Research Paper By Cathy Holuk
(Family Enterprise and Leadership Coaching, CANADA)
Have no fear of perfection. You will never reach it. Salvador Dali
Perfectionism is a complex and frequently misunderstood topic. As a result, perfectionism is often regarded as a virtue which helps to perpetuate numerous myths. There is an assumption that being a Perfectionist leads to quality outcomes and personal success. The reality is that those prone to perfectionism often become stuck, unable to move forward.
At the heart of perfectionism is fear, the fear of failure, the fear of making a mistake, the fear of being judged. For a Perfectionist, these are paralyzing fears which play out as a continuous message that says “I m not good enough”, severely inhibiting a Perfectionist to take risks necessary for growth and success, while negatively impacting their personal well being.
It is important to understand that, despite these underlying fears, perfectionism does not need to be negative. We all demonstrate perfectionist characteristics in different ways and to different degrees. We also all have the ability to address these fears and their related disempowering beliefs so that our perfectionist tendencies can display themselves in a more appropriate and healthy manner.
The purpose of this paper is to further clarify what perfectionism is and isn’t and how it manifests itself. In addition, suggestions will be shared to positively impact the coaching experience as a way to support a Perfectionist’s journey to accept that they are good enough and to live a good life.
What is Perfectionism? The Perfectionist Optimalist Continuum
In 1980 psychologist David Burns described Perfectionists as
those whose standards are high beyond reach or reason, people who strain compulsively and unremittingly toward impossible goals and who measure their own worth entirely in terms of productivity and accomplishment.
psychologists today differentiate between positive perfectionism, which is adaptive and healthy (optimalism), and negative perfectionism, which is maladaptive and neurotic (perfectionism).
As outlined in the book, “The Pursuit of Perfect” by Tal Ben-Shahar, it is helpful to think about optimalism and perfectionism lying on opposite ends of a continuum and to understand that no one is 100% a Perfectionist or Optimalist. Perfectionism and optimalism coexists in each of us and we each demonstrate different degrees of each in different situations.
|1. Rejects Failure||Accepts Failure|
|2. Rejects Painful Emotions||Accepts Painful Emotions|
|3. Rejects Success||Accepts Success|
|4. Rejects Reality||Accepts Reality|
Optimalists view failure as not only a normal part of life, but extremely important to our personal growth and development. If given the option, most of us would not purposely choose to fail, but we recognize it as a part of life. We are motivated to take steps to achieve success and when failure results, we learn from our experience and move on. In comparison, a Perfectionist has such an intense fear of failure that they avoid taking risks, they become stuck.
Unfortunately, it has been shown that the pain associated with the fear of failure is usually more intense than the pain resulting from failure. By avoiding the risks of failure, we impact our self-esteem by creating the belief that we are not able to handle the failure. The only real impactful way to deal with failure is by actually experiencing failure and living through it.
Within the context of how one perceives failure, Perfectionist and Optimalists approach the process of goal achievement very differently.
- Perfect Journey. The ideal path to success for a Perfectionist is a straight line, free of failure. An Optimalist understands that there will be challenges and deviations encountered and understands that that is part of the journey.
- Fear of Failure. A Perfectionist has an extreme fear of failure and experiences life in a disempowering loop. Afraid of failing, the Perfectionist avoids taking action. Despite this, failure in some form is inevitable. Unfortunately, facing failure serves to intensify the Perfectionist's fear of failing and the reality of their imperfection. An Optimalist understands the reality that the only way to succeed is to learn from failure.
- Focus on Destination. A Perfectionist is unable to enjoy the present moment as they are always focused on their next achievement. Attaining the goal is all that matters and they believe that it is the achievement of the goal which will make them happy. The Perfectionist sees no value from the process of getting to the goal, while an Optimalist understands that it is mostly about what you do on your way to your destination that matters.
- All-or-Nothing Approach. In perceiving the world there is no middle ground for the Perfectionist. Things are either one of two extremes for example, right or wrong, good or bad, success or failure. It is because of this all-or-nothing thinking that Perfectionists experience every challenge on their journey to achieving a goal as a failure, no matter how insignificant it is.
This all-or-nothing thinking also often leads to procrastination, because the pressure of perfection can become overwhelming. A perfectionist may also miss deadlines as they spend too much time agonizing over insignificant details in an attempt to make things perfect.
