Balance & Beyond Podcast
#12 Confessions of a Recovering Perfectionist
Have you ever found yourself making one last tweak to something?
Do you tend to obsess over minute details, striving for a level of perfection that seems just out of reach? I'm going to share a few confessions from my journey as a recovering perfectionist. I'll unravel how this trait, once something I was quite proud of, subtly transformed into a hindrance that stifled my growth. From obsessing over PowerPoint presentations to maintaining a spotless kitchen and how a significant mistake early in my career shifted my perspective.
Join me as we examine the roots of perfectionism, often seeped in our childhood experiences and fear. We'll discover how this quest for perfection can lull us into a false sense of security and obstruct our journey towards realising our full potential. But it doesn't have to be this way! Find out how embracing imperfection can unshackle us from self-imposed standards and empower us to become more influential.
If you're grappling with your own high standards, this episode offers a road map to navigate your perfectionism and revel in the beauty of imperfection.
In this episode, you’re going to uncover:
- The shift that took me from a proud perfectionist to a recovering perfectionist
- The unusual ways your perfectionist may be raging in places you least expect
- Why your brain truly believes that it must be perfect, and how it tricks you into staying this way
- What other behaviour always comes with perfectionism that you may not realise is linked
- The specific strategies I used to finally tame my perfectionist
So, come, let's confront our fears, embrace our flaws and let our imperfections shine!
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INTRO: Welcome to Balance and Beyond, the podcast for ambitious women who refuse to accept burnout as the price of success. Here, we’re committed to empowering you with the tools and strategies you need to achieve true balance, where your career, relationships and health all thrive, and where you have the power to define success on your own terms. I honour the space you’ve created for yourself today, so take a breath, and let's dive right in…
I'm a perfectionist. But these days I'm a recovering perfectionist, not a proud one. Today, I want to share with you how I made the transition from being a “proud perfectionist” to a “recovering perfectionist”, while helping you understand how to tame yours. Let's call this coming to confession. Because, if you're listening to this, there's a pretty good chance you're a perfectionist. Whether you're a raging perfectionist, or just a little bit of one, it's something that always comes with the territory of usually being a high achieving woman. Let me share with you how my perfectionist used to rage, and everybody has their own unique ways of how this shows itself in their life.
For me, I was marketing. Marketing is a perfectionist paradise, because there’s always a typo, and there’s always a different font, and everything has to be left aligned. I spent a lot of my life in PowerPoint. And so I was crafting and always thinking, “Should it be triangles?” “No, let me try hexagons.” “Let me try orange outline hexagons versus dark orange hexagons.” “No, let me put them left aligned.” “No, let me try centre aligned.” And I would spend hours and hours finessing a PowerPoint slide, wanting it to be perfect.
One of the other favorite ways my perfectionist used to and, if I'm not careful, can still rage today is with things like the kitchen bench. There's different definitions of clean in my household. There's “Kid Clean”: which is not really clean at all. There's “Mummy Clean”: which is where kitchen benches are nice, and they've been wiped with spray, and they're clean, and there's nothing sticky on them. Then there's “Mima Clean”, which you will learn a little bit about. “Mima” is what my kids call my mom. And that's the next level of clean. But around the house, I used to always want my house to look just so.
Perfectionism also used to come out if I couldn't do anything well. Sometimes, I wouldn't want to give it a shot because I wasn't going to be the best at it. And I remember spending many, many an hour finessing and word-smithing an internal email, or communications from a CEO, or presentation in the wee hours of the morning, because I knew that I could make it that much better.
And I worked for lawyers for a long time. Many of us have worked for many middle aged white men called “John” and a lawyer who is also an alpha male. Lovely, lovely people, and I love working for them. But they actually fuelled my perfectionist, because they would red pen anything. And the fear of getting that feedback of, “Oh, you know you made a mistake.” “Oh, I should have picked that up.” And that just fuelled my perfectionist more and more.
One of the defining moments of my perfectionist tendencies was really early on in my career, when I was working in the travel industry. One of the biggest expenses of a small travel company, this was early 2000s was printing brochures. Remember the days we used to walk into a travel agent and just pick up 50 brochures from all the places? And it was all about pictures. And the other important thing that's in the brochures is pricing. Well, guess who always did it? Because I was up for nesting a document, making sure that all the prices were in the correct font, because they were being pulled and merged into a document. I was working with this ginormous document with something like 75 tours in four different currencies with add-ons.
