Nicola was struggling. She felt that she was holding herself back both in her position as a senior leader of a tech company and as a mum of two kids. Despite consistent and plentiful evidence of her personal and professional success, she was never satisfied. When others praised her, she admitted to not listening to the positive stuff and only waiting for the negative. If none was given, her inner critic stepped in to make up for it. 

She believed that the only way to succeed was to know everything and do everything perfectly and never mess anything up. This helped her climb through the ranks but it was no longer serving her. She was permanently stressed and found it hard to switch off. She worried over every little thing that didn’t go well, replaying conversations and events and identifying all the ways she could have and should have done better. 

When she became a mum she approached motherhood in the same vein. She worked extremely hard, often neglecting her own needs, in order to meet the unattainable vision of perfection. Nicola’s inner critic was having a field trip shining a bright light on every tantrum and bedtime drama, seeing every struggle as a proof of her own inadequacy. She was exhausted and tired of constantly feeling like she was not good enough. 

Nicola was stuck in the perfectionism trap and she was paying a heavy price for it. 

I resonate with Brené Brown’s definition of perfectionism:

Perfectionism as a self-destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought: If I look perfect and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of blame, judgement, and shame. 

Brené Brown

Perfectionism is all about controlling other people’s perception of us and has nothing to do with internal motivation to be and do the best we can. Relying on external validation for our own sense of worthiness, we live in a constant fear of failing. Sadly, we’re bound to fail, no matter how hard we try, because we’ll never be able to please everyone. 

Perfectionism is not a personality trait but rather a maladaptive strategy designed to protect us against a painful experience of being criticised and judged by others. This strategy is learnt early in childhood which is why we often hear people say that that’s just who they are. That’s certainly not the case. Seeing perfectionism as a strategy that a 7 year old in us chose as a way to gain attention and approval of significant people (parents, teachers) is an important first step towards freedom. 

Perfectionism is contagious and it’s often passed on from a parent to a child. As in Nicola’s case, perfectionism is fueled by a critical inner voice. Unfortunately, a self critical parent tends to hold their children to the same perfectionist standards and slowly the parent’s critical voice becomes the child’s inner critic. 

As a leader, a perfectionist tends to either burn out trying to do and control everything or drive everyone crazy by micromanaging all around them. Their low tolerance for failure tends to have a negative impact on engagement and creative problem solving as everyone becomes fearful of making a mistake and coming short of perfection. 

Perfectionism is an inner curse. We cannot tell if someone is driven by striving for excellence or is suffering under the heavy armour of perfectionism just by observing them work. Both can obsess over detail and drive incredibly high standards to get something done. However, someone who’s driven by internal desire for excellence will face failure as something separate from her and will be able to quickly process the lessons learnt and move on. A perfectionist, on the other hand, will see failure as proof that SHE is not good enough and will be mortified by the thought that she’s disappointed others. 

In my experience, two events trigger a perfectionist to begin a personal development journey away from fear of failure and towards freedom to thrive: a promotion to a leadership position and parenthood. To thrive in each role, one has to develop and build strong connections with self and others. Connection is only possible when we allow ourselves to be seen and when we learn how to make mistakes without trading our inner worthiness for the approval of others. At that moment, we give ourselves a chance to thrive in our own right. When we’re brave enough to do this inner work, we give everyone else the permission to be brave too. This is a powerful gift to give to our colleagues and to the next generation of leaders we’re raising at home.

PS. To safeguard client/coach confidentiality, names and details used are not attributable to a single client.