Ep #21: The Truth About Perfectionism

Strong as a Working Mom with Carrie Holland | THE TRUTH ABOUT PERFECTIONISM
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Are you a perfectionist? Do you declare that you are a perfectionist and then use this to keep you from trying and failing at new things? If so, you are not alone. I was there too, and I’m still working on fully letting it go. But the truth is that doing this isn’t serving you, and it is actually holding you back from becoming your next best version.

Perfectionism comes from what we are inadvertently taught as children and young adults. Holding yourself to a high standard can be good, but when it stops you from trying new things for fear of failing, it’s a problem. It keeps you paralyzed and leads to zero action. So if you’re ready to stop taking the easy way out, playing it safe, and staying miserably comfortable, you’re in the right place.

Join me this week as I share the truth about perfectionism, where it comes from, what it means, and some signs you might be a perfectionist. I’m sharing some common characteristics of perfectionists so you can see how they might be showing up in your life, and giving you an alternative to perfectionism that will help you move forward and show up as the person you want to be.

If you like what you’ve been hearing, please review the show. Your suggestions have inspired episodes and will help me make this show better for you. Want to get the word out to other working moms who want to feel strong inside and out? Share this podcast with a friend by texting a show link, sharing a screenshot, or posting a link on your social media, and help other busy working moms feel better and change things up.

Be sure to tag me on Instagram or Facebook so I can follow along and engage with you!

What You Will Discover:

  • One of the most difficult things about being a perfectionist.
  • The safety and dangers of declaring that you’re a perfectionist.
  • Where the ingrained idea of success and being the best comes from and what it leads to.
  • Why no one else can validate your worth.
  • How to stop making your failures and mistakes mean something about you.
  • The problem with all-or-nothing thinking and how it might show up for you as a perfectionist.
  • How to stop using perfectionism as a safety mechanism.

Listen to the Full Episode:

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Full Episode Transcript:

You are listening to the Strong as a Working Mom podcast, Episode #21. Are you a perfectionist? Are you ready to give it up so you can move forward? Let’s talk about it.

Welcome to the Strong as a Working Mom podcast. If you’re balancing career, family, wellness, and some days sanity, you are in the right place. This is where high achieving, busy working moms get the tools they need to eat, move, and think. I’m your host, physician, personal trainer and Certified Life Coach Carrie Holland. Let’s do this.

Hey, how are you? What’s new, what’s good? So, today, we are going to talk about perfectionism. I know it may sound a little strange, but I’m pretty pumped to talk about this with you. Because one, I see so many of you declare, “I’m a perfectionist,” and then use that to keep you from trying and failing at new things. And two, I was most definitely there.

In full transparency, I’m still working on letting that one go. I have some ideas for you that, hopefully, will help you see perfectionism in a new light. So, as I was brainstorming about perfectionism, because I think that this is a really big, important topic to address, I started thinking of my nine-year-old.

He prides himself on being a math guy. He just really, really loves math. In his class, there is a computer program where you can do all kinds of math problems. It keeps a tally, and shows you where you rank in your class. We were talking about it one day, and he said he didn’t want to do it anymore. Because there was someone so far ahead of him, who had done hundreds more problems that he had done, and he knew there was no way he could be the top scorer.

So, he just wasn’t going to do the math problems anymore. As you can imagine, that opened up an opportunity to talk about perfectionism, competition, and holding yourself to a high standard, not anyone else’s. We talked about the goal behind doing these math problems; it was not about being at the top and getting the highest score, but instead doing it for his own sake and his own mastery.

And that was, admittedly, a pretty hard conversation to get through. Most definitely a parenting challenge, one of many, but it was a wakeup call that we need to practice what we preach. And model trying, failing, trying again, and aiming for our own personal progress instead of perfection.

So, with that in mind, what are we going to cover today? Here’s what we’re talking about: We’re going to talk about where perfection comes from. What does that word even mean? Some signs that you might be a perfectionist. We’re going to get into the safety and the dangers, because there are both, of declaring that you’re a perfectionist. What happens when you’re a perfectionist. And then, an alternative to being a perfectionist, and how to know if you’re living that out.

