This week, there’s been a theme on many of my coaching calls: the struggle to overcome fear-based perfectionism.
Perfectionism is sometimes a wonderful skill to leverage (remember: very few human behaviors are inherently bad or good). Other times, when perfectionism is rooted in fear, it can block us from moving forward.
In this blog, I will share:
- my philosophy on fear-based perfectionism
- a surprising practice for how to overcome fear-based perfectionism
- some of my favorite mantras to move past the sometimes-crippling need to get things “just right”
Let’s start with one very important truth:
Your perfectionism has paid off over the years. Perhaps your attention to detail helped you get the grades to attend your dream grad program. Or you were rewarded for catching mistakes or discrepancies in your line of work. It’s also possible the rewards started earlier. Growing up, your allowance may have depended on how thoroughly you cleaned your room.
Indeed, perfectionism is a tool
…but it can’t be the only tool. Think about construction workers. They head out with jack hammers, drills, and a variety of other equipment. This way, they know they’ll be equipped to address a variety of challenges.
You don’t really need to get rid of perfectionism all together.
Will your doctors appointment get cancelled if you’re late? Be perfectly on time. Need to find a professional to help out with your taxes, will or other sensitive documents? By all means, use all your perfectionist tendencies to identity the right person for the job.
So, if our goal isn’t to leave behind perfectionism, what is it?
The goal is to learn to recognize the perfectionism as its happening (i.e. cultivate awareness) and then to make a choice. If the perfectionism feels helpful and empowering, go with it! If it seems to be holding you back, it’s time to try something else.
Over the years (and over and over again in my conversations with clients this week), I’ve noticed how there is one particular flavor of perfectionism that seems universally debilitating.
Perfectionism Rooted in Fear
I typically see this in intelligent, successful people. Blind to the fear that’s actually running the show (or unclear that this is the real reason they can’t move forward), they often try to justify their behavior. They give well-thought-out reasons why they need to wait until conditions are just right, they know more, or they have enough time/money/etc… They argue for the perceived limitations, saying they’re not ready. Ask their closest friends and allies if that person is ready, however, and you will hear a resounding “YES!”
Here are a few archetypes of past clients whose perfectionism was disguised as fear:
- A doctor who wanted to write her first children’s book and spent hundreds of hours editing and re-editing her work
- A top-performing, highly educated employee who wanted to start his own business, but thought she needed more credentials
- A talented artist who almost turned down his first gallery show because he wasn’t 100% satisfied with all of his paintings
If these people had let fear win, the world would have missed out on their beautiful contributions.
The key to changing the behavior pattern
We don’t change our behaviors by making them bad and wrong. This can just send us into a shame cycle. We also don’t change our behavior by trying the same thing over and over again. This results in a frustration cycle.
Through my work with people around the world, I’ve discovered there are two key, initial steps we must take toward change:
- Finding a safe place to acknowledge and talk about the fear
- Cultivating more self-compassion
As I mentioned above, fear-based perfectionism is a challenge faced by accomplished people, many of whom do not sit around talking about their fear.
Now, please recall what I said at the beginning of this article: Any human behavior has both payoffs and challenges, and most behaviors are not inherently good or bad. While some people cringe when I mention the idea of sharing feelings, I’ve seen time and time again how learning to talk about fear with trusted confidantes can normalize the experience.
“Sunlight is the best disinfectant,” one of my former clients loved to say.
When we can name and discuss our fear, we give the fear less power and can build our sense of support and community. It can also — and this is extremely important — support you in cultivating more self-compassion.
Compassion is essential to overcome fear-based perfectionism
You may be great at offering compassion to your friends, pet, child or another beloved figure in your life… but not so practiced at offering it to yourself. You probably also know that sometimes compassion is the best way to get things done. You wouldn’t, for instance, yell at a toddler for not being potty trained. You’d show him compassion and then find a creative and loving way to support his progress (for my nephews, we use stickers).
Many perfectionists even have a story that self-compassion will make them weak or slow them down. The vast majority of perfectionists I know are at 0 risk of this happening.
Self-criticizing <—————————> Self-compassion
On the spectrum above, they are so far over to the left, that a few notches toward self-compassion will only improve the quality of their life. Their old strategy of pushing themselves is no longer working, anyway!
Do you want to go allllllll the way over to the right? Maybe sometimes. Odds are, however, that you’ll find a sweet spot in the middle that serves as a more sustainable and gentle road to success.
By cultivating compassion for their fear, and hence themselves, a perfectionist can find a new strategy to success.
Talking to your fear
Oftentimes, it’s easier to be gentle with our fear if we can personify it. Just yesterday, a client and I named her fear Koko the Gorilla. A few months ago, another client personified his fear as a much younger version of himself. It felt easier for them to welcome and spend time with this version of their emotion.
Mantras to overcome fear-based perfectionism
Fear-based perfectionism often needs a loving reminder from our adult selves that we are ok. Sometimes, it’s possible to have a conversation with our fear. You can choose to embody the fear and speak from that place and then embody your highest self and answer the fear. These conversations can help you better understand both sides of your personality.
Other people prefer mantras, so here are a few mantras I’ve come up with:
- Perfectionism, thank you for wanting to protect me. I acknowledge you. I celebrate you and the gifts you’ve given me. You can relax and sit back for now. I promise to call on you when I need you.
- Pursuing my goals is a journey. There is no failure in this pursuit, only learning and opportunities to pivot
- Anyone who judges me for being imperfect is giving me the big, fat gift of CLARITY. I can remove them from my list of allies or potential partners and hold space for someone who understands my heart, passion, and commitment.
- I learn and become better as I go. When it comes to living my purpose, perfection is a myth.
While this blog shares ideas and tips to start you off, overcoming fear-based perfectionism is a journey. Get lots of support from coaches, therapists and/or your network of friends.
How do you overcome fear-based perfectionism? Share below.