This week, I wanted to talk to you about perfectionism and how it can impact the way we work. And what better way to discuss it than to call a coach who specializes in this area.
I invited Gaëlle Massé to join me for an interview on the subject. We talk about what perfectionism is, how this trait can impact our performance and our daily lives, but also the keys to getting out of it.
Welcome Gaëlle, can you introduce yourself?
I am Gaëlle Massé, certified coach, after having been a manager for 15 years. Since May 2021, I have been accompanying perfectionists, so that they can develop the skills of letting go. The idea is to help them understand why they do things, why they are perfectionists, to set limits and revise their level of requirement a little, to enable them to achieve their goals, in a more serene way.
I created a podcast last year (2021). It’s called Generation Perfectionnistes (in French) and it’s also the name of my website generationperfectionnistes.com.
Through this podcast, I wanted to share keys around perfectionism and in particular to explain what happens in our brain when perfectionism is present.
I want to help people avoid the tricks their brain plays on them that affect their behavior.
The idea is also to share my experience as a perfectionist in remission (I admit it!). On my way, I found many tools to allow me to move forward in a lighter way in life. My intention is therefore to share these tools.
On this blog, I talk about working methods, time management and motivation and I’ve wanted to talk about perfectionism for a while, so thank you for accepting this invitation.
Before talking about these tools in a more concrete way, can you explain to us what we mean by perfectionism? Where is that from ?
Perfectionism is an excessive pursuit of perfection. There are really two important words in this definition, it is excess and perfection.
In fact, perfectionism, for me, is a response to this idea that we don’t do enough.
When you are a perfectionist, you will be driven by fears. The main fear being of not being validated, of not being accepted by others. This is what will push us to do things excessively, to be at the top, in what we create.
And another notion that is important is that perfectionists are attached to this idea that their value depends on what they produce, on their actions.
I think we are all a little bit of a perfectionist, to a greater or lesser extent, and this can also be found in different areas: in our relationship to work, in our role as parents, in our social life too, in our way of to be with others, in our relationship to the body.
When you’re a student too, you come across a lot of perfectionist students.
Afterwards, we are not necessarily a perfectionist in everything. You can be so at one point in your life more than another, or in one area more than another.
For me, it comes from two things.
I think there may be this social pressure, today, which is still quite strong, this race for injunctions, to always do well, to always do more. This race is fueled today by everything that social networks send back to us, we compare ourselves a lot, everything seems perfect with others… So we feed this idea that we are not doing enough.
And then the second source could be education. If we grew up in a context where parents put a lot of pressure on the result rather than the effort, we will always be in this quest for 20 out of 20.
When you’re a bit stuck in this trend, how can that be an obstacle to performance?
This state of mind, which I call “the state of mind of not enough“, will result in several behaviors, which will take us quite far.
For me, there are 5 obstacles:
- The first obstacle is that we have such high standards that we will often do too much. We’re going to be a lot in action (not always effective action, by the way). We’re going to spend a lot of time doing things, we’re going to over-produce. And that’s exhausting.
- The second obstacle is the rigidity of the perfectionist* state of mind. This state of mind will feed a need to control things (we even speak of hyper control). We’re going to fall in love with detail, we’re going to find it hard to delegate, hard to appreciate the journey. And the flip side of that is that we’re often going to feel overwhelmed by everything we have to do and that’s going to feed a lot of anxiety.
- The third obstacle is self-criticism* which is very present when you are in this race of always more. We feel that we are not doing enough, the level of requirement is super high, so we are always ruminating, looking for solutions to always do better. We become our worst judge when we feel that we are not doing enough.
- The fourth obstacle will be in the relationship to others. I often say that perfectionists are contortionists in the way they relate to others. That is to say that they are so afraid of being judged, that they will want to compensate, change their way of being and often do people pleasing. People pleasing is the idea of not disappointing, for fear of the judgment of others. We are not going to know how to say no to the other, we do not dare. We want to please each other. For example, in a situation at work, where our manager asks us to do an action that we feel we don’t have enough time to do. As one wants to be seen well, not to be judged, etc. we will not dare to express ourselves or set conditions. We will say “yes” and put pressure on ourselves. People pleasing can also be found in social life. It may be not daring to say no to an invitation from our girlfriend on Saturday evening, when we are tired and would like to rest.
- The final obstacle brought about by perfectionism is procrastination.
We have a lot of relation to each other in perfectionism, I have the impression?
Yes absolutely, we are driven by fears when we are a perfectionist, we are afraid of being looked at by the other, afraid of being judged.
In fact, we are afraid of not being accepted by the group. And since we want to be accepted, we will put in place a lot of strategies. Perfectionism is like a strategy.
Can this be considered a defense mechanism?
Yes, and that, we understand when we dig into the subject and we have already advanced in this course.
The fifth obstacle you mention is procrastination and we talk about it from time to time on this blog, can you tell us more?
When we procrastinate, we will slow down the launch of the things we need to start. We’re going to spend a lot of time conceptualizing the thing. We will want to wait until it is perfect, before launching the project.
It even goes beyond procrastination since there are also people who remain in immobility.
We can be in intense productivity, constantly busy, and at the same time, we can be so afraid of exposing ourselves when we move on to a new project, that we are not going to do things.
If I can summarize, perfectionism costs us:
- energy, because it’s exhausting to impose that all the time,
- time because we spend a lot of time, to be in this quest.
And it also robs us of authenticity.
*If I understand correctly, a perfectionist seeks to please the other, so will start doing things according to others, rather than according to what she or he thinks or who she or he is. *
Is it possible to turn perfectionism to our advantage? Can it become a motor in some way, and if so how?
