionism sounds like this: “People will think less of me if I make a mistake.” “I hate being less than the best at things.” “My parents expected (or demanded) excellence from me.” “Organization is very important to me.”

Perfectionists are driven by the fear of making mistakes, disapproval, and ultimately failure.

images-4Most of us have an inner drive to do our best and to not make mistakes. Healthy striving means setting standards that are high but within reach. There is enjoyment the process as well as the outcome and they bounce back quickly from failure or disappointment. Healthy strivers see making mistakes as opportunities for growth and learning – there is an open and positive reaction to helpful criticism.

“Many people think of perfectionism as striving to be your best, but it is not about self-improvement; it’s about earning approval and acceptance.” – Brené Brown

Unknown-1Perfectionism is like handcuffs on an Olympic swimmer – restricting effective propulsion through the water. Healthy striving is about enjoying life’s journey by discovering what we like to do and how we like to do it.

To see if you may struggle with perfectionism, answer the following questions or take this quiz.

  1. Do I have trouble meeting my own standards?
  2. Do I often feel frustrated, anxious, angry or depressed while trying to meet my standards?
  3. Have I been told that my standards are too high?
  4. Do my standards get in the way? Make it hard to meet deadlines, finish a task, to trust others, or do anything spontaneously?

The good news is that there is help for us perfectionists!

Here are some strategies to help overcome perfectionistic tendencies:

  1. Make a list of the advantages and disadvantages of trying to be perfect. When you list the cost and benefits you may find that the costs are too great. While going through this process, you may uncover challenges you are having with relationships, workaholism, or possibly compulsive behaviors. The nice thing is that you get to be the judge of what actions you want to keep, tweak, or pitch.
  2. Increase your awareness of the self-critical nature of your all or nothing thoughts and how they extend to other people in your life. Learn how to substitute more realistic, reasonable thoughts for the habitual critical ones. When you find yourself criticizing a less than perfect performance (yours or someone else’s), make yourself stop and think about the good parts of that performance. Then ask yourself questions: Is it really as bad as I felt it was? How do other people see it? What was good about the performance?
  3. Be realistic about what you can do. By setting realistic goals, you will gradually realize that “imperfect” results do not lead to the punitive consequences you expected or feared.
  4. Reframe your thoughts. Replace self-critical thoughts with more helpful statements. These thoughts need to be practiced so they can become a habit. Tell yourself – No one is perfect. Making a mistake doesn’t mean that I’m a failure. It’s okay to not be pleasant all the time – no one is liked by everyone.
  5. Set strict time limits on each of your projects. When the time is up, move onto another activity. This technique reduces the procrastination that typically results from perfectionism.
  6. Keep the big picture in mind. Perfectionists tend to get bogged down in the details and spend a lot of time worrying about the little things. Ask yourself the following questions when you’re stuck in the mini-details:
    • Does it really matter?
    • What is the worst that could happen?
    • If the worst does happen, can I survive it?
    • Will this still matter tomorrow? How about next week? Next year?
  7. Set realistic standards. Lowering your standards doesn’t mean having no standards. The goal is not to make you become careless in life and perform poorly. Realistic standards can help you to do your best without costing the things that may be important to you such as family life, physical and mental health, and leisure time. Make a list of the pros and cons of lowering your standards. What are the costs of holding onto overly high standards? Keeping these costs in mind will help you to take the steps towards changing.
  8. Learn how to deal with criticism. Perfectionists often view criticism as a personal attack, which leads them to respond defensively. Concentrate on being more objective about the criticism, and about yourself. Remind yourself that if you stop making mistakes, you also stop learning and growing. Remember that criticism is a natural thing from which to learn, rather than something to be avoided at all costs.

“Healthy striving is self focused and asks, ‘How can I improve?’ Perfectionism is other-focused and asks, ‘What will others think?” – Brené Brown




imagesLately I’ve been enamored with Brené Brown’s work. She is a Social Scientist who is a researcher, storyteller, and speaker who inspires audiences to have conversations about difficult topics – in particular vulnerability and shame.

If I had titled this post shame would you have even read it? Please do….this information can have a profound effect on our Personal Mastery focus. Our shame may be driving us to not show up, be our true and authentic ourselves, and to speak our truth. Also, this entire post isn’t about shame or vulnerability.

Brené shares three things we need to know about shame:

  1. We all have it. It is universal and the most primitive of human emotions we experience. The only people who don’t experience shame lack the capacity for empathy and human connection and are potentially psychopaths.
  2. We’re all afraid to talk about shame.
  3. The less we talk about it, the more control it has over our lives.

images-9Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy. Shame shows up in all of the familiar places including appearance and body image, family, parenting, money and work, health, sex, aging, and religion. To feel shame is to be human.