Well, somewhere in there, probably at 2am, I touched a foreign exchange calculation number that was obviously built into the spreadsheet. The entire budget for the year of every single brochure, this huge brochure run, all of the pricing was wrong. You can imagine what happened when we got the brochures back. Meanwhile, this was proofed. And it went through about seven or eight people, because it was the biggest expense of the year, and the entire budget went up in smoke.
You can imagine my horror when I found out that it was because of my lack of attention to detail. And me fiddling around on something, probably when I wasn't focused, that’s how this mistake was made. I then lost four days of my life stickering pages, because we couldn't afford to reprint everything for one error. So we ended up going and trying to master with the printer a whole bunch of stickers, and then pretty much for four days the entire office did nothing but sticker across pricing in a way that didn't make it look obvious. Does any of this sound familiar? Do you have any favourite perfectionist stories that you can think of in your life?
For many people who come to me, there's usually one or two pivotal moments early in their career, where the consequences of a mistake that you made ended up damaging your confidence or having quite far reaching ramifications, that we then take and make it mean something about us.
I made it mean that I made a mistake, and I didn't have good attention to detail, and if I'd have just made it perfect, then that wouldn't have happened. I continued to see that again, and again, and again. And this is something that I see manifesting across pretty much every client I work with. Whether it's through constant cleaning of the house, or overthinking. Most of us are incredibly cerebral, very much in our heads, and our logical brain says, “Well, I need more information.” “I can't make a decision on that, because if I have all the information, then I'm reducing the chances of making a mistake.” “I'm more likely to make it perfect if I know all the information.”
There's a really fine line between being a detailed person, and being a pedantic person, and then being paralyzed. And when everything has to make sense. These are all ways that your perfectionist is really ruining your life. And I've had so many people say to me, “Jo, I keep getting feedback from my bosses. I do great work, it just takes too long.” And these are all signs that you were where I was, and that your perfectionist is raging, and for some people this is a badge of honour.
I certainly used to be quite a proud perfectionist. I was like, “Yeah, I'm a perfectionist.” “I don't apologise for it.” It was celebrated in my industry. The worst thing you could possibly do as a marketer was send something out with a typo in it because, “What kind of marketer were you?” “How dare you?” You send an image that wasn't retouched or didn't have the proper filter applied to it.
And so certain industries, marketers, and lawyers, in particular areas where sometimes the ramifications of having a mistake slipping through can be incredibly high profile, and so all these perfectionistic tendencies are almost encouraged and flourished. But, we all know that it's not sustainable. Now perfectionism, aside from having some key events, stems from usually early on in our career, or in our lives, where making a mistake results in harsh ramifications, and we very much internalise this.
Perfectionism generally is really fostered in childhood, and those of you that know me and have been following me for a while will know that my Mum is a lovely, wonderful human. But, I grew up in a display home. Essentially, Mum only worked for a very small amount of time, and is very house proud, and there's nothing wrong with that. We had beautiful furniture. It was all white. We had a lounge where there were three cushions and there was the blue cushion, and then the strike cushion, and the blue cushion with the throw that went over the top. And, whenever I lay there and put my feet up, as soon as I got up, Mum would then put the cushion back in the right order.
It's funny, whenever I put my house up for sale, and you do the styling where you have the two pillows at the back of the bed, or the three pillows at the back, and then the two pillows, and then the one pillow with the chop, and that goes in the middle. That was what my mom's house always looked like.
So, you can imagine as a child, and as a teenager, I completely rebelled in my house, in my bedroom. That was the only thing I could control. It was a complete and utter bomb. And when Mum said to me, “You said you're a perfectionist.” “I saw your room when you were 14, there was no perfectionism going on in there.”
Rebelling against a parent is a very different thing, but this is where perfectionism is fostered from. Our childhood. And I still remember, recently, I was working at my parents place because I didn't have any internet at home. And as I was sitting in the guest room, and looked behind me in a Zoom meeting, I burst out laughing. Everyone on the zoom is going, “What's going on?” I said, “Check out the bed behind me.” And everyone's gone, “Oh, wow! It's beautiful!” “Are you in a hotel?” Like no, no.