In contrast, an Optimalist recognizes there are many points between the extremes, values the experiences that challenges bring and so is able to derive satisfaction from less than perfect performance. An Optimalist can also better discern when more effort is needed and can set realistic boundaries on the time spent to produce work that is adequate for the situation.
- Defensiveness. In their efforts to look good to others, Perfectionists often deflect criticism and as a result of their all-or-nothing thinking, receive criticism as a personal attack and are less resilient in recovering from setbacks. Optimalists, however, recognize the value in constructive criticism and use it as an opportunity for personal growth.
- Faultfinding. Sadly despite any achievements or success a Perfectionist may earn, it is not celebrated. An obsessive focus on failure means that a Perfectionist will only see deficiencies. Optimalists have a more optimistic view seeing the glass as half full they tend to focus on the positive in most situations.
- Harshness. As a result of a Perfectionist’s belief that they should be able to achieve their goals in the easiest way possible, they believe that errors are in one’s control and therefore avoidable. When errors occur, a Perfectionist can be extremely hard on themselves and on others and believes this harshness to be an appropriate way to take responsibility. An Optimalist is much more forgiving as they understand that mistakes are inevitable.
- Rigidity. A Perfectionist has an extreme need to control their world fearful that in losing control their world will fall part. Being in control is about wanting to manage perceptions. Ideally, it is about keeping one’s self worth whole by trying to control what others think of them. Optimalists are much more open to the unknown of how things may play out. They are able to go with the flow, but are “open to possibilities without being purposeless”.
Perfectionists resist feeling emotions that are not aligned to their preferred emotional state. For most Perfectionists the “ideal life is comprised of an unbroken chain of positive feelings.” For others is it is living in a negative state. The irony of this approach is that by avoiding truly feeling the full range of emotions, especially the ones feared the most, the more they gain in strength.
Optimalists allow themselves to feel a full range of emotions, understanding that by doing this they strengthen their ability to feel compassion. “The word compassion is derived from the Latin words “pati” and “cum”, meaning to “suffer with”. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present for the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.”
Being a Perfectionist is like having a protective shield. A Perfectionist fears sharing who they really are with the world which can lead them to create a façade and stories that reflect who they think they should be. As a result, they spend their time “hustling for worthiness by constantly performing, perfecting, pleasing and proving.”
If you can let go of what other people think about you, you can concentrate your efforts on feeling and knowing that you are enough just as you are.
Optimalists understand that they are not a failure because they don’t make it; they’re a success because they try. Optimalist strives to live a life that is described as “good enough”. The good enough life is a creative and realistic way to manage one’s expectations and time. It is essentially living in a way that is the best you can do and be given the various demands and constraints of your life. This is not the same as doing the bare minimum. Rather “the good enough approach actually leads to functioning at one’s best – at one’s optimal level of performance”.
Perfectionists, however, set unrealistic, unachievable goals, do not recognize any achievements en route to achieving the goal and if they do achieve their goal, dismiss it as unimportant.
Perfectionists continue to try to strive for perfection in everything they do. They do not accept the reality that perfectionism is a myth. But perfectionism is unachievable. No matter how much time they spend on something trying to make it perfect, there will always be a way to improve it.
The Optimalist however, strives for the best possible life, a life that is good enough, by identifying the best way to approach each life priority within the context of understanding that it is impossible to be perfect.
The Commitment to Perfectionism – Underlying Beliefs
Despite the heavy toll striving for perfection can have on a Perfectionist, there is a perceived payoff in the form of protection – protection from failure, criticism, making mistakes. Perfectionists hold on to the belief that they would not be as successful if they weren’t a Perfectionist.
They also hold a “no pain, no gain mentality”. The reality is that Perfectionists who enjoy success do so despite their obsessive striving for perfection, not because of it and often suffer from lifelong unhappiness and dissatisfaction in the process.
Research indicates that in situations of individuals being equal on a number of factors e.g. having similar levels of talent and skill, Perfectionists perform less successfully than non-perfectionists. Studies show perfectionists to be risk averse, which inhibits innovation and creativity and evidence supports that perfectionists my often also miss deadlines as they spend too much time agonizing over insignificant details in their attempt to make things perfect. There is also evidence of a link to workaholism.
