45: Are You a Perfectionist or Do You Just Have High Standards?
What do Brene Brown, Marie Forleo, and the Enneagram have in common? They all have a lot to say about perfectionism. This episode clears up the difference between high standards and perfectionism and what we can do to produce top-notch work without internalizing the world’s reaction to it.
On this episode, I share:
What it really feels like to be a perfectionist,
Where perfectionism is born,
How you can shift from striving for perfection to high standards, and
3 steps to help you work through imperfect action.
A RECOVERING PERFECTIONIST
Have you ever said, “I’m a recovering perfectionist”? I’ve actually heard that stated in some professional bios. It makes me wonder what it is about that statement that we’re proud to share.
For a long time I’ve worn perfectionism as a badge of honor. I always thought I could do more than others—not because I was smarter—but because I worked harder.
I especially enjoyed it when someone says, “I don’t know how you do it all!”
My smugness starts to show and I just brush it off like it’s nothing with a “Oh you know, just pushing through.” I was full of pride while at the same time collapsing inside.
Every time someone acknowledged my efforts it made it more impossible to step off the moving walkway. It was the accelerant that kept me striving for more.
What it’s also done is set a bar so high that I never reach it.
I saw an Instagram post recently that exemplifies exactly what this feels like. I was scrolling and it caught me in my tracks. While it was labeled something about high-functioning anxiety, I didn’t immediately know it would speak to me so directly.
I know this feels familiar to some of you. I wanted to have this conversation because as someone who relates to EVERYTHING on this list and is very aware of this fact, I still have a hard time inching out of these tendencies.
I realize this has slowed me down in business. Here are just a few ways perfectionism has manifested in my work:
I’ve avoided being visible until I can control a level of quality and ensure a specific outcomes.
I’ve found it difficult to narrow down the focus of what I want to offer when I can offer so much.
I don’t market until everything is crystal clear in my mind.
I avoid launching or selling until a product or offer is completed and wrapped up in a bow.
If this feels relatable to you, this episode is important to hear.
And if you think this sounds crazy, at the very least it may help you better understand those in your life who fit the mold of a perfectionist.
So here we land with the question:
What are the bright lines between high standards and perfectionism?
HIGH STANDARDS VS. PERFECTIONISM
I started my research by googling: What does it mean to have high standards?
I was fascinated by the results. The first three pages were all full of dating advice. Not much talk of work at all.
The hits I did see focused on bosses who have unrealistic expectations—no matter how hard you work and what you produce, you never meet their standards.
But that’s the root of perfectionism, isn’t it?
“Striving for excellence motivates you. Striving for perfection is demoralizing.”
- Harriet Braiker, author of The Disease to Please
Excellence—or high standards: driven by doing the right thing and the results you’ll get.
Perfectionism: driven by how things will appear and what others will think.
Excellence is within reach.
Perfectionism is out of reach.
Excellence is learning from failure.
Perfectionism is being devastated by it.
Marie Forleo begins talking about perfectionism in her latest book, Everything is Figureoutable with a quote by Elizabeth Gilbert.
“Perfectionism is unachievable. It’s a hamster wheel that will run you to death.”
This hamster wheel analogy is so spot on. I’ve felt this primal urge to keep tweaking, refining, polishing.
I’d even add that when I’m doing this, I’m looking for the best example of work I’ve seen. I set my sights there and then raise the bar a few notches for myself. Why, you might ask. I guess the answer is: so that others think I’m the best they can get.
This isn’t about getting it right. It’s about getting it right from the start.
Here’s the thing though. Marie states that while high standards are healthy and motivating, perfection is paralyzing. It’s linked to depression and anxiety. It will kill creativity and prevent you from trying anything new.
ENNEAGRAM TYPE 1: THE PERFECTIONIST
The Enneagram is a personality test that’s risen to fame and mainstream recognition as of late.
I first took the test in 2016, but earlier this year as I was revisiting my results, they no longer felt accurate. I retook the test earlier this year. Would you guess what my type is?
Type 1. Better known as “The Reformer.” Lovingly referred to as “The Perfectionist.”
