I work with a lot of perfectionists. The reasons they became perfectionists may differ, but they do share a few challenges because of their desire for perfectionism. First, they have high expectations for themselves and others. This can be a good personality trait when used with realism, otherwise it can be very detrimental. Second and surprisingly, sometimes perfectionists give up too early; we lack persistence. If we are not immediately perfect, we quit and stop trying. And finally, we perfectionists lack patience for completion which can affect our happiness. By focusing on the building blocks instead of the overall achievement, perfectionists – and others – can accomplish what they desire without unnecessary stress and hopefully also find joy along the way.
The other day I spoke to a driven overachiever who had just taken on a new challenge. She was attacking herself for not perfecting something new immediately after setting the goal. I compared it to deciding to start running and berating oneself for not winning the Chicago Marathon the next weekend.
Building Blocks: It is important to have realistic expectations for what we c
an accomplish. If we decide to take up running, winning the next marathon is not a realistic immediate goal. However, waking up the next morning, stretching our legs, and putting on our running shoes is a good first goal. Trying to do too much too fast will only hurt us (and maybe others) and we will probably not achieve what we want. Analyze what you are capable of doing in this moment and set realistic goals. Then as you master each level move on to the next, but only when you are ready.
Another aspect of expecting immediate mastery is that if we can’t achieve perfection on our first attempt, we attack ourselves for incompetence and stop trying. If we are not first, we are last so better to get out of the game before we are labeled a “loser.” A recent client had this all or nothing attitude. Either she was amazingly accomplished or she was a failure. She saw no middle ground. She gave no credit to her progress. Her success at the overall goal determined her self-worth.
Building Blocks: By breaking down our goals, we can celebrate our wins during each step. Instead of thinking we are a failure because we don’t have our degree on our first day of class, we can celebrate showing up for that class. Then we celebrate passing each test then passing each class then finishing semesters then completing years, until finally we can celebrate our degree. The key to persistence is constant recognition of how far we have come.
I heard you perfectionistic Type A’s laughing. Patience is not part of our vocabulary. Even if we create realistic expectations and break them into smaller goals that we persistently work through, we may feel very impatient with how long things take. I ran across a story the other day about how it took Ann Dowd until her 50’s to really make it in acting. This article is a great read for many reasons. For us, it is a lesson in staying in gratitude and joy throughout the process, even if it takes decades.
Building Blocks: Focusing on the end goal creates impatience and disappointment. Achieving the goal gives you 30-seconds of satisfaction. The processes leading up to that goal may give you years or even decades of enjoyment. When we stop looking at the accomplishment, we can tune into how blessed we are to experience the journey that takes us to our goal.
I agree with Daniel Burnham when he said, “make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood.” And . . . I think we have to cut ourselves a bit of slack. Mr. Burnham didn’t say one had to accomplish those plans immediately or perfectly. He didn’t say that failing was the end of the world. And from what I can tell, he had a pretty good time accomplishing what he did. Look at your goals. Are they realistic? Are you trying to accomplish too much at one time? Are you berating yourself for not doing as much and as perfectly as you would like to right now? Slow down. Accept what you can truly accomplish in the moment. Celebrate where you have come from and how far you have progressed. And please, enjoy the ride.