Perfectionism is not the same as the healthy pursuit of excellence. Perfectionists “adopt a debilitating belief system: I am what I accomplish and how will I accomplish it. Healthy striving is self–focused. How can I improve? Perfectionism is other focused – what will they think?”
Those who strive for excellence in a healthy ways set achievable high standards, take genuine pleasure in the process of trying to meet these standards, bounce back quickly from disappointment, keep anxiety and fear of failure in check, see making mistakes as an opportunity for growth and respond positively to criticism. It is because of their beliefs and how these beliefs manifest in day-to-day behaviours which allow an Optimalist to achieve success.
Perfectionism and Coaching
The reality is that we all struggle with the fear of not being good enough and demonstrate Perfectionist characteristics at some point in our life that work against us in our efforts to attain a goal. To move forward on our own can be tough to do. It requires coming to terms with underlying disempowering beliefs. This means becoming aware of them and replacing them with empowering beliefs and behaviours. Breaking automatic behavior patterns created by our disempowering beliefs requires a commitment to change and vital to creating sustainable change, requires the creation of structures to support us in our change efforts. Engaging in an effective coaching experience can assist with all of these critical elements of change.
Considerations for the Coach
A Mentor Coach with International Coach Academy (ICA) shared these wise words, “let the client in their awareness become the process”. I would add that another critical element to an effective coaching experience lies in the self-awareness of the coach. This understanding can impact how the session is experienced for the client as the coach is responsible for managing the coaching process.
In supporting any client, whether a Perfectionist or not, it is important that as a coach we recognize our own perfectionist tendencies and how they may present themselves in the coaching process. For example, in our desire to strive for a perfect session, we may inadvertently behave in direct contradiction to what is needed to create a safe and supportive environment for the client. If we are so focused on our agenda of getting it “right”, we will not be fully present with the client as we will be paying attention to our own agenda – what we think should happen in the session. This can lead to a directive approach leaving the client disempowered and not feeling heard, as we are not truly listening if distracted by our own thoughts about what the session should look like. In the end we may achieve some predefined definition of what we wanted the session to look like, but we ultimately were not successful in creating a space in which the client is in control of and takes ownership for the process.
Leverage your knowledge about perfectionism to develop empathy and compassion, for your client and for yourself. Give yourself permission to make mistakes and view these mistakes as valuable gifts for learning which will allow you to become the coach and create the coaching experience you truly want for your client.
Challenge yourself to release control of knowing what will happen in the coaching experience. Meditating prior to a coaching session can help to quiet your internal chatterbox and help you to be relaxed and more present minded. During a coaching session, trust in your client and the coaching process that things will go at the pace and direction needed. Letting go can be scary, but the only way to overcome the fear of letting go of control, is by doing exactly that. Feel the fear and do it anyway, leveraging each session as an opportunity to practice releasing control. Being able to release control is critical as this is the only way you will be fully present in the session. Being present is the only way to ensure that you will be ready to provide your client with the appropriate support in any given moment.
It is important to remember that the coaching process is about supporting someone who is functional to become exceptional. If a client is showing signs of dysfunction for example in the case of a Perfectionist, extreme anxiety, depression, paralyzing procrastination, panic attacks etc. they must get support from a qualified mental health professional before the coaching process starts or concurrently with the coaching process.
Application Considerations for the Client
As with any client, it will be important to gauge a Perfectionist’s readiness to deal with their perfectionism directly in order to determine whether it would be more appropriate to use a more indirect approach and line of questioning. Calling out the perfectionism directly may for example, trigger failure anxiety and inaction in the client – if they view their perfectionism itself as a failure.
Regardless of whether your client is ready to address their perfectionism head on, outlined below are some approaches which may be useful. As the coach, you will need to make a call about how direct or subtle the approach. Perfectionism can make many coaching clients feel stuck and disempowered. As a coach you can help the client move forward by helping them to:
- accept their authentic self and let go of what others think;
- accept the reality of perfectionism and dare to be good enough;
3 build their self-esteem by practicing courage; and
- practice gratitude.
Accept their authentic self and let go of what others think
It has been said that it is only when someone truly accepts themselves as they are that they are then ready and able to change. To support your client with accepting their authentic self, they must be able to let go of what other people think of them. “When we can let go of what other people think and own our story, we gain access to worthiness – the feeling that we are enough just as we are and that we are worthy of love and belonging.”
