Many of my clients describe themselves as perfectionists. They don’t want to do something unless and until it can be done properly. While that sentiment sounds noble and worthy, its impact on our lives is much more nefarious.
The truth underneath that notion is that when we allow ourselves to delay action until it can be done perfectly, we are really just trying to protect ourselves from failure.
But what I often see happening is that perfectionism morphs into complete inaction; permission to remain in place. I’m not ready to move forward yet so I’m just going to stay where I am.
It is not logical to believe that we can plan everything to such an extent that we can eliminate all risk of failure.
You are going to have to risk failure if you are ever going to act.
Those that work with me regularly know that I believe perfectionism is for scared people and I’m not the only one who objects to perfectionist tendencies. Perfectionism is a just a prettier word for self-protection.
While I agree that we must all act in a manner that protects ourselves in the highest sense, that self-protective impulse is not relevant when it comes to commonplace activities — applying for a new job, reaching out for support, finishing a large project, sending an email. So many of us apply that self-preservation impulse to those every day tasks and the net result is that we don’t apply for the job, we never reach out for support, and we agonize over the tiniest details of projects and simple emails. Our work takes longer and our emotional fortitude wanes.
When we allow ourselves to linger in preparation mode rather than simply acting, not only do we prolong our current state (assuming we will EVENTUALLY act, which is not always the case, some of us prepare indefinitely) but we rob ourselves of the opportunity to create self-confidence.
Self-confidence is not something we are born with; it is something we create for ourselves.
How do we build it? We take action and fail and develop the ability to move forward despite the failure. When we know we can survive failure, heartache, embarrassment, shame, humiliation and all the other fantastic emotions that accompany failure, we learn to trust ourselves. We realize that we can weather any storm, overcome all those negative emotions. In that experience we develop confidence in ourselves because we know we can do and survive anything that comes our way.
Naturally, that means that in order to become more confident, we must fail. We must take action and set ourselves up to experience failure. If we don’t ever experience failure and adversity, how can we learn to trust in our ability to do and survive anything?
If we play it safe forever, allowing ourselves to linger in preparation so that when we do act, we can act perfectly (as if that ever really works) we prevent ourselves from simply acting and taking the chance that we might fail.
At the same time, we rob ourselves of the possibility that we might act and do it perfectly the first time. It just might work out! All those details you wants to distress over and sift through might never even matter. But you won’t know until you take the risk.
When we linger in preparation we imply that it is possible to know exactly what is needed for success and what is necessary to prevent failure. That is ridiculous. If that were true, our lives would be very different. The truth is that we never know what will work or won’t work until we start acting and learning all the things that didn’t work.
When my clients explain to me why they aren’t taking action on things or why they are taking so long to complete their work, I challenge them to experiment with the concept of B- work. What if you allowed yourself to present B- work where it was warranted? What if you allowed yourself to recognize that sometimes done is actually better than perfect? What if you accepted that all the minutia, all those nagging second-guessing thoughts might not actually be important to the overall project? What if a client wants a B- answer and doesn’t want to pay for a A+ dissertation-worthy response?
What is the worst that could happen if you just committed to acting and stopped second-guessing?
Those are all just vibrations in your body, caused by your thoughts. YOU and how you talk to yourself when things don’t go as planned, THAT is what causes those emotions.
The beauty of it all is that you control those thoughts and you can decide what you want to make it mean when your commitment to action is met with failure.
It doesn’t have to mean that you are a failure or that you aren’t cut out for your job. It could simply mean that you learned how to not do something; you can add that learning to your arsenal, practice experiencing the feelings of embarrassment of guilt and just keep moving.
Without acceptance of failure, you will never create meaningful success. The price for success is repetitious failure. The process of repetitious failure creates self-confidence. What do you have to lose?
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