Have you ever noticed that when something feels difficult, often the answer is right in front of you? When I reflected on my conversations with friends, clients, and family in recent days, there was a theme: Everyone is trying to be perfect. One woman worried that her résumé wasn’t perfect enough for the job she wanted (although it really is good enough!). Multiple women were mentally berating themselves for something they felt they’d not done well. And I caught myself thinking that I should have handled a situation differently, rather than granting myself the grace to make a mistake and move on. So it hit me: it must be time to address the unrealistic belief that we have to be perfect.
Let’s lighten up on ourselves!
No One Gets it All Right
Perfectionism. It’s the trap that snares many women, believing that if we do everything perfectly and don’t make mistakes, we’ll be rewarded and successful. But trying to be perfect takes immense energy, and ultimately, perfection is impossible. No matter how late we work, how early we come in or how much we ignore the need for work-life balance, we’re human and no one gets it all right.
Why is this an issue for women? Little girls are told to be nice, well-behaved and obedient. Aggressive behavior or fighting is dismissed as “natural” for boys but disgraceful for girls. In their book How Women Rise, Sally Helgeson and Marshall Goldsmith note:
“These attitudes often prevail even in families and schools committed to gender equality. Such expectations can prompt girls to seek approval by striving to get everything right, …by trying to be perfect.”
Trying to be perfect is a quest for the impossible, which can be a costly and fruitless detour from our true career path. Perfectionism sends many women into rumination, mentally beating up on ourselves and letting our negative internal dialogue become insecurity. Or the fear of making a mistake paralyzes us with indecision, slowing down our work. Or we avoid speaking up in meetings without every minor detail nailed down and lose our opportunity to contribute.
I’ve lived long enough to make my share of mistakes personally and professionally. And I’m still here and thriving. In fact, it is those mistakes that have shaped me into who I am today.
We don’t learn from doing everything perfectly. We learn from the mistakes.
In my public speaking, the audience is most riveted when I’m talking about mistakes or failures. We all want to know that (1) we’re not alone in making mistakes and (2) it is possible to recover and succeed afterwards.
Here’s the key: Stop being so hard on yourself!
Try these tips when the quest for perfection is slowing you down:
Stop and notice your internal dialogue. If you’re beating yourself up about something that you didn’t do quite right, change that dialogue to remind yourself of strengths and accomplishments. Tell yourself, “Everyone makes mistakes. I’m just a normal human being.”
Reframe negative situations. Try turning “I work with some very difficult personalities.” into “I’ve got an opportunity to work with and lead people who are different from me.” A friend of mine is a very positive person. She was telling me that after having a very scary incident with her daughter and a stranger, instead of asking “Why did this happen to us?” she thought “Just think…if it hadn’t happened to us, this person would not have been held accountable for his behavior because I’m the one who was perfectly suitable to deal with this situation.” That’s a positive attitude!
Do a personal after-action review. When something doesn’t go well, look back and analyze it. Formal after-action reviews were developed by the U.S. Army for learning from experience. But it’s really the simple process of asking yourself:
What were my expectations?
What actually happened?
What went well and why?
What can I learn and change for the future?
Those that succeed are not those who make no mistakes. The successful people stumble, fall, get up, learn and keep going.
Susan Hodge created Women Leading Together in order to provide one-on-one executive coaching, seminars, workshops, and coaching circles to help career women move forward to create fulfilling professional lives. Visit our website for upcoming programs, articles, and resources to advance your career.
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