Over-achiever? How to balance ambition with ‘being perfect’

Jun 10, 2021

‘What’s your weakness?’. ‘I’m a perfectionist!’.

I remember preparing for the ‘strengths and weaknesses’ question in one of my first job interviews. Research told me to mention a ‘positive’ weakness or turn my weakness into a positive: “This means I have extremely high standards and I’ll do whatever it takes to meet them!”.

Is it any wonder this is the most over-used (and cringe-worthy) response to an interview question?!

However, this wasn’t simply a clever answer in a job interview. Perfectionism has been a constant battle my entire life. And I’m not alone.

Perfectionism is a common trait amongst many high performers. And traditionally, society has often associated it with accomplishment and success.

But when does achievement become unhealthy or unhelpful? And how do you remain driven and motivated, while keeping your perfectionism in check?

Read on to understand where perfectionism comes from, how it differs to healthy striving and the consequences of over-achievement. Learn how to successfully balance your ambitions with the desire to ‘be perfect’.

WHAT CAUSES PERFECTIONISM?

At the heart of perfectionism is a deep fear of not being good enough.

Perfectionism is developed by our upbringing, life experience and conditioning. You grow up being praised and rewarded for your performance and achievements. You work hard, get results and suddenly start to believe you must be successful to feel good about yourself.

Anything ‘less than perfect’ is simply not good enough.

As human beings, we’ve evolved to feel fear and avoid threats – to survive. Perfectionism is also influenced by who we naturally are.

Self-criticism and the fear of being judged by others is a major cause and effect of perfectionism. We control these feelings by trying to be ‘perfect’.

HOW DOES IT DIFFER TO ACHIEVEMENT?

Perfectionism is not about self-development, growth and a healthy sense of accomplishment.

It overemphasises the importance of achievement, attaching a high level of value to other people’s opinions. Perfectionists link their self-worth to their ability to reach their own unrelenting high standards. As Brene Brown says:

“Healthy striving is self-focused: How can I improve? Perfectionism is other focused: What will they think?”.

WHAT ARE THE CONSEQUENCES?

Perfectionism results in overachievement. You believe doing your best is not enough – you must strive for greater and better. As a result, you have unrealistically high standards, set unachievable goals and put yourself under immense pressure to reach them.

Stress and burn-out are the consequences of overachievement. You work excessively hard to achieve your goals. Work’s no longer fun and you start to question why you set these big ambitions in the first place.

You’re completely overwhelmed by the size of the task in front of you, held back by procrastination and feel anxious and guilty if you don’t manage to meet your own high standards.

Even if you accomplish your goals, your sense of fulfillment is often short lived. You immediately dismiss your success, feel relieved you’ve achieved it or set the benchmark even higher next time.

HOW DO YOU MANAGE PERFECTIONISM?

I’ve learnt how to successfully manage perfectionism and keep my overachievement in check most of the time. Here are my top tips.

TIP 1 – TAKE IMPERFECT ACTION

My guiding word and theme for 2019 is ‘Imperfection’. As a perfectionist, it can be easy to get caught up in the details. Trying to get everything perfect, you delay taking action.

But no action = no results. So, this year I’m embracing imperfection and taking imperfect action!

Imperfect action is about going for progress, not perfection. It’s also about the power of choice – choosing what you say yes and no to. Taking action because you want to, not because you have to.

And choosing to do something because you enjoy it. Not because you’re focused on achieving the final end goal.

TIP 2 – DO YOUR BEST

This one comes from the wonderful book, The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz (read it, it’s amazing!). The fourth agreement states: Always do your best. Nothing more, nothing less.

This isn’t about doing more than your best (unhealthy striving and overachievement). Working longer and harder is ineffective and leads to reduced productivity. Because in the long term, doing more makes you unhappy, stressed and burn-out.

Doing your best involves setting realistic standards and goals. How can you relax your standards? Are your goals achievable?

Always doing your best is about replacing an unhealthy belief with a more helpful, positive one.

It’s the belief that ‘your best is never the same from one moment to the next’. Meaning: it changes over time depending upon your mood, energy levels, health and what’s going on in your life.

Some days you’ll feel energised and ready to take on the world. If you’ve had a poor night’s sleep or you’re sick, ‘your best’ will be different. The idea is to live in the moment and simply do your best – whatever that looks like right now.

TIP 3 – CELEBRATE SUCCESS – AND FAILING

It can be easy to play down your achievements, or rush straight to the next goal. Instead, take some time to reflect on and celebrate your achievements.

Reward yourself when you accomplish an overall goal. And to stay motivated, celebrate and reward yourself as you reach milestones along the way.

Practice making mistakes and celebrate failing too. Failing is an opportunity for learning. To fail doesn’t mean you’re a failure.

Letting go of the need to be perfect leads to action and learning. By making mistakes you learn from them. And this is where growth and transformation happen.

TIP 4 – PRIORITISE SELF-CARE

Unrelenting high standards and overachievement lead to burn-out. To counter this, always prioritise self-care and time-out.

To me, self-care means maintaining my morning routine of meditation and exercise, eating healthily and taking regular breaks throughout the day. For others, it could be as simple as having a good night’s sleep or booking an annual holiday overseas.

Work out what self-care means to you, put measures in place to avoid burn-out and prioritise sticking to them.

TIP 5 – PRACTICE SELF-COMPASSION

Not feeling good enough and fear of failure are part of being human. You’re not alone – we all experience these feelings at some stage in our lives. Be kind to yourself, let these feelings appear, but don’t get attached to them.

Finally practice self-acknowledgement – take the time to celebrate who you are, your best qualities. And make it a daily practice!

 

Perfectionism is prevalent among highly successful professionals and business owners. Yet what separates the high-achievers from the perfectionists is a healthy sense of ambition and a focus on self-development and growth.

As we’ve seen, perfectionism leads to overachievement and burn-out as we push ourselves to meet our unrelenting high standards and goals.

These tips support me on a daily basis to keep my perfectionism in check. And they help my clients balance their ambitions with the desire to ‘be perfect’. I hope they assist you too.

Want help to balance your ambitions with the desire to ‘be perfect’?

Book your free 30 minute consult HERE to get started!

Stacey Back is a Career Strategist, Leadership Coach + Founder of Profile Careers. She helps high-achieving corporate leaders and business owners at a mid-career crossroads find the work that lights them up, increase their income, impact and create a career + life on their terms.

Stacey also supports professionals to transition from their corporate job into their own consulting business. She works virtually with individuals based across the globe.