I purchased the book, The Road Back to You, to become more familiar with my type and what I can do to live out the healthiest version of myself.
What I like so much about this book is that each personality type begins with a page titled: What it feels like to be a type [X].
Let me know if these resonate with you:
People have told me I can be overly critical and judgmental.
I beat myself up when I make mistakes.
I don’t feel comfortable when I try to relax. There is too much to be done.
I don’t like it when people ignore or break the rules, like when the person in the fast lane at the grocery store has more items than allowed.
Details are important to me.
I often find that I’m comparing myself to others.
If I say I’ll do it, I’ll do it.
It is hard for me to let go of resentment.
I think it is my responsibility to leave the world a better place than I found it.
I have a lot of self-discipline.
I try to be careful and thoughtful about how I spend money.
It seems to me that things are either right or wrong.
I spend a lot of time thinking about how I could be a better person.
Forgiveness is hard for me.
I notice immediately when things are wrong or out of place.
I worry a lot.
I am really disappointed when other people don’t do their part.
I like routine and don’t readily embrace change.
I do my best when I’m working on a project, and I wish others would do the same, so I wouldn’t have to redo their work.
I often feel like I try harder than others to do things correctly.
It’s not all bad news though! This book also explains that as ones, we’re committed to a life of service and integrity. We’re balanced and responsible. And we make the world a better place.
The other thing I found fascinating in my research is that these tendencies didn’t just come about one day. They were developed and rooted in our childhood.
Goddess of everything, Brene Brown, explains that perfectionism is about earning approval and acceptance. We were the kids who were raised being praised for achievement—good grades, manners, rule followers, people pleasing, and sports.
It makes me wonder if there isn’t also a link between being a first child and being a perfectionist.
Speaking of Brene, one of her earliest books is titled The Gifts of Imperfection.
In this she says that it’s not enough to merely know our label. We’ve got to know what to do with it.
Healthy striving is self-focused: How can I improve?
Perfectionism is motivated by other-focused: What will they think?
There’s a gut check for you.
DONE IS BETTER THAN PERFECT
“The thing that is really hard and really amazing is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of being yourself.”
- Anna Quindlen
Let’s get back to Marie Forleo. She seems to make jingles for everything. And while some are corny, they do put things back in perspective.
Marie says, “Starting small and sucky beats staying stucky.”
Take this podcast, for instance. I don’t have any fancy equipment, no audio engineer. I do it all myself. But it’s done. And done is better than perfect.
Of course there have been cringe worthy moments and there will be more to come.
But it’s a good reminder to move forward even when we don’t feel 100% ready.
It’s not all or nothing.
I also appreciate that Marie acknowledges how perfectionism FEELS, not just how it looks. It makes us feel uncertain. Insecure.
These are signs that we’re making progress and entering new territory. Growth isn’t typically comfortable.
This was a huge realization for me recently. Playing it safe means stagnation.
The big question we have to ask ourselves is: can self-doubt become normalized? We have to learn to expect it.
Marie wraps it up perfectly with this: “Life doesn’t require you to always be fearless. It simply requires you to keep showing up.”
THERE WILL BE DISCOMFORT
I guess, in the end, it’s about doing this while moving away from what people might think and toward what scares us. And according to Brene, that breaks down to two simple things.
Compassion for others.
Compassion for self.
Compassion for others means when you see someone doing it right, acknowledge it! Show gratitude and point out their strengths.
Compassion for elf means embracing your goodness. It also means letting others reflect back to you where you’re winning.
As we head into the new year, there are three things I want you to do with this newfound understanding of—and appreciation—for your perfectionist tendencies.
Take some time off. Work will still be there tomorrow. It will be there next week. Boundaries around your time and energy will help you loosen the grip on perfect.
Commit to releasing something new. Set a date and don’t worry about doing it perfectly. Success = completing it.
Tell one person what you appreciate about them. You never know what they might not realize about themselves.
Entrepreneurship is a game of mental toughness. You—and I—have what we need. It’s time to step out bravely, knowing our reputation isn’t on the line if we make a typo. It’s what makes us human. And humans buy from humans after all, no?