career advice Sep 11, 2018

Welcome to the second part of a two-part series on perfectionism. If you missed last week’s post, “How to recognize the trap of perfectionism”, I highly recommend you go back and take a look as it sets the foundation for this post. Last week we talked about what perfectionism is and a few of the ways it can manifest in our work as assistants. Today we will be diving into tactics that can help us overcome perfectionism, and discuss an alternative that I’m really excited to share with you.

How to Trade Perfectionism for Excellence

As a recovering perfectionist, I have to admit that I’m a work in progress. I’m still not where I want to be, but I’m finding more and more that I am able to operate from a place that is rooted in my desire to create value. When (currently about half of the time) I’m able to operate in this way, it is truly freeing! I don’t feel the anxiety around the need for perfection. It has taken a lot of self-awareness and grace for myself to get where I am today. That said, I still have a lot of work to do in this area.

Recognize perfectionism in yourself for what it is…

A lot of us assistants wear our perfectionism as a badge of honor. For many years I answered the “What is your greatest weakness” question during interviews with an explanation of how much of a perfectionist I was. While perfectionism is definitely a weakness, in my mind, it was a strength disguised as a weakness. It’s not until I got real with myself about how my perfectionism was actually affecting me (operating out of a place of constant fear of failure, taking too long to do trivial, unimportant tasks, etc.), that I could see it for what it really is: a crutch that was, and still is at some level, holding me back from achieving my best life and optimum performance both in and outside of the workplace.

Here are some questions you can ask yourself to gauge where your perfectionist tendencies lie:

  • Does the thought of a project not being perfect give me anxiety? Why?

  • Do I fear disappointing my boss, my colleagues or myself? Why?

  • Do I avoid taking on projects because I fear I won’t be able to perform them perfectly?

Don’t avoid discomfort, embrace it

Once you become aware of the role perfectionism is playing in your life you will most likely recognize the negative emotions tied to it. This was definitely true for me! I had lived with the underlying fear and anxiety of disappointing others for so long that I had become numb to them. Once I brought awareness to these emotions they were like an annoying glare that I couldn’t get rid of. I have learned through my own personal experience that in order to deal with these root causes of perfectionism I have to lean into the discomfort of recognizing them. I began to intentionally get curious about why they were there. During my meditation time (highly recommend meditation, btw) I would have conversations with my anxiety and fear as though they were outside of myself. I would ask them why they were there, and what I could do to help them go on their way. I also talked with my therapist about what was going on for me (highly recommend this also).

Don’t beat yourself up when you recognize negative emotions, as this only serves to feed the perfectionist monster. Instead, look at negative emotions as breadcrumbs leading toward greater self-discovery and awareness. After all, just because they’re negative doesn’t mean they’re bad.

Patience, patience, patience and a whole heap of grace

Your brain likes to think familiar thoughts regardless of how destructive those thoughts are. As you work through the root(s) of your perfectionism it will be necessary to embrace an attitude of grace and patience for yourself. I’m a very impatient person, and I expect myself to get from point A to point B immediately. Unfortunately, when it comes to purposefully training our brains to think and operate differently, immediate gratification isn’t possible. The journey is step by step. Some days it feels like I have gotten nowhere, and other days it feels like I’m making progress on getting past this whole perfectionism thing. This is the essence of the journey: little by little, fabulous progress, then a setback or two. Embrace it all with a heap of grace and self-love. I trust that one day my future self will thank me.

Strive for excellence, not perfection

I love Webster’s definition of excellence: the quality of being very good of its kind: eminently good...

Which differs greatly from Webster’s definition of perfection: freedom from fault or defect.

I find it fascinating how the words used in the definition of perfection are in and of themselves negative. Freedom from fault and defect. I don’t know about you, but the use of the words fault & defect invoke in me a tinge of anxiety just reading them! We could spend an inordinate amount of time seeking freedom from fault of defect (perfection) only to fall short because perfection is quite often a moving target.

On the other hand, excellence (the quality of being very good of its kind: eminently good) has no negative connotation or association. By definition, excellence is very good! To do your work with excellence means to create a fabulous end result without the pressures of creating something perfect.

Life coach and teacher Brooke Castillo shared in this podcast how she laid down the expectation for herself to produce A+ work, and now aims to produce B- work. I know what you are thinking. In fact, I can see the collective eye roll of every assistant ever. Stay with me for a second here. Brooke tells the story of writing her first book. The book was riddled with spelling and grammatical errors.  Immediately, the self-proclaimed “grammar and spelling police” (Guilty! I know you are too) were all over it. Brooke received letters and emails regarding the errors. Then one day a letter came from a woman explaining how much the book had impacted her life. At that moment Brooke realized that B- work can change the world. She could spend a lot of time and energy making sure everything was perfect or she could spend that same time and energy-producing B- work that changes people's lives.

I know for myself that loosening the grip on “perfect” has freed me up to be more productive and accomplish more in my days. I find I go through my days calmer and more self-assured because things no longer have to be absolutely perfect all the time. Operating from the mindset of excellence (B+ to A- in my mind) has actually led to more trust from my boss and increased levels of responsibility. I suspect this is because, whether he’s aware of it or not, the energy I give off is increasingly calmer and more self-assured.

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