Perfectionists can be described by one trait: they try to do everything all the time with exceedingly high standards. When they can't be the perfect partner, CEO, colleague, parent, and more, the feeling of guilt takes over. That nagging voice says, I feel bad for missing that soccer game. I wish I had acted on my instinct to make that project better. I'm not a good partner for cancelling dinner plans tonight, even though I need some rest.
A perfectionist's need to accomplish, rather than be -- to sometimes sit still -- contributes to the unhealthy cycle of feeling guilty about not being able to do it all, be it all, and have it all, says Dr. Jenny Brockis, an Australian-based doctor and author of Future Brain. Her work involves helping people develop cognitive health to think better, by overcoming emotions like guilt in their personal and professional lives.
We recently sat down with Dr. Brockis to find out what drives us to be perfect, how to overcome the negative thought cycle that comes with perfectionism, and how to give ourselves the care that we really need:
YouInc: What do people say to themselves when they're trying to be perfect?
Dr. Brockis: Am I good enough? Can I achieve this? What if I can't? What will happen then? There are a lot of "what ifs" going on internally. There's often a lot of negative self talk and emotions particularly around anxiety. As the intensity of the emotion rises, the ability to stay tuned into our logic and analysis and even reflection, becomes diminished.
YI: Is our problem with perfectionism that we're not honest with ourselves?
DB: We buy into other people's expectations. We want to make people proud, and do our best, but unless we check in and ask, "Is this really what I want?", then we get caught in everyone's expectations but our own.
YI: Why do we get caught in a cycle of doing?
DB: It's very easy to lose sight that our best performance and our best thinking comes from being, rather than doing. Anyone who has a tendency towards perfectionism is always wanting to be better, always wanting to get there, always wanting the next step of the ladder. But, do you know when is enough?
Otherwise we never stop. Because if you're a doer, you're thinking about what comes next. You can become CEO, but then what? Not everyone wants to be CEO. People are happy being at a different level. Unless you've actually checked in with yourself, and recognize, I'm happy with what I'm doing here, because I know my strength and what I enjoy, then we get caught in perpetual doing.
YI: Let's walk through situations of guilt that go on at work, and reframe how a negative thought can become more positive:
Situation A: Your client has noticed that you've made a spelling mistake in an email. You beat yourself up by saying, why didn't I catch that mistake. I've let my team and client down.
DB: It's about remembering that you're human and you're fallible and you make mistakes. It's not that you intentionally make mistakes, it's that if a mistake happens sometimes we can be grateful that someone has pointed it out. Because then we can correct it, rather than thinking, oh my goodness I'm terrible because I've made this mistake. Now people will think less of me. Sometimes we can get stuck in our own drama, and we go around and around and we feed the negative self talk. The more we use a certain thought system the more strongly imbedded it becomes. It's not good in the longer term.
Situation B: You meet with your boss and you receive constructive feedback on a project. You walk back to your desk thinking, why didn't they say I did a perfect job?
DB: The thing about feedback is that as soon as someone says, "Can I give you some feedback?" or "Come in because it's time for your performance review," it immediately tends to put us in the threat response. Our brain is like this will be bad. As soon as you're in threat response, you become defensive; anything said to you, even if it's good, you'll tend to look at as a negative.
Rather, you can acknowledge that this person has been given the task of providing constructive feedback, and ask yourself, "What can I take from that feedback? How can that feedback help me improve?"
YI: How do you overcome the feeling of feeling threatened again next time your boss says, "Can you come down for two minutes?"
DB: It's the practice of noticing what your physiology is telling you. It's often so deeply entrenched you automatically find yourself going into that negative space again. It's like okay, we've been through this situation before, and what was the outcome? What did we learn from previous experiences, and how can we approach it differently? How can we use this as a preparation and embrace it, rather than having fear associated with butterflies? Instead, you can recognize the feeling as, this is my body getting me ready, and say to yourself, bring it on, I'm ready.
Situation C: It's 5:30pm. You have to leave the office to get to a dinner. But, you tell yourself you have to send one more email and you'll feel more accomplished with your day. How do you walk away from sending that email and not feel bad about it?
DB: Allow yourself to say, no, I'm not going to send that email. I'm going to send it tomorrow. Otherwise we fall into that relentless pressure of do, do, do and we never give ourselves a break. The problem when we're so busy, is that we treat everything as urgent and important. When you have all these things waiting to be done, you think, I have to get on with them, rather than just telling yourself to stop. It comes down to practice and the discipline of saying "no".
YI: We can sometimes be so focused on our own motivations to our detriment. Is saying, I'm coming to work today for something greater than myself, a way to fight perfectionism?
DB: The greatest reward our brain experiences comes from doing something for someone else. So, if we feel that we're in a workplace where we're contributing something bigger than we are, that's going to make us feel like we want to come to work and we want to contribute; we'll be prepared to put our hand up.
We need to be kind to ourselves and look for the opportunity to be kind to other people. I believe if we demonstrate kindness and humanity to other people around us whether people at work or people crossing the street, it pays bucket loads. It makes us feel good.
YI: What are specific ways to stop focusing only on ourselves at work?
DB: It's about asking how you can help, and showing that you're not actually perfect. You can recognize, I'm working on this and it's challenging, rather than keeping it to yourself because you want to demonstrate that you're the best. It's about, this is a huge project and it's going to be a big task. Can I call on you to help with this?
People love being asked to help and it helps them see you as the person you are versus trying to project the super powerful idea that you can do this on your own. Perfectionists like to create silos; they're so protective of their patch, they don't want to let anyone in. They want to make sure they get promoted rather than calling someone else out for doing something well. I think it's very useful to pay attention to what's happening with people around us. It's about practice, and if you do it enough, then it becomes part of the culture.
How have you overcome a feeling that you have to do it all? Share your stories in the comments below.