On my desk is a glass paperweight with an important question carved on one side. What would you do if you had no fear? it says. Seeing the inquiry, a friend asked for my response, and without hesitation I answered, “Give up perfectionism.” She casually suggested that that would be a good New Year’s resolution, and I felt the fear rise in my chest. Could I be successful in the world without trying to attain perfection?
Nonetheless, I took this exchange as a challenge and set out to educate myself and reflect on the issue. I concluded that perfectionism comes from the fear that our strengths and abilities aren’t enough, that they can’t stand on their own. Overcompensating by trying to be perfect drains our time, energy, and any fun there was in the project we strove to accomplish. It also limits our success as we pass up opportunities, fearing that we can’t, and might never be, perfect.
I know from personal experience that working women are especially susceptible because we walk a particularly narrow minefield, with little margin for error. Fear of failure means we spend far too long editing the perfect report, over-planning the perfect event, or holding back as we formulate the perfect comment in a meeting. Fear is the drum major directing the perfectionism parade.
Perfectionism also strikes a death knell on confidence. Male colleagues take risks and apply for high-level positions, fully confident they can learn on the job; we women, however, wait until we’re more than qualified, therefore missing the opportunity. Our desire to be perfect prevents us from trying new things, and there is a direct correlation between trying new things and increased confidence.
It is a vicious cycle: perfectionism erodes our confidence, increasing our fears, resulting in the demand for even more perfectionism. In his book, What Happy People Know, Dan Baker describes perfectionism, along with workaholism, as demons pretending to be strengths. We improperly credit perfectionism, not our abilities and competence, for our achievements. “Fear doesn’t emerge as nail-biting, cold-feet terror but surfaces instead as perfectionism”, he says.
The trick is to face our fear and have the courage to accept our abilities, exactly as they are. Courage is just like confidence: it comes from doing, from experimenting, and trying again. We get more by doing more. If we take action, without concerns about needing to be perfect, we’ll create a new story about ourselves, one where we are enough. Not only that, every project will be more fun!
Arianna Huffington expresses it well: “I had a mother who taught me early on that failure is not the opposite of success; it’s a stepping stone to success. And that is key. We feel that we have to have an absolute guarantee that what we are going to do is going to work because we women have to be perfect all the time. But perfection is not of this world. The most we can aspire to is excellence.”
Most New Year’s resolutions are about exercise or diet, and many are abandoned after a single slip. I have been guilty of throwing a whole food program out the window after only the tiniest infraction. My thinking pattern goes like this: I have spoiled it now, I might as well quit. A better story would be: I ate a chocolate, so I’m not perfect, but I didn’t eat the whole box, so I am doing well.
Rather than being a panacea, perfectionism is really the false solution you need to fear. Like me, you might initially be concerned that your success will be limited in the world without it. But the opposite is true: your perfectionism is the biggest limitation in every aspect of your life. Make this New Year’s resolution a commitment to letting go of perfectionism. You’ll have more energy, increase your confidence, and discover courage in the process.