Part of Kathy Caprino’s series “Living and Working Better”
Perfectionism is a trait that many millions of people around the world demonstrate and experience. It can be productive at times, but also, on the flip side, it can be very damaging to our health, physical and mental wellbeing, self-esteem, quality of life, happiness and more. Recent studies have shown that perfectionism is significantly on the rise amongst younger people compared to previous generations, with the “self-oriented” form of perfectionism rising 10% from previous years. Recent estimates have shown that almost 30% of undergraduate students experience symptoms of depression, and perfectionism has been widely associated with these symptoms.
There are many factors that exacerbate perfectionism, including societal pressure, family expectations, critical or abusive parenting and manipulation, feelings of lack of control, and more. As a former marriage and family therapist and now, in career and leadership coaching with professional women globally, I’ve seen firsthand an even higher proliferation than ever of what I refer to “perfectionistic overfunctioning” – doing more than is heathy, appropriate and necessary and trying relentlessly to get an A+ in all of it. I’ve observed that there are 7 key signs of perfectionistic overfunctioning that help us finally recognize this trait in ourselves and shift away from it, as it ironically can take us very far away from the inner and outer “success” and life fulfillment we strive for.
To learn more about moving away from perfectionism and embracing our “flawesome” self, I caught up this month with Kristina Mänd-Lakhiani. Mänd-Lakhiani is the co-founder of Mindvalley, one of the world’s largest personal growth education platforms with an ever-growing 20 million-strong following. She is an entrepreneur, writer, international speaker, artist, and philanthropist based in Estonia and the author of the Live by Your Own Rules and 7 Days to Happiness online programs as well as the new book Becoming Flawesome: The Key to Living an Imperfectly Authentic Life. Mänd-Lakhiani hosts her own podcast, Flawesome With Kristina, and has interviewed over 200 specialists in the field of psychology and self-development.
Here’s what Mänd-Lakhiani shares about key steps to addressing perfectionism and self-doubt:
Kathy Caprino: Kristina, what is the concept of being “flawesome” that you write and teach about, and why is it so important that we adopt this idea in our personal and professional lives?
Mänd-Lakhiani: The concept of being flawesome is recognizing that you are imperfect, which is a natural state of being. Rather than trying to “fix” your imperfections, you’re embracing the fact they exist and figuring out a way to turn your perceived flaws into advantages. It’s undeniable that your imperfections are a part of you. So, the goal isn’t to get rid of your flaws because perfection is unattainable. But the key is to adapt to living with them and using them to your benefit. It’s so important to adopt the idea of being flawesome in both our personal and professional lives because naturally, when we don’t accept a part of ourselves, we place ourselves in a state of resistance, which in turn drains a lot of our energy, focus, and resources.
For example, when we obsess over doing things perfectly at work, we end up denying ourselves the full capacity of our potential. When we try to please our boss and colleagues or attempt to be diplomatic and sound professional for the sake of perception, we divert attention from the things that matter like producing quality work that’s done diligently, not perfectly.
Caprino: It’s clear in all that we read and in our interactions with others at work and in our personal lives, that embracing our flaws and imperfections is something many (if not most) of us have been taught not to do. Can you describe what you’ve seen as the problem with being a perfectionist?
Mänd-Lakhiani: For some individuals, perfectionism is a state of being, and it’s important to remember there are both positive and negative traits associated with perfectionists. People with perfectionistic tendencies are quite ambitious, attentive to detail and aspire for higher goals.
It’s important to note that these positive qualities can quickly turn into negative ones as perfectionists tend to become overwhelmed by the high bar that they’ve set for themselves and begin to engage in self-sabotaging behaviors. Perfectionists will also start to procrastinate or even give up attempting to do tasks altogether once they’ve figured out that they can’t complete these tasks perfectly.
Their view of perfection and achievement is very black and white, which can be a damaging and dangerous point of view because they lose the joy of living and are only approaching life with the goal of “winning.” It’s a very tough way to live. It can become challenging to exist around perfectionists as their definition of accomplishment is so narrow, that when you’re in the sphere of a perfectionist, you feel that you’re walking on eggshells for fear of making a perceived error or mistake. This can become an extremely challenging dynamic in the workplace to deal with– especially if you’re working for a perfectionist boss.
