Perfectionism: Making it Work for You

Updated: Oct 30

Many successful people are perfectionists. Perfectionists often are rewarded with promotions because they work diligently to achieve goals. Perfectionism helps turn chaos into something manageable and controllable. It’s often seen as critical to success, but it has a dark side too.


Perfectionism is often motivated by fear of what will happen if we don’t perform. It’s hard to relax when you fear what others will think of you, so stress becomes a familiar companion.

When we don’t perform to our own expectations, we experience shame and brutalize ourselves with our self-talk. We can even cause ourselves physical pain: think stress induced stomach problems.

A leader’s perfectionism often creates quick wins because goals are achieved. But do you get overstretched because you don’t delegate enough? How do you ensure commitment to your goal doesn’t blind you to feedback? How do you effectively develop others and build sustainability when trying to control so much?

I hate the term recovering perfectionist. It implies we’re broken or diseased. We’re not. Goal orientation and commitment to excellence are prized gifts! The following steps are helpful for using these strengths to serve us and our broader goals instead of having our habitual response use us and wear us out.

First, pay attention to your emotions and ground yourself if needed.

What are you feeling? Frustration, fear, overwhelmed, nervous, defensive? If you’re feeling strong negative emotions, you’re probably in the grips of the fight, flight, or freeze stress response. Start switching your brain activation by taking some slow, deep breaths, making your exhale longer than your inhale. While doing this really focus on the sensations of your breath and gently let go of any thoughts. As we teach in Positive Intelligence, this is a type of self-command exercise, of which there are many. Do these exercises until you’re a bit calmer.

TIP: Something I find helpful is to use a stopwatch or a timer so I can relax without fear of taking too much time.

TIP: Experiment with doing this for 10 minutes two to three times a day to keep stress from arising and to keep a broader perspective.

Second, try to see what’s motivating these emotions and what is needed.

Emotions can be an early warning sign that something needs to be addressed. I heard a quote recently that I love: Just because we’re afraid, it doesn’t mean we’re in danger. When we maintain open curiosity about where emotions are coming from, it becomes easier to be objective and see what’s really going on instead of being driven by fear.

Third, play with different ways of addressing the concerns.

Maybe there’s a relationship that you’re frustrated about or feel defensive in, and you need to have a conversation or allow yourself to be a bit more vulnerable. Maybe you have too much on your plate, and you need to prioritize what’s most important. Maybe you’re approaching something so new you need to do some research or just jump in and see what there is to learn.

Fourth, think about how the action(s) you think you should take will help you achieve your broader goals.

How can these help you grow as a person, and leader and how would that help you? How does it put you more in alignment with your values or the organizational values and goals? Use this to guide your decision making and bolster your courage and motivation to step outside your comfort zone.

Fifth, get into action.

You’re good at this. Use this strength now to do the harder thing. Do what will help you go grow and stretch. If you find yourself feeling a bit stuck, do a few more self-command exercises, recall the big picture, and go for it.


TIP: If you’re still feeling stuck, set a timer for 10 or 15 minutes and commit to taking your chosen action until the timer goes off. After it goes off, you can stop, set the timer again, or use the momentum to keep going!

If you’re really committed to acting from strength instead of fear, and you want some help with this, let’s talk. I’ve helped many highly capable individuals make this transformation. The confidence, courage, and joy they experience sets them soaring forward in so many areas of their life.

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