Confessions of a recovering perfectionist

I like to think I know myself pretty well, that I have a pretty good awareness of my strengths, flaws and foibles mainly as a result of decades of personal and professional development associated with my work as a coach (an occupational hazard you could call it I guess).

So it was a bit of a surprise to discover recently whilst doing my training and accreditation for the Leadership Circle (360 degree profile) that I have (amongst other things) a reactive tendency towards perfectionism.

Well, when I say that it was a surprise that’s not exactly true – the truth is that I’d actually thought that my perfectionist tendencies were only apparent to me, that I’d successfully hidden away inside of myself the self-imposed pressure to achieve more, do better, be more. But it turns out that my perfectionist behaviours are clearly apparent to colleagues and peers and I’m more transparent than I realised (it also explains why I never win at cards).

But as reactive tendencies go perfection isn’t that bad, right? Culturally we often see perfectionism as a positive.  When asked “What is your worst trait?” in a job interview I, like many of you I’m sure, have offered it up as my little self- depreciating interview confession. (Little did I know that there was actually truth in what I was saying).

There are different views on whether perfectionism is positive or negative with research being divided and sometimes controversial. Some researchers say there is adaptive, or ‘healthy’ perfectionism which is characterised by having high standards, motivation and discipline, which is different to a maladaptive, or ‘unhealthy’ perfectionism which is when your best never seems good enough and not meeting goals leads to frustration and unhappiness.

Within the Leadership Circle model, perfectionism is viewed as a reactive “controlling” behaviour driven by a sense of self-worth that is it is closely identified with needing to be the best at things i.e. “if I perform better and achieve more than others then I feel safe and secure; I feel worthy”.

If you take on board the idea that there is adaptive and maladaptive perfectionism then adaptive perfection is having the desire to achieve and do the best you can without the self- worth dependency attached it. For me this is good news – it means that perfectionism has the gift of a drive to achieve within it and with nurturing it can “grow up” to become about healthy achievement and a balanced approach to attaining results.

So how to make the shift towards “healthy” perfectionism?

The first step is to simply start to recognise the behaviour. By noticing the behaviour and creating more conscious awareness of it one is able to notice when, for example, the drive to improve is motivated by a positive intention to get things done and when it is being motivated by a compulsion or a need to do it in order to simply not feel bad or to avoid (mainly self-imposed) criticism.

An example or perfectionism in action for me is always wanting to appear extremely competent and confident and putting myself under a lot of pressure to maintain this at all times in a professional context. The cost of maintaining this professional persona (as well as setting myself impossibly high standards) is that it’s extremely draining and has the capacity to suck the joy out of my work. Also in my coaching work it means there is a danger that I’m not being “real” or relatable which is a big red flag as this could get in the way of developing authentic trusting relationships.

So my work around this begins with the practice of starting to notice when I’m holding on too tight to saying and doing the “right” thing and to pause and take a breath and to give myself permission to be human; it also means being kinder to myself when I make mistakes. This isn’t something that can be changed overnight but in starting to notice the behaviour and to experiment with possible alternatives I’ve noticed a shift towards the creative behaviours which serve me and others better – and it’s a work in progress.

As we begin the process of starting to shine a light on our less helpful behaviours and the reactive tendencies that underpin them we are starting to bring to the surface the unconscious scrips that until now have been invisibly running us and directing our behaviour. Kind of like the scene in the Wizard of Oz when Toto the dog pulls back the curtain to reveal the “real” wizard pulling all the strings.

In this article I’ve focussed in on just one reactive tendency revealed to me by my Leadership Circle profile which is a unique 360 degree tool that measures both individual competency and underlying internal beliefs and assumptions in the context of two domains: Creative Competencies and Reactive Tendencies.

Peeping behind the curtain has revealed some really useful insights for me. If you are curious to find out about both your competency strength areas and to start to identify some of the reactive tendencies that may currently be outside your field of vision why not take the free self assessment (which can be found at www.leadershipcircle.com) and see what it reveals? And if you are interested in the fuller 360 profile I’d be delighted to work through the process with you. Of course I’m very good at doing it because I’m a perfectionist :-).

Warm wishes

Sarah

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