Caprino: How have you observed perfectionism impacting our careers as well as our everyday lives and relationships?
Mänd-Lakhiani: If you’re struggling with perfectionism at work, holding yourself to impossibly high standards can have negative consequences and lead to burnout, anxiety and ultimately demotivate you as well as reduce your overall effectiveness.
Further, if you’re dealing with a perfectionist at work—whether it’s a boss, manager, or team member–you might be struggling with ways to manage their unrealistic expectations. It’s important to note that our relationship with the world is often a reflection of our relationship with ourselves. While perfectionists think that the only victim of their limitations is themselves, they often don’t realize that they have the same kind of stifling approach to the people around them, including their colleagues, subordinates, and loved ones.
Caprino: Can you explain your unique perspective of Western definitions of success and perfectionism through the lens of your upbringing in Soviet Estonia, as you discuss in your book?
Mänd-Lakhiani: In my view as one growing up in Soviet Estonia, there was a competitive drive that came from fueling our personal sense of achievement rather than performing for the sake of financial compensation.
The problem with Western definitions of success and perfectionism, as I see it, is that they equate well-being and happiness with being perfect and “successful” (by some outer measure), when in reality, they have nothing to do with one another.
The issue is that Western society seems to have an idea that to experience true meaning in your life, you need to be “successful,” (and that typically means financially successful), and because of that, you need to prioritize outer success over your own well-being. And many Westerners seem to have this belief that they must experience sacrifice to achieve success and that success is built on some form of struggle.
Caprino: Given the challenges with perfectionism, what advice would you give individuals who are struggling with overcoming perfectionism?
Mänd-Lakhiani: First, it’s important to identify whether perfectionism is an intrinsic trait or whether you’ve adopted perfectionist tendencies because of the environment you exist in.
Very often, people who do meticulous work or pay close attention to detail, exhibit behavioral patterns of perfectionism but they’re not necessarily perfectionists by nature. The key difference here is that people who have adopted perfectionistic tendencies don’t have quite the burden that intrinsic perfectionists do in the sense that they aren’t applying as much pressure to themselves to perform flawlessly.
Regardless, for anyone struggling with perfectionism, I recommend several steps:
Don’t slay the dragon
It’s best to not try to not “slay the dragon” or attempt to get rid of the trait altogether. Rather, it helps to put systems in place to support you in moving past your perfectionists’ traits such as:
– Increasing your tolerance for failure
– Embracing your mistakes and viewing them as key learning lessons
– And adopting a more philosophical approach to things that you find painful (i.e. fear of underperforming or making an error).
Perfectionists tend to have a difficult time receiving criticism, so I suggest practicing reframing that criticism and understanding it’s just feedback about your performance in a certain area—not a judgment about or an attack on your personal character.
Practice self-compassion and kindness
Overall, my advice to perfectionists is to practice self-compassion and kindness, especially in areas they feel particularly drawn to be self-critical and harsh to themselves. Do this by taking any critical statements and replacing them with questions that focus more on curiosity and less on judgement.
For example, if you don’t succeed at a project, rather than viewing yourself as a failure, ask yourself productive questions such as, “How can I be more successful next time on a project similar to this?”
Another way to practice self-compassion and kindness is to imagine you’re speaking to someone you love unconditionally and giving them feedback in the situation you’re going through. For instance, you might ask yourself why you’re so late on your deadlines whereas if you were talking to someone you care about dearly, you might ask them about ways they can get more organized next time.
In taking these steps, you’ll find that you’re much more critical of yourself than you are of other people. You’ll realize that you’re better than how you might feel about yourself in those moments when your emotions are running high.
For more information, visit Becoming Flawesome: The Key to Living an Imperfectly Authentic Life and hear Kristina speak in-depth about this topic here.
Kathy Caprino is a global career and leadership coach, speaker, author, and host of the top-rated podcast Finding Brave.
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