Research Paper By Amanda Olender
(Life Coach, UNITED STATES)
The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself. Anna Quindlen
I remember clearly the intense fear leading up to my first time coaching on a mentor coaching calls. I put it off for weeks/months waiting for that moment when I would be “ready” to coach. For me, ready meant that I would be able to coach in a way that was beyond someone who was coaching for the first time. It meant that my coaching would be as good as someone who had been doing it for years. It meant that it would be perfect. I thought that if it wasn’t perfect (or pretty close) then I would be destined to be a terrible coach.
Through a few coaching sessions as a client, I quickly came to the realization that the “ready” feeling I was waiting for would likely never come. And that the idea that my very first session would be perfect, was completely unrealistic and destructive. I ultimately learned that the fears and unrealistic beliefs that were holding me back were a result of perfectionism. I had never before thought of myself as a perfectionist. I believed that a perfectionist was someone extremely driven and successful, and I did not view myself in that way. However, once I learned more about the true meaning of perfectionism, and reflected on this new learning, I could point to dozens of experiences in my life where my desire for perfection held back.
What is perfectionism?
Like most people, I consider having high standards a good thing. Striving for excellence can show that you have a good work ethic and strength of character. High standards can also push you to reach your peak level of performance. Perfectionism, on the other hand, involves a tendency to set standards that are so high they either cannot be met, or are only met with great difficulty. Perfectionists believe that anything short of perfection is horrible and that even minor imperfections could lead to catastrophe.
Perfectionists tend to believe that they should never make mistakes and that making a mistake means they are a failure or a horrible person. Trying to be perfect is also likely to make one feel stressed or even disappointed much of the time because they are not able to meet their standards. Over time a perfectionist may believe that you are not as capable as others.
At the heart of perfectionism is fear. The fear of failure, the fear of making a mistake and the fear of being judged. For a perfectionist, these fears can be paralyzing and can play out as a continuous message that says “I’m not good enough”.
Perfectionism vs. Optimalism
Some researches believe that there is adaptive or healthy striving which is called Optimalism. Optimalism is described as setting high standards and setting goals for yourself that are attainable, grounded in reality, flexible and adaptable. Optimalists are willing to experiment, take risks and seek feedback. They also value the journey, expect detours and seek to learn from failure. Whereas perfectionists set impossible goals and standards, are unaccepting of themselves, and view mistakes as catastrophic and criticism as devastating. Perfectionists are so focused on the destination they are unable to enjoy the journey, and even when they do succeed, they never feel successful.
Where does perfectionism come from?
Perfectionism can start in childhood. The root of perfectionism is believing your self worth is based on your achievements. It is often present when some combination of these factors exist:
- Rigid, high parental expectations
- Highly critical, shaming or abusive parents
- Excessive praise for your achievements
- Low self-esteem or feeling inadequate
- Believing your self worth is determined by your achievements
Perfectionism is encouraged in some families. Sometimes parents knowingly or unknowingly establish perfection as the standard. These parents require straight A’s in school or flawless piano recitals. Mistakes may be harshly punished.
Young children have a strong desire to please adults and don’t have the thinking skills or life experience to understand that sometimes adults are wrong. They are at the mercy of adults when it comes to building their self-worth. Perfectionism can also be learned by children growing up around highly successful, perfectionist parents who model this way of thinking and acting. Perfectionism is encouraged when children are praised excessively for the achievements, rather than their efforts or progress.
Feelings and Behaviors of a Perfectionist
Perfectionism can make you feel depressed, frustrated, anxious and even angry, especially if you constantly criticize yourself for not doing or being good enough. Some examples of perfectionistic thinking are:
- Black and white thinking – I need to make the perfect decision or else I made a bad one.
- Catastrophic thinking – a minor mistake becomes a huge deal.
- Probability overestimation –even though I studied for hours for a test, I am sure I will fail.
- Should statements – I should always make the best decision, I should never make mistakes.
Some examples of perfectionistic behaviours are:
- Procrastination, difficulty completing tasks or giving up easily
- Overly cautious and thorough in tasks (spending more time on a task than it should take)
- Constantly trying to improve things by redoing them
- Agonizing over small details
- Avoiding trying new things and risking making a mistake
Harmful effects of perfectionism
The drawback of perfectionism isn’t just that it holds someone back from being their most successful or productive self. Perfectionistic tendencies have been linked to a number of clinical issues such as depression and anxiety, self-harm, social anxiety disorder, eating disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, insomnia, headaches and most damning of all, early mortality or suicide. There are studies that suggest that the higher the perfectionism, the more psychological disorders you may suffer.
The first step in overcoming perfectionism is awareness. That awareness first came to me through coaching. With powerful questioning, I was able to come to my own realization that perfectionism was not only keeping me from coaching in a mentor class, but also from taking action in other areas of my life.
After there is awareness, there can be a change in thinking. Since perfectionist thinking is often unrealistic, one action is to replace self-critical talk with realistic or helpful statements even if you do not believe them right away. Enough repetition will turn positive realistic thoughts into a habit.
