Taming Perfectionism

Just because you don’t think your life seems perfect, doesn’t mean you don’t suffer from perfectionism

Podcast Version:

Psst..just between you and me, when did you start becoming a perfectionist?  To be honest, I think it started for me at an early age because I believed trying to do and be the best gave me a sense of control; it made me feel smart and important.

Getting the best grades in my class, seeing the positive reaction from my parents and teachers and being told how much potential I had was exciting.  It made me want to excel at whatever I decided to do whether it was a 5th grade math test, trying out for the high school kickline, or getting a job offer from the biggest accounting firm in my area.

If you also have a tendency to be a perfectionist, don’t be ashamed to admit.  In reality it shows a desire to be the best and there’s nothing wrong with that – or is there?  Isn’t it how strong, smart women like us get ahead, especially in a male-dominated profession like accounting?

Even though it’s exhausting, how else are we going to advance in our careers, find a life partner or earn other people’s respect if we aren’t striving for perfection?  With all the competition out there, being the smartest, prettiest, thinnest and most confident is just par for the course, right?

I know, I know, it’s causing us added stress and it’s overwhelming to be constantly chasing the perfect home, the perfect haircut and the perfect family photo.  But having a perfect life takes hard work and who better than us to take on the challenge!  

My only question is, if it’s not a big deal then why does it make us feel so fearful, erode our lack of self-confidence and keep us constantly comparing ourselves to others?  Maybe it’s time to take a look at what perfectionism is costing us personally and professionally and tame it’s unruliness.

The key in taming perfectionism is understanding how your negative-focused brain has been judging you like a drill sergeant who never has anything nice to say about you because they think that’s the way to motivate you.  Any changes that you’d LIKE to make, as opposed to HAVE to make, need to come from a new narration.

This week I’m going to discuss the difference between perfectionism and striving for excellence as well as how to get perfectionism under control.

The difference between perfectionism and striving for excellence

Being described as a perfectionist can create some confusion because you may not even realize you are one.  Since your life isn’t perfect and might be kind of a mess, you may not believe you suffer with perfectionism.

For example, you may believe you aren’t a perfectionist because your garage is a mess, you never have time to make your bed, you pick up McDonald’s more than you like to admit and your email inbox hasn’t been purged in 6 months; but don’t let that fool you.  Just because you don’t think your life seems perfect, doesn’t mean you don’t suffer from perfectionism.     

Years ago comedian Jeff Foxworthy had a comedy routine where he would say “If you (fill in the blank), you might be a redneck” as in “If you have ever cut your grass and found a car, you might be a redneck”.  Well I have some news for you – if you know the difference between a debit and a credit, you might be a perfectionist.

The accounting profession is a breeding ground for perfectionism.  Your accounting education and vocabulary probably contain words like “balance”, “error-free” and “uniform” among other exacting language used on a daily basis. 

Since perfectionism is the belief that you could always do and be better, then adding your accounting career to the personal pressures of being a mother can create a perfect storm of the pursuit of perfection.  Perfectionism isn’t about arrogance or a lack of humility, it’s about the fear of not doing enough or being enough.

If you still don’t think you are a perfectionist then let me ask you – how do you feel about doing B- work or the saying “Done is better than perfect”?  If it makes you a little queasy, then you probably have more perfectionist tendencies than you realize.

Whether it shows up in your tendency to procrastinate, your lack of self-confidence or the feeling of burnout, striving for perfection as a female accountant mom is a much bigger issue than you may realize.  Feelings of anxiety, guilt and shame are often familiar companions for perfectionists.   

But it’s also important to be aware that there is a difference between perfectionism versus having high standards or pursuing excellence.  The interesting thing is that the best way to actually achieve excellence is to NOT demand perfection.  

The issue with the philosophy of perfectionism is that it rejects anything less than perfection, but think about it – who decides if something or someone is perfect or not?  It’s a subjective, unattainable bar that you just keep moving further and further away from you, causing you to continually focus on what’s wrong.

On the other hand, pursuing excellence focuses on what’s already right and how it can be improved.  It doesn’t drain you emotionally or physically, it’s open to and seeks feedback, and it allows “good enough” to be okay for now.

Being a healthy high achiever means you enjoy the process rather than being focused only on the outcome, you have your own back when you make a decision, and you are comfortable with being uncomfortable.  You give yourself permission to live with life’s ups and downs without making it mean anything has gone wrong. 

As a female accountant, your intelligence, attention to detail, and ambition have gotten you where you are, so the question is – are you a perfectionist or just striving for excellence? See if any of these apply:

  1. You constantly compare yourself and your work to others
  2. You feel jealous of others 
  3. You worry a lot about what others think
  4. You feel like an imposter
  5. You tend to put things off until the last minute
  6. You have a strong inner critic
  7. Your productivity and efficiency never seem sufficient
  8. You’re terrified of making a mistake

If any of the above items apply to you then you need to consider that “you might be a perfectionist”.  Remember that just because your life doesn’t seem perfect doesn’t mean you aren’t a perfectionist.

Perfectionism comes with a lot of self-judging, comparing, procrastinating and fear.  It dramatizes mistakes as opposed to moving past them, it sees failure as a reason to stop, as opposed to something to learn from, and it plays small as opposed to taking chances and risking rejection.

When you suffer with perfectionism you don’t want to do YOUR best, you want to be THE best.  In pursuit of being perfect you actually just make yourself and everyone around you miserable with your super high, unattainable expectations. 