Despite there being no requirements to be met to be worthy, Perfectionists rely heavily on what others think of them to prove their self-worth. The irony of this is that what others think of us is not about us at all, but a projection about how they feel about themselves. The good news is it is our choice whether to accept or reject what others think about us and the life we want to live. Support your client in understanding that it is in their power to make decisions that support who they are and their well being. The key is to not take things personally. Remember the magic mantra “whatever you feel or think about me has nothing to do with me, and everything to do with you”.
Accept the reality of perfectionism and dare to be good enough
Perfection is a myth, an impossible goal. Yet we create our reality by how we think about a situation. This means that it is within the client’s power to choose what they think about perfectionism. Help your client understand that it is a choice to view perfectionism as the only way to achieve success or to embrace imperfection as a gift and to live a life that is good enough.
Support the client in their awareness process to reality check the messages they are telling themselves about perfection and being good enough. Challenge them to test reality by encouraging them to perform different tasks at varying performance standards – high, medium and low. It has been reported, that many individuals who have taken this approach report feeling better about what they accomplish and being more effective in the process. In addition, help the client to identify what good enough might look like in the different areas of their life which are important to them and to take action to achieve against these new lowered, yet realistic standards.
Build self-esteem by practicing courage
Everyone experiences fear and the reality is that it will never go away as long as you continue to grow. Fear is there with every new challenge we face. The good news is that the “inability to deal with fear may look and feel like a psychological problem, in most cases it isn’t. It is primarily an educational problem, and by simply reeducating the mind, you can accept fear as simply a fact of life rather than a barrier of success”.
Courage is the ability to feel our fear and do what we fear, despite the fear. For a Perfectionist, there are many fears lurking, the fear of failure, of making a mistake, of not being good enough, of being judged etc.. It takes a lot of courage and support to face these fears. You can support the client in this process by helping them to understand that what they resist will persist and the only way to become courageous is to practice being courageous.
The reality is that “the only way to get rid of the fear of doing something is to go out and do it. Doing it comes before the fear goes away and the only way to feel better about myself is to go out and do it.”
By taking actions to face their fears head on, the client will learn to trust that they can handle whatever happens, which builds their confidence and self-esteem. It is in this process of taking actions to move forward with their fear, to face their fear that the fear is lessened and they learn that true fear is not in failing, but in not failing.
Perfectionists are always looking to a future accomplishment as a source of happiness. As a result, they are never happy in the present moment. They also look at the world from a glass half empty perspective, with nothing being good enough. Within this context, a coach can help a Perfectionist by helping them develop gratitude for what is good in the world in the present moment.
Encourage the client to set up ways to practice gratitude on a daily basis, e.g. keep a gratitude journal, commit to giving compliments daily, not to complain, and/or to volunteer for a worthy cause. It is through gratitude that the client will find joy and cultivate a new definition of success.
Joy is what happens to us when we allow ourselves to recognize how good things really are.Marianne Williamson.
As was stated at the outset of this paper, perfectionism is a complex and frequently misunderstood topic. In fact perfectionism has been described as a great deception. For the believer it promises success and happiness, but despite how hard one works for it, it delivers only disappointment and so many forms of hardship. This is because perfection does not exist.
The great news is that no one is ever fully a perfectionist and we each have the power to interpret our own reality and address beliefs that do not serve us in an effort to accept that we are good enough. The coaching process can be a powerful way to support an individual’s efforts to live a joyful good enough life.
An effective coaching experience requires a partnership between coach and client. The client is responsible primarily for what is experienced, but as a coach, your role is critical in managing the process and as a result how the coaching session is experienced. Both parties may bring their own perfectionist characteristics to the coaching experience. The critical first step towards moving things forward in a positive manner is for the coach and client to develop self-awareness.
It was the intent of this paper to clarify what perfectionism is and isn’t, how it manifests itself and to explore a few suggestions on how to leverage this information personally as a coach and in supporting the client’s coaching experience. Now armed with a foundational understanding of perfectionism, you are encouraged to continue on this personal awareness journey and to identify additional ways to support yourself and your client to accept that you and they are good enough and to live a good life.
The good life is a process, not a state of being. It is a direction, not a destination. Tal Ben-Shahar
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