Brené want’s to have a national conversation about shame – how it shows up and how to manage it. Our lack of identifying shame and our inability to speak about it is causing us to perfect our lives and to keep playing those broken tapes of inadequacy in our heads.

“Shame is that warm feeling that washes over us, making us feel small, flawed, and never good enough. If we want to develop shame resilience, the ability to recognize shame and move through it while maintaining our worthiness and authenticity, then we have to talk about why shame happens.” – Brené Brown

images-10She has an amazing ability to explore these unspoken and painful topics using real stories of people who she’s studied and learned from. She also shares her very vivid life’s stories, thoughts, and feelings about how she struggles with vulnerability and shame in a genuine and humanistic way that her audience can’t help but connect with, giggle about, and understand. Her TED Talk on vulnerability is still one of my top 5 favs.

Because of Brené’s research and conversations with people who have figured out how to speak about and use vulnerability and shame to their benefit, she developed 10 Guideposts for what she calls Wholehearted Living. I consider them to be today’s updated version of Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People – you know what a fan of Covey I am so it shouldn’t be a shocker that I love Brown’s work. 🙂

“Wholehearted living is about engaging in our lives from a place of worthiness. It means cultivating the courage, compassion, and connection to wake up in the morning and think – no mater what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough! It’s going to bed at night thinking; yes, I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn’t change the fact that I am also brave and worthy of love and belonging. Wholehearted living is not a one-time choice; it is a process. In fact, I believe it’s the journey of a lifetime.” – Brené Brown

10 guideposts for wholehearted living:

  1. Cultivating authenticity – letting go of what people think.
  2. Cultivating self-compassion – letting go of perfectionism.
  3. Cultivating a resilient spirit – letting go of numbing and powerlessness.
  4. Cultivating gratitude and joy – letting go of scarcity and fear.
  5. Cultivating intuition and trusting faith – letting go of the need for certainty.
  6. Cultivating creativity – letting go of comparison.
  7. Cultivating play and rest – letting go of exhaustion as a status symbol and productivity as self-worth.
  8. Cultivating calm and stillness – letting go of anxiety as a lifestyle.
  9. Cultivating meaningful work – letting go of self-doubt and “supposed to.”
  10. Cultivating laughter, song, and dance – letting go of being cool and “always in control.”

images-11Recently, I attended a daylong seminar called: Daring Way for Coaches in which we studied and pulled apart Brené’s 10 guideposts. Participants were asked: Which of the guideposts do we feel we’re living most fully now and feel like areas of strength that we can draw upon for resilience? I chose numbers 2, 4, 5, & 7.

The next question asked was: Which one or two guideposts would I like to focus and build upon after the seminar? I chose numbers 1 and 6. I felt that they would help propel me to live more wholeheartedly in lightning speed – yeah right!

It’s has been almost four months and I must admit that guidepost one is kicking my butt. Here are Brené’s thoughts  about authenticity….

  • Authenticity is the daily practice of letting go of who we thing we’re supposed to be and embracing who we are. (Check, I’ve got this mostly incorporated.)
  • Choosing authenticity means that we cultivate the courage to be imperfect, to set boundaries, and to allow ourselves to be vulnerable. (Nope, I don’t have this one. This has been tough for me because of my perfectionist critic. Perfectionist, party of one? Note to self: keep working on this one will ya? :))
  • We need to exercise the compassion that comes from knowing that we are all made of strength and struggle and nurturing the connection and sense of belonging that can only happen when we believe that we are enough. (I’ve been able to implement some of this but I have an inner critic that I’m battling that keeps questioning – What if others don’t think I’m enough? Where’s that critic sledgehammer! :))
  • Authenticity demands wholehearted living and loving, even when it’s hard, even when we’re wrestling with the shame and fear of not being good enough, and especially when the joy is so intense that we’re afraid to let ourselves feel it. Mindfully practicing authenticity during our most soul-searching struggles is how we invite grace, joy, and gratitude into our lives. (Okay, I’ve got critics or as Brené calls them gremlins that cause this practice to also be difficult. I need to remember that cultivating wholehearted living is a process and a journey of a lifetime so that I’m not so hard on myself!)

images-4Because of being enamored, I’ve been working on 1) a better understanding of and; 2) putting in a framework to manage those perfectionist tendencies. AKA the sledgehammer! 🙂 With awareness, focus, work, and time I know I’ll be able to call myself a recovering perfectionist and aspiring good enoughist.

If you’re interesting in learning more about Brené’s guideposts, I highly recommend picking up her book titled: The Gifts of Imperfection. She provides ideas and practices on each of the guideposts to institute so we can live a wholehearted life.