Perfectionism, Stress and Failure

Continuous improvement is critical in creating a culture that engages and enhances employee strengths and talents.  Striving for employee or personal perfection in contrast may have the opposite effect as it can lead to stress, fear and ultimately failure.

Sadly, the pursuit of perfection in the Western World is only increasing anxiety, stress and profits as people consume self-help books, drugs, therapy, and happiness videos.  In many respects, we are becoming perfectionist addicts, including me. Consider my recent pursuit to optimize my cognitive ability and reduce stress through restful sleep.

My regular routine on the elliptical trainer while reading a self-help book woke me up to the reality that my current sleep pattern didn’t score an A+.  My routine of toss, turn, drool, wake, repeat… likely would score me a C-.  Ironically, I do quite fine with a disruptive sleep.  Regardless, I made the choice to achieve the perfect sleep by following a prescribed recipe.  The result was a Fail as my sleeps got worse.

The pursuit of perfectionism creates stress and anxiety as it is an absolute – all or nothing.  There is no room for cracks, mistakes or any other deficiencies, yet, it is our imperfections that make us human.

It is difficult to accept imperfection in a world where who we are doesn’t seem to cut it and as a result, we try to prove the opposite.  Our proof is demonstrated through the things we own, the clothes we wear, the face we “lift”, and posts on social media that convey a message of “Look at me – I am perfect!”

We could blame technology for this trend but at its core, perfectionism supports our human needs to be accepted, valued and loved.  It started about the time you could crawl and discovered that if you push something, it falls.  For many of us, the reasons why we strive to be perfect could be discovered by examining events in our history that led to this need.

How does one overcome a need to be perfect?

  • Accept who you are, who you are not, and work with that. Set reasonable expectations when changing behaviours.
  • Get curious about the root cause of your perfection or behaviours that are limiting you – what is really at risk if you stop them? Keep on asking ‘what’s at risk’ until you clearly feel an emotional connection to your answer.  Now, let it go. (You may need a self-help book for that! ? )
  • Realize the impact of your perfectionist tendencies on others. Consider how it may impact relationships, work performance, distrust, or worst of all, fear of doing things for yourself due to high standards.
  • Fail greatly as it is an important by-product of trying. We all have heard “If you fail at first, try, try again.”  New ways of doing things can take time – forgive yourself for any failures and be patient with results.
  • Be authentically human. Realize what may open up for you in respect to happiness, connection and reduced stress if you were perfectly imperfect.

I quote Leonard Cohen and his powerful words, “There is a crack, a crack in everything…that’s how the light gets in.”

Kwela’s Stress Management workshop is designed to help individuals identify areas of stress (such as perfectionism) and how we better cope by shifting our interpretation and associated response.

Glen Sollors, Partner