Okay, so let’s go; let’s dive in. First, what does it actually mean to be a perfectionist? When you’re a perfectionist, it means that you have a set of beliefs about yourself that cause you to set unrealistic goals. And, they are fueled by self-defeatism.

So, more simply, it often manifests as thinking any accomplishment you achieve is not good enough. Basing your self-worth on the evaluation of others. Procrastination, meaning you don’t start something because you are so paralyzed by the fear that it is not going to be good enough. And, we’re gonna get more into this.

The need to give 110% on everything, or else you will fail. And what this does, is make evolving and becoming your next best version pretty stinking tough. So, where does this come from? Looking at my own experience, and what I get to do every day, I have the privilege of working with a lot of very successful people.

These are physicians and executives, movers and shakers, who are making things happen. And the thing that many of them have in common, is that they did not get where they are by getting C+ on their homework. They did not get to the top by going easy on themselves. And often, this deeply rooted need for success and perfectionism was learned and sealed in during childhood.

So, think about your own circumstances. Maybe you saw that from a young age; you were praised for getting really good grades, or winning your swim races, or being the best at something. And while that praise felt really good at the time, what it did was teach you to base your worth on other people’s nod of approval.

And well, I promise, your parents, friends, teachers were likely not doing this intentionally. What they were doing was reinforcing that being perfect, or being the best, or getting straight A’s, equals praise and validation. So, then what happens, is your self-worth becomes based on how other people perceive you.

And again, going back to habit science here, when you are praised for getting straight A’s, it tells your brain, “Hey, this is good. Do that again.” And then, you reinforce the thought patterns that go with it: When I get straight A’s, I get praise. And that praise means I am a worthy human.

Fast forward to adulthood, where that ingrained idea that succeeding, winning, being the best, that equals approval because that’s what you’ve known all your life. Often, the result of that, is a self-created internal pressure backed by decades of reinforcement by all the people who were giving you praise.

And then, it’s no wonder you’re a perfectionist. You have learned to equate perfectionism with praise, validation, and ultimately, self-worth. Okay, so my point here, is not to spend this episode doing a Freudian analysis of your childhood. Let me also make it clear, I’m not blaming your parents, friends, or teachers, for your perfectionism.

Instead, I simply want to point out that often, perfectionism comes from what we are inadvertently taught as children and young adults; working hard, getting good grades, winning the medals, or the trophies, getting into a top college or graduate school, landing the job, finding the trophy partner, being rail thin; those are all things that generally earn you praise.

And if your value was determined by how much you accomplished or achieved, whether purposefully or not, you may have grown up with an underlying belief that your self-worth lies in the hands of, and at the approval of, other people. So, here’s the truth about perfectionism. What it does, is leave you vulnerable to the opinions of others, because you’re basing your value on other people’s approval. And what this largely boils down to, is what other people think of you; no good. So, remember, if you need a reminder, go back to Episode 11, where we talk all about other people’s opinion of you.

Let me remind you, and give you the quick and dirty summary: It is your opinion of yourself that matters most; no one else’s. And for someone trying to bust through perfectionism, this can take some serious work and effort to unlearn. Your opinion of yourself is the one that matters most. Other people are not responsible for your validation and for making you feel worthy. You have to do that on your own.

Quite honestly, if I were to teach, in elementary or middle school or high school class, that would be my message; Self-Worth 101, right there. No one else can validate your worth. You have to validate it yourself first; always, always, always. And that is a beautiful thing, because it gives you the authority to love your messy and perfect self, no matter what screw ups you have along the way. Okay? But I totally get it, this is a hard thing to undo. This is such an important life lesson. And I really hope that of anything I can teach my kids, I hope I can teach them this. So, who in the world decides what constitutes perfect?

