We all want to fulfil our goals and achieve our objectives, whether it be earning more revenue, fulfilling our KPIs or delivering a project on time and within budget. But sometimes, we get so caught in the trap of trying to ensure everything is perfect that our desire for perfection prevents us from performing at our peak. Ironically, telling ourselves that “It has to be perfect” can be the one thing that gets in the way of achieving our idea of perfection!
An unhealthy obsession with perfection may show up in several ways. For example, you may find yourself saying things like:
- “It’s not the perfect time to start, so why start now?”
- “I have to keep working on it until it’s perfect.”
- “Unless it’s perfect, I am not good enough.”
- “I’ll only succeed if everything is completed to perfection.”
- “What will they think of me if it’s not perfect?”
- “I have to pretend I am perfect so that they will give me the promotion.”
- “Although I’m finished, I need to keep working on it till it’s perfect because I’m just not happy with it.”
There is nothing wrong with striving to do your best. On the contrary, setting standards for yourself is vital if you want to be effective. But if the need for perfection leads to frequent procrastination, missed deadlines or constant self-judgement and ineffective use of time to the point where you are spending significantly longer working on a project than you should, it becomes a problem. In writing this article, my desire for perfection caused me to procrastinate for three days before finally getting it done the night before the deadline. In the end, the only thing that kept me on track was my commitment to my editor. The night before submission, I wrote from 9-11 pm, but a voice in my head kept telling me, “I have to get it perfect!” For some, the stress caused by the need for perfection may even impact their health, wellbeing, career, business, relationships, and overall life experience.
Are you striving to be perfect, or are you a perfectionist?
If you look closely at the way different forms of a word are defined, you will often see the subtle nuances between them and the difference that semantics can make. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word perfect means “complete and without faults or weaknesses” and “having everything that is necessary” while a perfectionist is defined as “a person who likes to do things perfectly and is not satisfied with anything less”. Which one do you connect with? Furthermore, studies show perfectionism can affect our physical and mental health, cause us to procrastinate and even die earlier.
Overcoming perfectionism – an ontological approach
Common suggestions to overcome perfectionism include “don’t judge”, “enjoy the process”, “don’t assume everyone else has figured it out”, and “focus on the positives”. However, these strategies can be difficult to apply. The challenge is often more complex. Below is an outline of one of the ways I support my clients to manage their overwhelming need for perfection using an ontological approach.
From an ontological perspective, how we relate to perfection is largely determined by our relationship with awareness, authenticity and vulnerability, the latter having a particularly significant impact. Let me explain by starting with the Being Framework™’s ontological distinction of vulnerability, an excerpt of which is shown below.
The vulnerability Mood is impacted by the concerns you have with respect to how you are being perceived or thought of in different situations. Vulnerability is how you are being when confronted or exposed to perceived threats, ridicule, attacks or harm (emotional or physical). Being truly vulnerable is when you are okay with your imperfections. It is considered the quality of being with your authentic Self without obsessive concern over the impression you are making. [Tashvir, A. (2021). BEING (p. 233). Engenesis Publication]
To be vulnerable is commonly misunderstood as being weak, naive or fragile. When I raise vulnerability with business leaders, it is not uncommon for them to question my intentions. It is only when I explain that vulnerability is actually being open, truthful and willing to express yourself authentically to others that they begin to pay attention. So, being and needing to have everything perfect might indicate that we care more about what people think of us than the outcome of our endeavours.
For example, one client was progressing towards the delivery of a project. Although he was competent, he lacked the skills to solve all project-related problems independently. At the same time, he was up for a promotion within the organisation. However, he feared that if he was vulnerable and asked for help, it would be seen as weak and highlight his imperfections. Consequently, he believed this would reduce his chances of getting the promotion. The impact of this was that he dealt with a massive amount of anxiety and worry. My client believed that if he opened up, it would enable him to solve the problems and deliver a successful project, but it may result in the promotion being given to someone else.
My client kept thinking: “They will not listen to me, and they think I am stupid”. On the other hand, he thought the project might not be delivered as planned if he stayed quiet. But at least his self-imposed imperfections or competency gap would not be exposed – a dilemma. With my support, my client identified what was getting in his way: a past experience with a manager and the story he created as a result of that experience. Once he identified the problem, he was able to address his unhealthy relationship with vulnerability and acknowledge that he couldn’t solve the problem without support. So he asked for help and subsequently fulfilled the agreement and delivered the project on time. He also successfully secured the promotion.
When we identify and reflect on the stories we tell ourselves and the feelings and thoughts that get in the way of peak performance, we become more aware and acknowledge the areas we need to address. A healthy relationship with vulnerability enables us to let go of the unrealistic notion that we have to be perfect and acknowledge and own our imperfections. Vulnerability builds trust, a prerequisite for collaboration, which in turn enables us to create, grow and perform at the highest level.