This is why I became a perfectionist, because this is how my house looked all the time. It's beautiful, but when that's what you grow up with, it becomes very difficult then to accept anything less than perfect. And particularly, perfectionism around the house, and how things should look, and “What if somebody comes over and sees my house this way?” This feeling is something that rages in so many women.
An interesting point about perfectionism is that it always comes with procrastination. Because what better way to avoid the pain of feeling not good enough, or making a mistake, than to never start? And procrastination might be sneaky. It might be overt procrastination, like “Yeah, yeah. I need to be doing this thing, and yet I'm sitting on Facebook.” “Yeah, yeah, I know I've got this big report to do, but I'm firing off submitting requests, and I'm in my inbox.” There's a difference, but they always come together, because essentially underlying both of these traits of perfectionism and procrastination, is just fear.
I'm going to say that again. Perfectionism is simply fear. Understanding what perfectionism is doing to you, in a damaging way, is important. Because, beyond this, putting perfectionism on a pedestal and saying, “My work is always perfect.” “It's always great.” “It's always of a high standard.” The challenge is, that attitude and that belief is only going to get you so far. And I generally see perfectionists hit a ceiling, because perfectionists also come with a trait that I talk a lot about. And that's being a get-your-sh*t-done person. So they are also very work horsey. “Let me get this done.” “And let me churn out a really high quality of work.” And that's amazing, but you will plateau.
Here's the thing. As you start to progress at work, you need to move faster, and perfectionists are usually quite slow in making decisions because their behaviour manifests in a few ways.
They might get paralysed and overwhelmed because they're not quite sure which one to choose. Because there's this internal pressure, sometimes realised, sometimes subconscious, to be perfect, and to do it right. Other times, they will drown things in red tape in order to cover their butt. Whether it's “No, you have to do it this way.” “You have to do it that way.” Perfectionists can also really pull things together, and get very obsessed with all the details.
So in that case, it's more about, “Have I got all the information?” “I need to know more.” They ask lots of questions, and they get very much buried in the details, and can lose track and perspective of what actually matters. And perfectionists can also be very reactive, because there's nothing like a deadline to then be able to justify why it wasn't perfect. So, if I had more time I would have done a better job of this. But I'm going to allow myself to know I've done a great job, because I left it to the last minute, caused myself a heap of stress and dumped my system with cortisol. But, now it's okay that it wasn't perfect, because I only had, you know, 24 hours.
So, all of these things are compensatory behaviour for those deep down weeds in your garden, and always sitting under perfectionism. What lies at the root cause of that is fear that if you make a mistake, fear that you're a failure, and fear that you are not good enough. And somewhere along your journey, you made it mean that, “If I'm perfect, then I'll be good enough.” “If I'm perfect, I'll be accepted.” “If I'm perfect, I'll be loved.” “I won't risk being thrown out of the tribe.” That is what makes a really, really big difference.
So, it's important. I want you to reflect if there's any part of you that has perfectionistic tendencies, to know that you need to become a recovering perfectionist. This is not a trait you can carry with you into senior management levels, because you're going to need to work faster. You need to make decisions with less and less information. You are not going to be the smartest person in the room, and heaven help you if you are. You are going to make mistakes, and you need to be okay with that. You need to give your team a rope. You need to give them freedom to learn, and make mistakes of their own.
Perfectionists usually also are, to some level, micromanagers, because they make it mean so much about themselves if their team makes a mistake. And they either parachute in and try to cover it up, or they micromanage their team and strangle them so much, because they're terrified that their team can't make a mistake. Because, “What's this going to mean about me?” “What kind of leader am I if I allow these things to take place?” And so we get absolutely paralysed. It stifles our creativity, it stifles our ability to learn, and the same of everybody else around us.
So, you might be wondering, “Alright, Jo, I hear you.” “I'm doing this.” “I'm a perfectionist.” “How do I tame it?” “How do I go from being a proud perfectionist, and thinking that it's a positive trait, and putting it on a pedestal, to actually acknowledging that I am being driven by fear, and I don't want to be ruled by that anymore?” “I want to be ruled by influence.” “I want to become a woman of influence.” “I want to have a bigger impact.”
