Are you a perfectionist? If so, it could be hampering your job search and your ability to make career decisions.
I’ll explain how it’s shown up for me and how I see perfectionism actually slowing down the job search for my clients. Mostly, I want to help people recognize perfectionism for what it is — a paralyzing mask for fear — so they can get on with things and solve whatever the real problem is. I’m passionate about this because perfectionism has caused a fair amount of unnecessary drama in my own life.
But first, I want to clarify the definition that I’m using. It’s from Brene Brown, who wrote a great book called The Gifts of Imperfection.
“Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best. Perfectionism is not about healthy achievement and growth. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment, and shame. It’s a shield. Perfectionism is a twenty-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from taking flight.” (56)
Perfectionism is motivated by a desire to avoid shame. It sounds something like, "I have to do it right or someone might think I'm dumb." It is far different from believing, “I could do that! Watch me.”
How Perfectionism Got in My Way (and still does)
About a million and a half years ago, in a previous chapter of my life, I was interviewing for a job as a high school English teacher. I really, really wanted this job. I was one of two candidates left, and part of the interview was to teach a lesson about … anything.
A blank canvas, a blank sheet of paper (ok, maybe a computer screen with nothing but a blinking a cursor) is terrifying, especially for a perfectionist. How do you know what’s “right,” if they haven’t given you instructions? What did THEY want?
Immediately, I went into spin cycle. I tried to imagine what each person on the interview committee might want. There were eight of them. How could I please all of them?
I couldn’t make a decision about what to teach. Actually, I made about 35 decisions. I’d decide to do one thing, then worry it was a bad idea, go back to the drawing board…
I drove everyone in my circle of friends and family absolutely nuts. Every time I made a decision, I’d check with someone. I called a fellow teacher five times, and finally, she said: “What is going on? I’ve never seen you like this.”
Well, I really wanted that job, it’s true, but what was making me obsessively insane was that I believed that I had to choose the “right,” aka “perfect,” lesson, or I would fail.
What if my lesson wasn’t creative enough? What if the other candidate was more organized? Or what if they wanted something from American Lit and I chose British lit? What if I didn’t come across as smart enough? Or blah blah blah enough?
I was so afraid of making the wrong decision that I spun and spun in a vortex of fear and finally, at 10:00pm, I just HAD to decide so I could get the materials prepared. This didn’t leave much time to practice, sleep or do anything else, like, oh, test drive the lesson or relax before the interview.
That’s how perfectionism bites us in the butt. In our pursuit of perfectionism—in this case, trying to choose the one-and-only best lesson plan—we spin out of control and miss the whole bloody point.
The truth was, there was no perfect topic, no perfect lesson, no perfect anything. It didn’t really matter. They just wanted to see whether I could be engaging or whether I put people to sleep.
The moral of the story is this:
I created A LOT of unnecessary angst AND set myself up to be tired and frazzled the day of the interview.
The job went to the other candidate.
Sigh. Unfortunately, I see this perfectionism-as-indecision all the time with my clients.
Indecision stops them from applying for jobs, finishing their resume, and making networking contacts. Intelligent people are very good at coming up with all the reasons why something might be the “wrong” thing to do, and if you never make a decision, then you can’t be judged on it.
If you’re trying to make the “right” decision or the “perfect” decision, consider: What would be “good enough”? What would get the project done so that you can move on? If it’s not perfect, what’s the worst that can happen?
How to Overcome Perfectionism
Become curious (NOT judgmental) about what’s going on.
What is it about the task that you might be afraid of? (I’ve never done anything like this and I might do it wrong. I’ll have to re-do it so my boss likes it. Ugh, it will take forever to get it right. My colleagues/friends/parents/dog will think it’s stupid. Everyone will laugh at me. I’ll make an idiot out of myself. It will never be good enough for _____.)
When the task is complete, who else will see your work? What do you imagine them saying? (If you received a lot of criticism from anyone in your past, no wonder you procrastinate! Who wants to do something and then be criticized for it?)
On the other hand, if you are accustomed to praise, you may be trying to figure out how to out-do yourself in order to receive that praise again.
Come up with a new story you’d like to tell yourself about the task, e.g. “Maybe it won’t be that bad or take as long as I think it will.” “Maybe my boss will like it.” “Maybe I’ll enjoy doing it.” You get the picture.
Try breaking down the main task into mini-tasks, and I mean, mini, like a task that will only take 5-10 minutes. Sometimes biting off the easiest task can get you moving again.
Never criticize yourself for trying something new. Celebrate it. Learning is risky business.
If you or someone you know struggles with perfectionism, I’d love to be able to help. I offer complimentary, one-hour coaching calls by phone or Skpe for first-time clients. Email me if you’d like to set up an appointment.
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