Now think about this for yourself. Who are you handing over your authority to, to decide if you are perfect, or good enough? Is it your parents, your sister, your in-laws, your neighbors, someone you don’t know in HR who is scanning your resume, the people who follow you on Instagram? Seriously, take a good, hard, and honest look at who you are allowing to decide whether you are good enough.

It is so fascinating. You have this idea that you have to be perfect, but who are you allowing to make this decision for you? And why aren’t you deciding it for yourself? Because if you want to take a very macro look at this, what the heck is perfect anyway? What does that really mean? The idea of perfect is totally abstract, and it is, frankly, impossible.

Perfect is a made up ideal that no human being on this earth is capable of achieving; it just does not exist. So, when you really step back and examine it, you can see that perfect is a self-created, impossible idea that you have designed in your head, that doesn’t even exist, and is ultimately holding you up from your greatness.

When you look at it that way, it seems kind of silly, doesn’t it? So, what are some of the characteristics of perfectionists? This is what I have learned after coaching many perfectionists, and then looking inward and finding many of these traits in myself. See if any of these apply to you.

First and foremost, perfectionist have a seriously legit fear of mistakes, and an even worse fear of failing. So, we’re going to do an entire podcast on failure. But by far and away, this is the thing I run into most when coaching clients. So often you are afraid to even try something new, because you’re afraid it just won’t be good enough, that you might fail or god forbid, make a mistake.

This commonly shows up in many ways, depending on what we’re working on. But here are some examples: You don’t weigh yourself unless you think you’ve been good with your diet, for multiple days in a row. Or, you give up on your plan to give up sugar because you had one piece of birthday cake, and then you say, “Forget it.” Or, you throw in the towel on your job search, because you sent out exactly one resume or CV, and didn’t get a call back.

There are many, many other examples. I encourage you to think of your own. What’s happening here, is that you equate not reaching your goal or failure, with the idea that you are not good enough. You make your failures mean all kinds of negative things about you. When, instead, you could use those mistakes and failures as opportunities to course-correct and keep going.

And then, you totally beat yourself up about it and use that mistake as evidence that you’re not good enough. The worst part about this, your fear of failure keeps you paralyzed and leads to zero action. So, more on this in a little bit.

Another hint that you might be a perfectionist, is if you engage in all-or-nothing thinking. I definitely see this all the time, especially with my clients who are trying to change the way that they eat or start exercising. As an example, you had a really awful day at work and come home and eat a bunch of Oreos™.

And then, you decide that because you did that, the week is shot, so why not have a burger and fries for dinner tonight? And, maybe that glass of wine is calling your name. And then, “Forget it. I’ll just start again on Monday.”

Or, maybe you slept through your alarm and you missed your workout on Tuesday. Instead of getting back to it on Wednesday, you decide that this is impossible, and there is no way you can do this. You stop trying. And, weeks go by and you have not worked out.

Or, if one person hates your newsletter, or says something snarky about the content you created, you decide that you are doomed to fail at your business and you cannot possibly put yourself out there anymore. It is this all-or-nothing thinking that will get you absolutely nowhere. I see it all the time.

I will say this over and over again, so that it truly sinks into your bones; you are not starting over. Okay? You’re picking up where you left off. One greasy meal that is off-plan, or one missed workout in the week, does not undo all the progress that you’ve made. One hater does not mean you’re doomed to fail; keep going.

James Clear said it best. He said, “Never miss twice.” One missed workout is human. One off-plan meal is human. Multiple missed days is the start of a new habit. And if you’re a perfectionist, you see this one missed day as a reason to stop altogether.

I read this somewhere, and I think it applies here, it’s the idea that if you were late to work on Monday, you don’t just turn around, go home, and take the rest of the week off, right? You get yourself to work. You get on with your day and you keep moving. You don’t stop showing up.

The same applies here. Don’t take the rest of the week off. All right? So next, you might be a perfectionist if you have an unrealistic perception that everyone around you has it easier than you do. Meaning, you see other people and think that they’ve got it made, or they are some special unicorn, with an “it” factor, that has made their success loads easier than yours.

