As high achieving women, we can often talk about perfectionism with a mix of pride and embarrassment. Sometimes, we may even use it as a reason for not delegating tasks to others, at work and at home.
Why give someone else the job to do when we know we can get it done efficiently and effectively and no re-work will be required? Can we trust someone else to apply the same, high standards as us at home and at work?
But the thing about striving for the perfection model is that it typically does not lead to happiness or fulfilment.
Unfortunately, the goal post keeps moving, the bar keeps getting raised higher and higher, and there is actually no chance of ever arriving at ‘Perfectionville’. It’s simply not a destination on the Map of Life.
Why ‘The Gender Code’ leads to perfectionism
While there can be several contributing factors, perfectionism pressure is largely an effect of The Gender Code.
The Gender Code is that set of default beliefs we all recognise about the ‘natural’ differences between men and women. These beliefs create stereotypes that keep the genders firmly in different boxes and specifically keeps women from pursuing their dreams and achieving success in life and work.
We have all been programmed with this Gender Code for millennia. It is deeply embedded within our culture, to the extent that we don’t challenge those beliefs, even when they create real difficulties for individuals, for businesses and across our societies.
From childhood, as women, we’re judged on our packaging and ‘agreeable’ behaviour. While typically young boys are given opportunities to fail, fight, drop the loss and look to the next opportunity to win, girls are typically applauded for being quiet, agreeable and being a ‘good girl’.
Think about it this way: often young girls are praised for their pretty hair and sparkly shoes. What do you think is the impact of this?
It can lead to the situation where, as adults, we’re programmed to aim for perfection in the hope we’ll be praised for how we present ourselves and what we project to the world. Then feel a sense of love and belonging.
What’s wrong with perfectionism?
As Brene Brown says, “perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect and act perfect, we can minimise or avoid the pain of blame, judgment and shame. It’s a shield”.
Unfortunately, we sometimes act as perfectionists, without being aware of what we’re doing.
I remember when my three boys were young and my husband went away for work, pushing myself to project an appearance of perfection and calm when really things were anything but.
Friends would come by to visit our new baby and I would focus on making sure the house was neat and tidy. They’d offer to help and I’d refuse. I was worried that any kind of admission of struggle would expose me, when really, I should have shown vulnerability and asked for help.
What is the impact of perfectionism in our lives?
At work, the fallout of perfectionism can be catastrophic.
It results in poor leadership and organisational performance and is detrimental to working relationships, productivity and culture. A perfectionist leader can also have a negative impact not only on their own health and wellbeing but also cause burnout in others.
If a leader constantly seeks perfection, but doesn’t know how that really looks or feels, how can she articulate it? How will anyone ever have a sense that they are on the right track? It results in team members constantly losing confidence in their own approach.
While it may not be intentional, putting perfectionist expectations on others in our relationships and at home, makes it difficult for people to feel they will measure up. It may prevent our important people from feeling safe to be who they really are, fearful that whatever they do is never good enough.
How to ditch perfectionism
While being a perfectionist can ultimately cost us dearly, moving away from it gives us an opportunity to move towards new ideas and experiences both at and outside of work. As a result, career and leadership performance, wellbeing and relationships will improve.
So, it’s okay if you think you’re a perfectionist right now. Being one may have served you at times throughout your life. But you don’t have to stay there. You can choose something different.
There is no quick fix and it takes energy, attention and work. There are some key steps to ensure a greater degree of success:
- Accept that we need to kill perfectionism
- Commit to try a different approach
- Support ourselves and other women to experiment
- Build slowly, using exposure therapy rather than going cold turkey
- Gather evidence that you can move away from perfection to instead striving for progress.
You’ll slowly build confidence in yourself and your approach. Then, you can learn to fail fast, and look at everything you do as an experiment. In time, you will start to believe that doing enough is good enough.
This article was written by Danielle Dobson and originally published on A Girl In Progress. Danielle is an author, coach, speaker and advocate, who helps organisations unlock the potential of women in leadership and business. Learn more about her here.