Examples of positive realistic statements:
- Nobody is perfect
- All I can do it my best
- Everyone makes mistakes. I can learn from them.
- It’s ok if some people don’t like me. No one is liked by everyone
Taking a new perspective
Another approach in shifting from a mindset of perfection to acceptance of imperfection is trying to see things from another person’s point of view. You can challenge your negative self-thoughts with questions such as:
- How might a close friend view this situation?
- Are there other ways to look at this?
- What might I tell a close friend who is having similar thoughts?
Looking at the big picture
Perfectionists tend to get bogged down in details and spend a lot of time worrying about little things. One strategy to help you worry less about details is to ask the following questions:
- Does it really matter?
- What is the worst that could happen?
- If the worst does happen, can I survive it?
- Will this matter tomorrow? Next week? Next year?
As I mentioned previously, my desire for a perfect coaching session led me to procrastinate coaching in a mentor coaching class for months. When you set perfect standards for yourself, it often feels easier to procrastinate rather than trying to actually do it. Procrastination is only a temporary solution and it tends to make anxiety worse over time. Here are some ways to help overcome procrastination:
- Create realistic schedules – break down larger tasks into manageable steps. Work toward deadlines by setting small goals along the way. Reward yourself for reaching each goal.
- Set priorities – Perfectionists sometimes have trouble deciding on where they should devote their energy and effort. Prioritize tasks by determining which are most important and which are least important.
Perfectionism as a Coach
As a coach, we need to be aware of our own perfectionist tendencies and how they may impact the coaching session. As a new coach myself, I have struggled with the desire to ask the perfect question, share the perfect observation, and overall, have the perfect session. As a result, I am not able to be fully present with the client, as I am focused on my own agenda. This can lead to a directive approach which leaves the client feeling disempowered and not heard.
Coaches should have empathy for both the client and themselves. Give yourself permission to make mistakes and view these mistakes as valuable learnings. These learnings will allow you to become a better coach and it will allow you to create the coaching experience you truly want for your client.
Meditating prior to a coaching session to help quiet your internal mind can help you be more clear and relaxed for the session. It is essential for the coach to let go of wanting to control the agenda. During the session, trust the client, the coaching process and trust that the session will go where it needs to. This can be very hard to do, especially for perfectionists, but the best way to make it easier is to practice, practice, practice.
Helping clients with perfectionism
Moving forward to change damaging beliefs and behaviours may be tough to do on our own. It requires an awareness of underlying beliefs and the ability to replace them with empowering beliefs and behaviours. Doing this may require new structures to support change efforts. Working with a coach can assist with all of these essential elements of change.
Not all perfectionists will be ready to deal with their perfectionism head on. It may require a more indirect approach and line of questioning. Calling out their perfectionism may trigger anxiety and inaction. Whether or not your client is ready to address their perfectionism, you can help them move forward by creating awareness, developing acceptance for who they are, and appreciating who they are, imperfections and all. This can be done through listening, reflections, powerful questions and observation sharing.
Once a client is aware of their perfectionism and ready to address it head on, powerful questions are key to help them take the necessary steps to remove these damaging beliefs and replace them with empowering ones. For example, recently in a mentor coaching class, the instructor shared a powerful question on perfectionism that really resonated with me. “What would it be like for you to have this desire for perfection gone”. Just in hearing the question, I immediately felt lighter, as if a brick was being lifted off my back. Prior to this, I couldn’t have imagined my need for everything to be “right” completely removed from my life, but this question gave me a glimpse of hope that it was possible.
Here are some powerful questions that can support a client dealing with perfectionism.
- What does being perfect mean to you?
- How has your perfectionism served you?
- What aspects of perfectionism do you want to keep?
- What aspects do you want to let go?
- What is getting in your way of letting these aspects go?
- Are your personal standards in this situation realistic?
- What if you believed you were good enough?
- What if you didn’t care what others thought of you?
Not every perfectionist can be coached. For instance, if your client is showing signs of extreme anxiety, depression, panic attacks, etc, they must get support from a qualified mental health professional.
Perfectionism is something many of us deal with every day and it can start at a young age. Recently I have noticed perfectionist tendencies in my young children. Seeing them hesitant to give an opinion in fear that it is the wrong one, or seeing their worry before a test in fear that they won’t get a 100, has motivated me even more to work through my own perfectionist struggles. I want them to grow up in a household where mistakes are embraced and forgiven, and we focus on what we can learn from them, and not what we did wrong. Accepting our selves exactly as we are, will not only make us happier but will lead us through a life of endless opportunities and fulfilment. My experience with coaching has brought me that awareness, and now I am on a journey of embracing my imperfections and helping others embrace theirs.
Embrace being perfectly imperfect. Learn from your mistakes and forgive yourself. You will be happier. – Roy Bennett
Journey, Donna, “Letting Go of Perfectionism”
Ruggeri, Amanda, “The dangerous downsides of perfectionism”
Anxiety BC, “How to Overcome Perfectionism”
Holuk, Cathy, “Understanding Perfectionism and its Implications to the Coaching Experience”.