Meanwhile, you devalue your own efforts and make them less than. You think to yourself that you’re inadequate, and everyone else is better. So, if you do a lot of compare and despair, that is definitely a quality of your perfectionism. And again, more on this in a future episode. Now, let’s talk about the biggest downside, and one of the key defining characteristics of perfectionism. I am most definitely guilty of this: Procrastination. Here’s why this matters so much. Too often, claiming that you are perfectionist stops you before you even get started. Again, I see this all the time.

I’ll be talking with a client through her plan to start exercise, or we’ll work through her food protocol, or we’ll talk through career opportunities. And she’ll just tell me, straight-up, she doesn’t feel confident in it because she knows it’s not going to be good enough, so why bother? Or, that she needs time to think about it and gather information, before she can make a decision. That she is not ready to get started and does not feel ready to give it a go.

All of these are various shades of procrastination. And while it may feel like a safe decision, what it’s actually doing, is keeping you from moving forward, as imperfect as it may be. So, in my coach training, I learned that perfectionism is for scared people. And for a hot second, I was offended.

Then, I got really honest with myself and realized that it is absolutely true. Too often, you, and I include myself in this, use being a perfectionist as a safety mechanism. So, remember that perfectionism is rooted in the fear of not meeting the impossible standard.

That fear keeps you from stretching yourself, applying for a job, trying to lose weight, or start exercising, or frankly, just taking a risk. When you live in fear that you’re not going to measure up to the impossible standard you’ve created for yourself, it gives you an excuse. It gives you a reason to not take action.

But what it also does, is keep you miserably comfortable. So, I used that term a few weeks ago, in relation to going all in on yourself, and I’m gonna run with it. Because miserably comfortable means exactly that; you don’t love your status quo, but it’s comfortable, and it’s what you know.

Ultimately, you don’t do anything to move yourself out of it, because that would mean change, taking a risk, and subjecting yourself to discomfort. So, by claiming you’re a perfectionist and then not taking action, it’s just another way of staying miserably comfortable; no good.

But I get it. Often, you use perfectionism as a reason not to try. Because you’re afraid that if you do try, it’s not going to be good enough. And then, you’re going to beat yourself up about it. I’m on to you, I see it all the stinking time. It is perfectionism, plus all-or-nothing thinking, plus beating yourself up, combined. And it leads you down a really yucky road, that ultimately keeps you from bringing all the gifts you are meant to bring to this earth.

To put it very simply, this could be the mantra of all my perfectionists out there; you can’t fail, if you don’t try. You can’t fail, if you don’t try. But is that really what you want? Think about that for a second. That’s the easy way out. That’s playing it safe. That’s staying miserably comfortable, right there. It’s like saying, “I know if I try, or if I take a risk, it’s not gonna be good enough. So, why bother?”

Here’s the thing, here is why you should bother: When you take a deep breath, try something, and fail; you learn, and you grow. I know I said this before, I’ll say it again, this is your path to self-discovery. This process of trying, failing, learning, and growing, that is way more fun, and interesting, and exciting, than being and doing what you have always.

Then, this is especially true for my very accomplished, very successful friends out there; don’t stop now, get really brave. And, answer that question; now what? And, go try something. Do not let the fear of “not good enough” hold you down.

So, if you’ve been there, you recognize that perfectionism feels like a trap. You know that, deep down, there is so much more you are capable of doing. And that you have something of value to bring to the world, or that you can blow your own mind with what you can accomplish. But the fear of not getting it exactly right, stops you in your tracks. And then, your big goal, your big change, and the gifts you could bring to others stay locked in your brain, trapped behind your self-imposed wall of perfection. So, when you really dissect it, perfectionism keeps you more failure focused than success focused.

You are so busy worrying about failure that you prevent yourself from succeeding. And again, the irony of this is fascinating; it is a trap. Hear me loud and clear: Saying you’re a perfectionist, and using it as your reason to not pursue something, it is holding you back. And, it is keeping you from evolving into your next best version.

