Is your perfectionism a problem? How to leverage your high standards without turning off your colleagues, clients, and audience
June 8, 2017
I am a perfectionist. I hold myself to a very high standard for just about everything that doesn’t include adult behavior like calling back my dentist to see why they’ve left me a message. My thoughts, my actions, my creations—I’m very exacting with all of it.
And that’s fine for me, so long as I don’t beat myself up over the mistakes I make along the way. (It’s a work in progress, always. I try to treat myself well and focus on learning rather than berating.)
Where this high personal standard has tripped me up in the past is in my dealings with other people. Because perfectionism is my default, it’s also the default setting for critiquing the work of others, whether they’re classmates or colleagues or (cringe) bosses. I never realized that my red-pen ruthlessness, as the editor of my high school paper, was drawn from this well of perfectionism until my English teacher pointed it out. Her words have stayed with me since senior year:
“You do excellent work. But you can’t hold others to the very high standards you set for yourself. You just can’t.”
I repeat those words to myself every single week—and I know, that sounds very hoity-toity of me. Let me explain: I repeat those words to myself not when I’m taking in something that doesn’t meet my standards, but rather as a reminder that it’s OK to be solidly good. Being the best isn’t the pinnacle; being better than you were the day before is.
So, fellow perfectionists, let’s dig into those hoity-toity moments and figure out if your own high bar is intimidating, annoying, or otherwise pissing off your clients, future leads, and randos who come across your admittedly awesome work. Then, we’re going to troubleshoot your perfectionist behaviors and perfectionism problems. Onward!
Is your perfectionism aggravating your audience? Maybe. Here are 7 ways you could be pushing the perfect thing a little too far...
Time to look under the hood and find out how annoying you are. Buckle up. This probably won’t feel good.
You only share the glossy, pretty, gold-foil stuff that happens. One of the most memorable Instagram snaps posted in the last few years, for me, was this one from ban.do founder Jen Gotch. It is so not perfect. And that’s what makes it relatable and worth remembering.
You are a little too eager to please. Instead of being true to the person you actually are, dandruff, smeared lipstick and all, you try to embody what you think other people want to see. It’s both disingenuous (which people can see coming—you’re forewarned) and really, really painful to your psyche.
You try to do everything by yourself. Baby cakes, I am not a delegator. Am. Not. I suck at it. But eventually, you’re going to learn that you can’t do everything solo. You can learn it now or you can learn it later, after you’ve almost killed yourself to prove that fact o’ life wrong. Team work is essential to building great things, and when you’re a poor team player, that word will get around. It’s not a label you want plastered on your resume.
You judge people against your own high standards, and you talk about “other bosses,” “other clients,” “other employees” in a belittling way when they don’t meet your bar of acceptability. Snark may be in fashion, but that doesn’t mean it has a place in a professional environment. If “judge-y” is who you are, well, OK. But let that be a choice you make consciously and enact intentionally.
You reject feedback. Being told you’re less than perfect sucks. It does, I know it. I’m a writer, and I’ve seen far more red pen on my own papers than I’ve ever scrawled collectively on anyone else’s. It hurts your heart. Slap a Band-aid on it, though, and try to listen. Try to learn. Try to become better. Don’t let your perfectionism stifle your growth—or make you look intractable in the eyes of those trying to give you a leg up.
Your mantra is “if it’s not perfect, don’t bother.” Hold on there, Pollyanna, ‘cause there is value in imperfection and in not being No. 1. I know that idea runs perpendicular to your sense of self, but it’s a true fact, as opposed to a fake one, and it would do your heart and mind well to consider it.
You ignore the mistakes you’ve made. I have so, so, so been there, both as an employee trying to cover up an “oops” moment and as a boss itching to forget an epic-ly awful launch a few years back. What we perfectionists tend to forget is that owning mistakes gains you currency with everyone. People see that you’re a flawed human being (and they like that). People see that you’ve learned from the past (and they like that). And people see that you’re honest (and they really like that).
...and 4 ways to both embrace your perfectionism and become a real human person to the people you want to work with
I will never advocate that you should be anything less than your true self. (Unless that true self is a psychopath. Then, maybe tamp down.) What I’ve found true about my own perfectionist tendencies is that they make me want to suppress the sides of me that are less than perfect.
So often when we perfectionists are struggling to meet our own bars, we shut out the stuff that doesn’t measure up. These four actionable tips are all about strategically not allowing yourself to do that. I want you to be yourself—your whole self, not just the perfect bits. Give these tactics a try:
Real talk is my favorite thing. It’s why I make it a priority here, at SeeBrittWrite, and it makes up about three-quarters of the content I read from other working women. We all struggle with personal demons, and it doesn’t matter whether we’re fighting the same demons or different ones; we can all relate to the fight.
If your work is flawless and lauded and this and that, that’s wonderful. But don’t let that be all it is. Perfection is flat. It’s boring. Add another dimension to it—and make your process and skills that much more interesting and valuable. Talk about the pitfalls. Talk about the “oops” moments and the mistakes. Talk about what you learned on the job and what you would change if you took another crack at it.
Post work-in-progress shots that are very clearly not perfect. Seeing someone working towards a better end product is inspiring. Seeing someone who gives birth to perfection five times a day on Instagram makes people want to scream (and unfollow).
I’m not endorsing the “fucking A, she’s perfect, I hate her,” diatribe. I’m saying it exists, and also you’re not perfect and you don’t deserve this bullshit bitterness, so why not do what you can to sidestep it? If people want to dislike you, fine. But don’t let them point to “she’s too perfect, what’s she really like?” Let them point to something tangible.
Anyway. Process. Share it.
Becoming No. 1 is an aspiration many of us share. It’s also one that readers can burn out on, or find so intimidating from the get-go that they don’t even want to open their mind to the (long, exhausting) journey.
Personally, I like little steps forward. I like to read about one itsy bitsy thing I can do right now that will make a positive difference in the work I’m doing and the life I’m leading. Six month plans scare the shit out of me. I shut down, I stop listening, and I avoid their peddlers like a nutter.
Not everyone thinks like me, but enough do that I’m putting this out here for you to consider. Tone down the best-ness and turn up the volume on the better-ness.
Another lesson from my high school days: Red pen freaks people the F out. Yeah, it feels good to mark up the paper, but when you hand it back and you see someone’s face fall, the 3 minutes of “I’m the best editor in the worlddd!” goes out the window.
When you tell someone that they’re doing everything wrong, that person shuts down. They feel like they shouldn’t bother, because what’s the point? It’s never going to be good enough—certainly not in your eyes. They’re never going to come close to the bar you set with all that ink. And that, friends, is an unproductive response, whether it’s from a client or a colleague or a pal you’re helping out in a pinch.
Instead, start with one solve-able problem. What’s the biggest challenge this project faces? What’s the one thing that can be done to make this project significantly better? Tackle that first. The smaller ones can all be fixed later, without scaring away the person you’re trying to help.
Bottom line: You're a perfectionist. That's OK. But that's not all you are.
I dare you to push through the perfectionist. Push past it, push in every single direction. Keep those high standards for yourself because they are a part of you and work. They’re what help you achieve greatness every single day! But let yourself be things other than perfect. Deal?