A Coaching Power Tool Created by Ann Parnes
(Life Coach, UNITED STATES)
While setting reasonable, high standards and striving for excellence are great for putting one on his path toward success, striving to meet the impossible standard of perfection often hinders someone from making progress on their goals and can stomp out their motivation. Research suggests that anxiety over making mistakes can ultimately hold some perfectionists back from ever achieving success in the first place.
Perfectionism is defined as a personal standard, attitude, or philosophy that demands perfection and rejects anything less. Given the anxiety that frequently accompanies this standard, a perfectionist might not be willing to embark on something that he doesn’t think he can do perfectly, and he may be unwilling taking action because of the inflated significance he attaches to failures.
Perfectionists often adopt an all or nothing outlook with respect to their goals. Therefore, if the conditions are not conducive to attaining perfection, one may be deterred from taking action for fear of not reaching the perfect, end result.
For example, a perfectionist might resist attending counseling and working on his troubled marriage when he isn’t convinced that doing the work would make his marriage ideal or perfect.
Healthy striving is a process by which people can get started on their goals by accepting the limitations of humanity, embracing their imperfections, bracing themselves for errors and resolving themselves to push forward and learn from their mistakes. As humans, we are inherently imperfect and all make mistakes. Therefore, rather than aiming at doing something perfectly, one will get much further on his path toward reaching his goals if his perspective is one of healthy striving. In contrast to perfectionism, healthy striving means:
- setting standards that are still high, but within reach
- enjoying not only the outcome, but also the process
- encouraging personal resilience and allowing people to bounce back from failure and disappointment
- learning powerful lessons along the way
- most of all, freeing up the anxiety one has about making mistakes, which leads towards making progress.
In the example above, if the husband were to strive to build a deeper connection with his wife and work on communication, he would likely improve the relationship he currently has. He may not end up with a perfect marriage, but making incremental improvements would hopefully lead him to a better place than not taking any action at all. In addition, he would likely enjoy the process of creating intimacy with his wife, rather than just focusing on an unrealistic end result. His progress might naturally build on itself, slowly but surely. He would witness small changes that would motivate him to continue to strengthen the connections with his wife. There would be set backs –maybe he would say the wrong thing or do something thoughtless, but he would take that lesson and use it to shape his future behavior to further his goal.
Here’s another example: Carla is a perfectionist. She was worked very hard in law school over the last three years and she is excited to finally begin working in her profession as an attorney. However she has just gotten the news that she did not pass the California bar exam. This is the first time that Carla has ever failed a test. Her employer is understanding and is willing to simply assign her projects that do not require her official licensure, however Carla is devastated. She believes that this failure might have been a sign and begins to doubt her entire career path altogether. She begins a pattern of thinking about “what if I fail again” and “what if I’m not cut out to be an attorney”? It is natural that Carla is disappointed –she did put in a lot of time and effort into studying for the exam.
As normal as it is for Carla to have these thoughts and experience disappointment about her situation, Carla is giving this “failure” too much power. She is forgetting about all the qualities that she possesses that will not only help her pass the bar exam, but also become the amazing lawyer that she has always wanted to be. If only Carla would recognize that her failing the bar exam is only a minor setback. Every human alive makes mistakes. Carla was very anxious about finishing the exam in time and remembers fixating on the time rather than the content of many questions. She also recognizes that she got too little sleep the week of the test. Now that she is aware of them, these are factors that she could correct on the next go around.
Carla could also put her situation into perspective. This was really just one test. Carla had done well throughout law school and gotten positive feedback on all of her clinic cases. Her clients were always happy with her efforts and she did have good results in her cases. Failing this test did not make her a failure and was not predictive of her future success as a lawyer. This was just one tiny piece of not only Carla’s career path, but of her value as a person.
With the help of a coach, Carla could be encouraged to remind herself of her strengths. She could reiterate her motivation and reasons for wanting to become a lawyer. She could consider her prior accomplishments and her natural skills that were completely in line with her passion for the legal practice. She could also figure out how to use her strengths to successfully prepare for and pass the bar exam the next time around.
As coaches, there are strategies that we can use to alter our clients’ perspectives from perfectionism to healthy striving. Here are a few suggestions:
- Remind our clients that as humans it is impossible to truly ever be perfect and that we all make mistakes.
- It might be a useful exercise to have them interview someone who they admire about the road to their success and question them specifically about the mistakes they made along the way.
- Also, ask your clients to come up with a list of lessons they have learned from their own mistakes so they can see the value of making the mistakes.
- Bring their focus on setting more realistic goals. It is important for them to learn to substitute perfectionism with healthy achievement.
- Ask them to put in words their reasons for setting unattainable goals.
- Ask them what would the effect be if they came down on those standards
- Help them break down big goals into mini goals and celebrate the successes along the way.
- Help our clients start to identify unhealthy, all-or-nothing thoughts and to substitute them with positive, performance-enhancing thoughts. If instead of rejecting themselves, they viewed their actions with curiosity and compassion, there would be some real potential for growth and learning.
- Ask "is there an alternate, healthier way to think?"
- Ask “Is it really as bad as you feel it is? How do other people see it?
- Have them make their own list of costs and benefits in striving for perfection. They may then recognize that the disadvantages are too great (may cause problems with relationships, workaholism, eating and substance abuse problems, and other compulsive behaviors) and actually outweigh whatever advantages perfectionism hold for them.
- Help them gauge when to stop. If a task is taking up too much time, and interfering with other important aspects of their lives, it is good to ask “does this matter in the bigger scheme of things?”