So, what if instead, you decided to practice having your own back. Again, another phrase that I use often, but I love it, and I think it’s a really important concept to grasp and put into practice: Having your own back is the foundation of confidence. It is the foundation of taking risks. And it is the antidote to perfectionism, really.

On a practical level, having your own back means practicing your thinking. There it is, coming back to your thoughts, again. It means deciding, ahead of time, that when you take a risk, when you stretch yourself and go outside of your comfort zone, and do something new and different, that you are going to be there for yourself.

That means, when you fail, and you most certainly will, that you will not make it mean you are an unworthy human being. You will not make your failure mean anything about you that is critical. Often you make the mistakes and the failures mean you’re a terrible person, or that you’re worthless or lazy.

But instead, you can choose to make your failures mean that you’re learning and growing. You can make the imperfections, be learning opportunities on your road to success, seriously. This is not about being Susie sunshine, and pretending that everything is cotton candy and daisies when things don’t go as planned.

It means being kind to yourself. Recognizing that you did the work, you stretched yourself, and that failure is part of the process. That you will take care of yourself. That you will allow yourself the space to feel disappointment, frustration, whatever feelings come up for you. But ultimately, you do not make it mean that you are unworthy.

Then, you keep going. You do not give up. You do not quit on yourself. Because, in all honesty, the only person that is harmed by your perfectionism, is you. So, let’s get back to your thoughts for a minute. Think about it, how does it feel to think, “This didn’t go the way I planned, but I’m learning something along the way.” Versus, “This didn’t go the way I planned. I stink. I can’t do anything right. I am a horrible human being?”

Do you see? The difference here is huge. One is entirely self-defeating. And the other, is self-compassionate. One thought will stop you in your tracks, the other will keep you moving forward from a place of kindness. And, you get to choose; always. You get to choose how you think about yourself.

And when you actually do this; when you are kind to yourself, and respect yourself, and show yourself some grace, even when things don’t go as planned. You not only grow confidence; you build trust with yourself, and you stretch yourself even farther, you take more risks, you try more new things. And, think of all the great places that will take you.

This leads me to an alternative to perfection. This is what I want to offer you as the alternative; have high standards for yourself and live into them. So, let me explain. In the psychology texts, it’s referred to as, adaptive, or positive, perfection. I’ve also seen it referred to as, excellence-ism, which is a hard word to say.

The way I envision this, though, is that instead of aiming for and demanding perfection from yourself, you insist on excellence from yourself. So, quite simply, it means that you try your best and you have high but not impossible expectations of yourself. And when you truly do your best, your best is good enough.

When you practice excellence, you are okay with getting it wrong. You learn from your mistakes and you keep going. You don’t let one negative outcome stop the entire process. Excellence-ism also means looking at quality over quantity. So, perfectionists tend to put in excessive effort, reading, consuming, intellectualizing, proofreading, and ruminating. That is why it takes perfectionist a long honking time to get anything done.

But when you practice excellence-ism, you put in sufficient effort without overdoing it, without running yourself into the ground, so that you can maximize your return on investment. You put in the effort, but you don’t deplete yourself. You find the happy place or the sweet spot between perfect and okay, that doesn’t completely drain you.

So, here it is, how do you know that you’re practicing excellence-ism, and holding yourself to a high standard, versus being a perfectionist? You take repeated action; the key word here is repeated. And, you are producing results. I mentioned it earlier, but often, one of the most difficult things about being a perfectionist, is the procrastination. Your desire to do something, and to do it well, is so very strong.

But the fear of screwing it up is just as, if not, stronger. And what that leads you to, is exactly nothing. You don’t do anything; you’re stuck, you’re not taking action, you’re not trying anything. And in the meantime, you are not moving forward.

On the flip side, if you decide to practice excellence-ism, you produce a result. You take action, no matter how imperfect, and you’ve got your back. So, when the failures happen, you are prepared; you’re kind to yourself, you have compassion towards yourself, and you don’t beat yourself up over it.