Well, it sounds trite, and it's probably something that you've heard before, but the main shift that I made that allowed me to tame my perfectionist, and the mantra I teach to all my clients, that they walk away from me with this thing literally tattooed on their foreheads, is that “Done is better than perfect.” I know, I know you're like, “Oh, have I ever heard that before?” “That’s no news.”
Well, the difference is this becomes news when you understand what actually sits behind it. Because someone can say to you, “Done is better than perfect.” But, if you haven't learned how to tame your perfectionist, and you haven't done the inner work to understand where this comes from and how to work through it, it'll just be a pretty slogan that you stick on your laptop or your computer and go, “Yeah, yeah, done is better than perfect.” You won't be able to actually embody it.
And, for me, learning and understanding that being a perfectionist was actually blocking my career progression was the game changer. It was impeding my ambition. It was going to cause my career to plateau. I stopped and went, “Whoa!” And the really big one for me was I was worried that it was going to make me miss out on opportunities. I'm very much a looking-forward, “I want to be creative”, “I want that project”, “I want all of these opportunities” kind of person. And if I couldn't move as fast as I needed to, and speed is a value of mine, I've always valued that I'm intelligent, and I can move quickly, and I can churn out more than others. And I realised that if my perfectionism was actually slowing me down, then that's not something I want a part of.
“I need to learn how to let this go.” “I need to be okay with making mistakes.” And the irony of all this is, I'm okay for other people to make mistakes. I was like, “Oh you know, if my team stuffs up, that's okay.” “We embrace failure.” All of those things. And yet, it was okay for everybody else to make a mistake and to learn from it, but it wasn't okay for me. I had one rule for them, and one rule for me, and we've all heard the saying, “Actions speak louder than words.”
So, while I might have said it was okay to fail, my behaviour told everybody around me otherwise. And they listened more to my actions than to my words. So, really embracing this done-is-better-than-perfect, and that goes along with the good old Pareto principle or 80-20 rule, you will get 80% of your impact results from 20% of the effort. So, if I'm going to spend a bulk of my time finessing that last 20%, when in reality it's already good enough, why am I bothering? I can actually move on to the next thing. I can learn. I can actually make a difference. And ditching the perfectionism, and learning to tame it is something that is crucial.
If you want to become a woman of influence, which is something I talk a lot about, it is a game changer. Perfectionism cannot be a part of that. Now, I know you're saying to me, “Look, you know, Jo, it's a part of who I am.” And I get that. They will always be a part of me. Or, I can feel those tendencies surfacing, to be like “Oh, there's a typo.” “Oh, that's a different font.” I can spot those things a mile away. And yes, that’s a part of it.
But when you've tamed your perfectionist, you actually have perspective. You can decide when your perfectionist wants to rage, and when it doesn't. You can let things go, which is what a woman of influence wants to learn to do. That is where everything starts to change. So, that was how I tamed my perfectionist. And, full-confession, it raged. I was rewarded for it. I could pick up the wrong font on a PowerPoint slide across a conference room. It was like “How could you see that?” I'm like, “That is in a different font.” “I couldn't nail it.” So, my perfectionism raged and I was so proud of it.
But, I need you to understand that something has to shift. I want you to become a woman of influence. I want you to reach your potential, and your perfectionism cannot be a part of you. So, today I invite you to embrace “done is better than perfect.” I embrace you to declare that you are going to become a recovering perfectionist, and step into becoming the woman of influence that you were truly born to be.
OUTRO: Thank you for joining us today on the Balance and Beyond Podcast. We're so glad you carved out this time for yourself. If you enjoyed this episode, please share it with a friend who might need to hear this today. And if you're feeling extra generous, leaving us a review on your podcast platform of choice would mean the world. If you’re keen to dive deeper into our world, visit us at www.balanceinstitute.com to discover more about the toolkit that has helped thousands of women avoid burnout and create a life of balance, and beyond. Thanks again for tuning in, and we'll see you next time on the Balance & Beyond Podcast.
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