For many women, striving for perfection is a way of life and achieving anything else except perfection is considered failure. At work, we are working harder than ever and still don’t feel like it’s enough. It’s burning us out and dragging us down. It demoralizes us and increases our own self-doubt and most certainly increases our anxiety. Our need for perfection is making us averse to risk, averse to change and averse to creating the life that will make us happy.
Unfortunately, when we live life according to perfectionistic standards, it negatively affects us in so many ways. This impossible and toxic way of living actually impedes our ability to move forward, apply for jobs and distracts us from going after our purpose. It even impacts our personal relationships. It is seriously exhausting us.
Perhaps for you, it plays out in your life like this
Recently, you turned in a big project at work. You dedicated yourself to it, working late every night and rechecking and editing your work repeatedly to ensure it was perfect. After you submitted the project, your boss asked you some mildly clarifying questions and it devastated you. You worked so hard for it to be perfect. If they asked questions, it must be terrible. In your mind, you failed. After work, you went to your workout class and threw yourself into it. You punished yourself and searched for understanding on how you could have failed so catastrophically and couldn’t stop thinking about it.
You feel ashamed and embarrassed about your failure. You avoid your boss and your coworkers. You constantly rehash the scenario in your mind. Unable to let it go, you wonder if you are cut out for this job. The next time a similar project comes up, you aren’t so fast to volunteer. Last time, you failed.
You work, often too hard. You have trouble delegating work because you fear that it won’t be done right. You feel stressed, overworked and at times angry that you are carrying a heavier load than the rest of your coworkers. Your colleagues view you as high strung and slightly anxious and from time to time comment that you need to loosen up or let it go.
You know you can’t let it go. You fear that people will find out that you really are a fraud, an imposter that shouldn’t be there. You firmly believe that if you are any less than perfect, they will find out and all will be lost. Doing anything less than 100% perfect, 100% of the time is not acceptable.
Even when things go well, you don’t feel like you can own or celebrate your achievements. You know how it could have been better, what the flaws were. You believe people either are just being nice or don’t know what they are talking about.
You may beat yourself up for this, but the truth is that this is completely normal and many women struggle with the need to be perfect. Women are putting more pressure on themselves than ever to be perfect at work, the perfect partner, have the perfect body, and of course live the perfect life that can be displayed on social media. Sound familiar?
However, there are several things that can help us learn to accept the gray and free us up to accept that perfect isn’t necessarily better. With this new way of thinking, we can experience the freedom to try new things, sign up for that project or truly celebrate our success.
When we learn to confront and examine all or nothing, perfectionistic thinking, it is entirely possible to accept the middle ground and drastically change our lives.
The good news, is that you can overcome perfectionism and learn to address the distorted thoughts that fuel it. Keep reading to learn how to confront this toxic life approach and learn to experience the growth that comes with embracing imperfection.
Continuing to look at things as Black and White
Ignoring this problem and continuing to push harder is only going increase its negative impact. Your self-doubt and constant self-criticism will likely lead to or increase your feelings of anxiety and depression. You will have difficulty going after your goals and feel frustrated about your lack of progress. You may find that in your quest to be perfect, you struggle with procrastination and fear of going after new things.
At the very least, you will feel less satisfaction and joy in your life, as you aren’t able to celebrate the good things, the great efforts and the success in life that other’s see. You will miss out. Others in your life won’t likely understand your way of thinking and may tire of your constant need for perfection and reassurance. They won’t understand why you can’t celebrate your success, accept the middle ground and just relax every once in a while. Your coworkers and friends may distance themselves, as they have tired of trying to convince you that you don’t have to perfect, your work is good, you are not a failure.
Living this way keeps you from celebrating the same successes that others do and keeps you from believing in yourself. You may decide not to try new things because you might not be perfect and you might fail. You rub your coworkers the wrong way because you feel there is a “right way” to do things and people find it frustrating and hard to work with you. You don’t develop positive relationships with others because you are focused on the end goal, and not the process leading up to it. Living this way is making you depressed and exhausted, because you can’t but you can never measure up to your own standards.
When you start to accept the Gray
It’s true that perfectionism is rampant and it’s hard to break free. However, you have the potential to be happier, more relaxed and more successful when you confront your all or nothing thinking and replace it with a more moderate way of looking at things.
One of the biggest benefits of tackling this way of thinking is that you will create additional space for improved relationships, higher life satisfaction and greater progress on achieving your goals. You may feel more excited about your goals as you learn to celebrate the small steps and enjoy the process. You will likely feel freed up to try new things and go after what you want, as the fear of failure will diminish.
You absolutely can feel free and more in tune with your true self. It just means moving on from chasing happiness within perfection and looking within the gray.
How learning to combat all or nothing thinking can open you up to a life of happiness, even when things aren’t perfect
Learning to recognize, address and balance all or nothing thinking are the first steps in recognizing and accepting imperfection. Perfectionists frequently have distorted, black or white thoughts, with little regard for shades of gray.
Making these changes is not as difficult as you think because research shows that we can all learn new habits and new ways of thinking. With commitment and practice, we all can start to identify those negative thought patterns and replace them with something more balanced. When you follow a step-by-step path, you’ll see how quickly you can start to live differently, more optimistically, and be kinder to yourself. You will be surprised that within a short period of time, you may start to look at things differently. I have boiled this process down to three simple steps, to make it simple and easy to learn.
1. Identification – Does this all or nothing thinking sound like you? Is perfection the only way? Time to start recognizing and identifying those distorted thoughts. How do you do that? Catch yourself doing it! Write down your thoughts in a journal or notebook. Focus on the ones that are eating you up, the thoughts you perseverate on. I frequently ask my clients to track these moments in between sessions and bring them in for discussion and dissection. It’s amazing how quickly we can learn to identify these thoughts, such an important part of the process.
2. Address: Now I want you to come up with three or four examples of when this wasn’t true, is it true you are a failure and have never succeeded? Provide three examples of when you have succeeded in your professional or personal life. Here at Grit and Grace, we do work through this together to address this exact issue. We will come up with examples and dig deep to find the positive, even when it’s difficult to see.
3. Balance: Come up with a new revised statement that is more balanced, less harsh and includes your examples above. “Although I made some mistakes on this project, I received a promotion last year because of good work. ” When you schedule a session with Grit and Grace, you and I will work together to come up with these balanced statements and use them on a regular basis. As a therapist, I look at for those moments in our discussion and walk you through the process in real time, further cementing the idea that we can continually and easily confront this type of thinking when it comes up.
This exercise is simple but requires practice. You brain and your thoughts can be retrained. Think of it as going to the gym for your brain, reforming and retraining old muscles to act differently. Over time, like our bodies, our brain will just start to work differently and challenging your black and white thinking will become second nature.
All of us engage in black and white thinking from time to time, but the important thing is to acknowledge it when it happens, and talk yourself through the thought problem, in order to find balance. This skill isn’t super helpful for those that prefer past looking intensive talk therapy. This is an action oriented, future focused skill for women who are ready to do the work in the moment and looking to learn how to be more present.
By learning to accept the gray at times, you can expect a better understanding of your thinking, how it impacts the way you feel and the way you act. This increased self-insight should boost your confidence and encourage you to do more. MORE new things, more self-acceptance, more openness to others and more YOU! Grit and Grace can help!