And then, you learn from it and take more action. That’s your test: Are you taking repeated action? When I say this, I don’t mean shooting blindly. So, I was reading this book called, Finish, by Jon Acuff; amazing book, please read it. He used the analogy of learning to play golf in the dark.

So, you can spend 10,000 hours playing golf in the dark, and you can go out to the green every day and try to hit those balls in the dark, but you’re probably not going to get any better. If you want to be a better golfer, it behooves you to practice in the daylight. And while I am not at all a golfer, I really liked his analogy and it made sense.

When you practice excellence-ism, you hold yourself to high standards; you put in effort, and you take calculated actions to move the needle forward. So, I liken it to Angela Duckworth’s concept of “deliberate practice”. Again, another book, if you haven’t read Grit, pick it up.

Quite simply, deliberate practice means zoning in and working on the things you stink at.

So, if you’re learning math, and you have already nailed addition, you don’t keep working on addition. If you stink at long division, you’ve got to face it head on, and figure it out by practicing long division. The same concept applies here; have a high standard, take action, knowing that it’s going to be imperfect, see where you stink, own it with some grace, have your own back and keep rolling.

So, here it is, I know I’m oversimplifying things, but I’m doing it on purpose. Perfectionist, we love to make things harder and more complicated than they are, speaking from experience here. I was really good at making things way more complicated than they needed to be. Whether it was writing my French paper, scheduling my workouts, starting this podcast, figuring out our school drop-off and pickup schedule.

I had a gift for making things complicated, I still do sometimes. But I’m realizing that it does not get me anywhere, and only serves to stress me and my family out. So, hear this. It does not have to be a challenge in order to count. Whatever you’re trying to do, whatever change you’re trying to make, it does not have to feel like climbing a mountain.

You still have high standards for yourself. You have high expectations. You put in the effort, but it doesn’t have to feel like astrophysics or rowing upstream, in order to count as a success. It just has to feel like action. You know you are moving beyond your perfectionism when you take action, and it will feel freeing in the best way possible.

So, there it is. For any of you perfectionist out there, I hope you heard something that speaks to you today. It’s funny, this episode, ironically, was really hard for me to write. It called up all of the junk that I didn’t like about myself. And, some of those qualities are still there. There are loads of things that I have not done yet, because I am afraid, I will fully admit it.

But whenever I get nervous, or start to question myself about trying something new, I remind myself of all the things I’ve already tried and failed at. And, you know what? I’m still here. I’m still standing, and I’m still showing up. So, what is it for you? Think about it.

Where has your perfectionism held you back? What idea do you have, what concept is in your brain, what change do you want to make, that here today, only exists as an idea in your head? That you can turn into something really great, if you only put one foot in front of the other, took a deep breath, and tried.

What happens if you fall short? What happens if it doesn’t go exactly as planned? I’ll tell you; you come back and try again. You keep showing up. And when you do that, you will absolutely blow your mind with what you can accomplish. That is my mission. And, I hope to make it yours, too.

So, thanks again, so much, for hanging out with me. And, I’ll catch you again next week.

If you like what you’ve been hearing, please review the show. I would love to get your feedback and ideas. Your suggestions have inspired episodes and will help me make the show better for you. And, share this podcast with a friend, text a show link, share a screenshot, or post a link to the show on your social media. And, be sure to tag me @CarrieHollandMD on either Instagram® or Facebook®, so I can follow along and engage with you.

This is how we get the word out to other working moms who want to feel strong, inside and out. If you know someone who wants to feel better, or eat and move differently, but she is too tired or too busy, it is time to change things up. And you know, making that change starts with how you think. And that, is what we do here on the Strong as a Working Mom podcast. I’ll see you next week.

Thanks for listening to Strong as a Working Mom. If you want more information on how to eat, move, and think, so you can live in the body you want, with the mind to match, visit me at CarrieHollandMD.com.

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