We are multifaceted beings, but we can lose sight of that when one aspect of our personalities or identities becomes dominant. One place this can become a serious problem is in the case of perfectionism and our definition of success.
Perfectionism can be a useful aspect of ourselves. Being extremely picky about the quality of our work can make our work shine. However, perfectionism tends to be a tyrant when we identify it as our entire way of being and when we don’t know how or when to rein it in. In other words, I can spend an extra hour or two fine-tuning an important presentation, but when that level of scrutiny and criticism starts to invade my down time or won’t let me stop working when I really need to be done, it is more like a cancer to the spirit than a cure for dreaded mediocrity. It does not always stay within useful bounds and seems greedy to infiltrate areas where it does not serve us.
When I say to myself, “I am a perfectionist,” the limitation here is in believing that is all that I am. The thing we need to do to counteract this is to notice that there is a part of us that can observe the perfectionist. That part, that observer, is a part that may also be able to identify other parts of us. What are your other parts? Are you also playful? Creative? Able to be present to others? Take a moment to list some of the other aspects of yourself that might be at play in your life and might have a useful role in how you define success.
Success looks really different through the eyes of a creative process or a playful process or a mundane/rote process. For example, if I’m brainstorming for a novel, success may be several pages of scribbled notes, with only a few useful ideas, but those ideas are the writing gold that will serve as the first stage of my writing project. If I want to spend time with my son, it’s clearly more successful to me if we’ve had a fun time and gotten done some of our tasks than if we’ve checked off everything but not had an emotionally connected time. And there are, of course, some things that don’t deserve the level of intensity that tyrannical perfectionism insists upon: cleaning the toilet, sweeping floors, raking the yard. Good enough is truly success in those situations.
Not every process benefits from the scrutiny of perfectionism, and it’s not always a useful tool to pick up. My coaching question for the client who struggles with perfectionism is this: which tool would they like to pick up at any given point? If perfectionism is the best tool to serve your goals, then by all means, use it. However, there are many other tools in your tool bag, and you can always gain more of them. Allow yourself to get into Master Carpenter mode, where all the tools can be used to their greatest potential, rather than relying solely on the hammer of perfectionism. Success does not lie in crushing everything under the pounding of unrealistic expectations; it lies in employing the right approach to the right problem.
Step back. Look at the many aspects of your personality and the tools you possess. Which ones will you employ, and where will you do so? How does success look different when you employ more than one tool?