Let me reiterate that there’s nothing wrong with having high standards and wanting to achieve excellence; however, it becomes an issue when your standards are unrealistic and draining.  When your brain continually interprets who you are and what you do as a failure, then it’s always going to send you the message that you are not enough.

When you are a perfectionist, the underlying feeling of unworthiness will be the heavy purse you carry around on a daily basis.  This heavy weight will affect the choices you make for yourself and your family.

For example, it will make you question whether you should go for the promotion at work because you feel like an imposter and aren’t perfect at your job.  Or it will have you staying up late at night perfecting your child’s science project long after they’ve gone to bed. 

I don’t blame you if you believe that perfectionism has served you at certain times in your life, but it’s actually a false belief; perfectionism never produces the positive result you think it does.  It actually looks at whatever you do as either not good enough or unfinished. However, striving for excellence means you do what you say you’re going to do and you get it done even if it’s not perfect.

Taming perfectionism doesn’t mean giving up on success or settling for mediocrity.  It means learning how to think clearly and manage your mind along the way.  

How to get perfectionism under control

I once spoke to a woman who said if she couldn’t do something perfectly, she didn’t even bother trying.  This attitude is more common than you can imagine because from the time you were a young girl you probably got the message that you have to prove your worth, an idea which, unfortunately,  continues building momentum as you get older.

Perfectionism’s belief that things could always be better can be so insidious, especially for female accountant moms who are already self-critical.  This can show up at work, how you view your home and in your relationships with other people, with your body and with yourself, among many other things. 

As a life coach I’m all about helping women improve their lives but not from a place of “I HAVE to” but from a place of “I WANT to”.  When working with perfectionist clients it’s important to me that they don’t see coaching as the answer to being perfect but instead as a way to first accept that there’s nothing wrong with the way they already are.   

Perfectionists tend to want to change the circumstances in their lives because of the belief that they could be better if other things were better.  It’s like Goldilocks moving from bed to bed until she found the perfect one; you believe that “there” has to be better than “here”.

I will admit that I’ve also gotten swept up in the self-improvement wave, believing that there was something inherently wrong wrong with me that needed to be better.  Whether it was taking continuing education classes that would help me excel in real estate taxation or going to various self-help retreats to be more enlightened, I believed there were crumbs on the path leading to real happiness and I just needed to find them. 

But perfectionism doesn’t let you off the hook so easily.  Until it is really addressed and dealt with, it will chase you even when you’ve reached the pinnacle of success in your field, gotten back into the jeans you wore in high school or your child is accepted to Harvard.

In order to tame perfectionism you need to get cozy with your critical brain and understand how it’s been trying to protect you and keep you safe.  Your primitive brain’s job is to keep you alive and not being “perfect” signals possible rejection.

The irony is that by constantly judging yourself as imperfect, your brain actually creates the feeling you are trying to avoid – rejection.  Having thoughts like “I’m not perfect” or “How I am now is not OK” puts you in a never ending loop of judgment, rejection and reaction.

Since the idea of perfection only exists in your mind, the way to tame perfectionism is to start questioning the idea that you even know what perfection is.  Your critical, protective brain will rarely let you believe that you’ve done enough or that you’re good enough. Ttherefore you need to pay attention to the story it’s been telling you, about you.

Your primitive brain is not a reliable narrator of your story so you need to become more aware of what that narrator has been telling you and do some rewriting by doing the following:

  • Pick an area of your life where you believe you should be better
  • Describe what’s currently wrong
  • How does that narration make you feel?
  • When you feel this way, what do you do?
  • Pick the same area of your life and describe what a loving friend would write about you
  • How does that new narration make you feel?
  • When you feel this way, what do you do?

Beating yourself up doesn’t work because when you feel bad, you don’t actually do better.  The best thing you can do is to manage your mind, take back control of the script and write a story that feels better to tell yourself and share with others.

Here’s my new story:

Once upon a time there was a young girl who was very smart and went to school to be an accountant.  She studied and worked hard, always trying her best. When she got older and became a mother she put her heart and soul into raising her children and balancing her career with her new role as mother.  She learned a lot along her journey. She eventually wasn’t ashamed to ask for help when she needed it and allowed herself to try different things without fear of failure because she saw it all as a learning opportunity.  She made lots of mistakes along the way and that was okay. She lived a happy, balanced life because she worked on not setting the bar too high for herself or for others. She celebrated other people’s successes without the need to compare.  She became an example to her children of what’s possible when you live your life with a managed mind. She took what she learned and helped other female accountant moms do the same.  

That’s the narration of my new, non-perfectionist story. How about we work together rewriting yours?

Summary

  • The accounting profession is a breeding ground for perfectionism.  
  • Perfectionism isn’t about arrogance or a lack of humility, it’s about the fear of not doing enough or being enough.
  • Whether it shows up in your tendency to procrastinate, your lack of self-confidence or the feeling of burnout, striving for perfection as a female accountant mom is a much bigger issue than you may realize.  
  • Taming perfectionism doesn’t mean giving up on success or settling for mediocrity. 
  • The key in taming perfectionism is understanding how your negative-focused brain has been judging you like a drill sergeant who never has anything nice to say about you because they think that’s the way  it will motivate you.   
  • The best thing you can do is to manage your mind, take back control of the script and write a story that feels better to tell yourself and share with others.

If you’d like some help taming perfectionism, please feel free to schedule a free mini session or email me at dawn@cpa-moms-coach.com and we can get to work together.

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