Already, the idea is not to stick the label of the perfectionist by saying “I have a problem, it’s my big fault etc.”
There are the reasons why we do all this, which I explained above, and above all, there is obviously nothing wrong with wanting to do things very well. It’s very positive to want to be good at what you do, and I think that can really be a driving force.
But I’m not sure that perfectionism in itself is a driving force.
I would rather say that what is needed is to focus on this desire to do things well, to perform at a high level, but in a measured way, with positive energy.
That’s the difference between perfectionism or not: it’s when you are in a positive energy to do things, that you don’t suffer them.
I like to use the term optimalism (it’s Tal Ben-Shahar, an American author, who has written several books on the subject and who talks about optimalism as a driving force). Optimalism will allow us to position the cursor at a much more acceptable level, in this race to do well.
Is this what we call “good enough” in English (which can be translated as “sufficient”)?
Yes, I also call it the 15/20 method, we are not going to constantly seek 20/20 with the congratulations of the jury, we are going to look for very good work, a result where we are going to appreciate the path, where we are going to have a healthy relationship with things.
We are not going to spend 6 hours working on a presentation that should have taken us 1h30. Therein lies the difference.
What do we have to go through? By letting go of the detail or the too good? How do you manage to gauge that, for yourself?
That’s quite right. We go through a letting go of detail.
What I find interesting is to look at the time we spend doing things and say to ourselves, for example: for an article to be written, I choose to spend 1 hour there. I decide that after an hour, it’s over, and I allow myself to read it again maybe twice but not ten times.
It’s really imposing this way of doing things which may seem imperfect – in our perfectionist brain – because obviously our brain will be in terrible resistance, when we want to set these limits.
There is also this ability to manage this resistance, to say to oneself “OK, I am resisting. It’s normal, but it’s OK, I’m in the process of wanting to change things”.
I will give another example: perfectionism can also be in our house, in our way of doing housework every day. When you can’t stand the mess, letting go can be there too. We’re going to say to ourselves “it doesn’t matter if the laundry basket overflows”, “it doesn’t matter if I don’t vacuum the kitchen floor every day, I accept that”.
Depending on the person, we will work on different points and we will review a little where to position this cursor.
Where is the interest of coaching to manage all this part of letting go, of managing emotions? I imagine that there are a lot of negative emotions that have to happen, when a perfectionist has to say to himself: “Oh no, finally, I only do two proofreadings. I leave the crumbs on the table, it doesn’t matter, I’ll clean up later”…
Yes, indeed, coaching helps a lot in that. In fact, for me, there is the awareness, which is quite easy to have by reading books on the subject or even by listening to my podcast. But putting it into action is not easy to do on your own.
Depending on where the people I accompany are, I hold their hand, to help them and normalize things. There is a lot of work to accept our imperfections.
When you work on perfectionism, there is a kind of mourning that not everything you do will be perfect. It’s really a lot of work on self-esteem, relearning to value yourself, to love yourself as you are, as an imperfect human.
Because, anyway, perfection as a human being does not exist.
Yes, perfection is something very subjective after all. Something that will be perfect for someone may not be perfect for someone else.
Completely. Perfection is an illusion, a mental construction that our brain creates, in relation to what we have experienced, to our education, to the environment in which we evolve.
The notion of perfection is not going to be at all the same from one person to another. I often say that it is a futile race, to run after perfectionism, since we are not even all running after the same thing.
Society returns certain images to us, which are an illusion behind the screen, behind the retouched photos… and we all remain fallible, vulnerable humans.
That’s really where I try to reconnect people.
Beyond this awareness, I like to give very concrete tools to my readers. Do you have any advice to give like that, to someone who would like to start getting out of perfectionism.
The first thing is a question that I like to ask when people realize that they are in a perfectionist behavior. Whether they spend a lot of time doing things, or on the contrary, they procrastinate.
This question is “why am I doing this?”.
Often perfectionists are driven by this thought that we HAVE to do things, we HAVE to do things. We are going to question this injunction and try to answer it, even in writing: “why am I doing this in fact?”
This allows us to find our patterns:
- are we afraid to fail?
- are we doing this to respond to what our parents wanted from us?…
The second key will be to work on the quality of the relationship with oneself.
It’s interesting to become aware of what story we tell ourselves, when we are in these phases of acute perfectionism. Ask yourself what you’re talking about. Do we say to ourselves: “You will never make it”. “Look, we have to do even more”, “You really suck”.
We can have even harsher words than that towards ourselves. And it also means asking yourself the question: would you talk like that to your best friend, your sister, your colleague, who would find themselves in this somewhat difficult situation?*
We want to understand what we tell ourselves as a story, to try to speak to each other more kindly and to nurture, little by little, more compassion, and to accept all parts of ourselves.
The third key, in the face of objectives, is to act.
To take action because when you’re a perfectionist, you spend so much time conceptualizing things in your head that you’re going to spend hours doing it, when you just have to do it.
Say to yourself: “Here, I decide, I’m going”. Cut the tasks one after the other, according to priorities, if there are many things to do around an action.
To act, even if it is imperfectly. Accept making mistakes, making mistakes, but at least moving forward, because there’s nothing worse than standing still, because you’re scared of what others will think
So it’s going to get this action, this movement and progress?
Exactly, that’s really it, it’s work on progression.
Thank you very much Gaëlle for this very rich exchange on perfectionism. It is a state of mind that can manifest itself in all aspects of life, and also – and we have talked about it – in the way we work. As you have read, being a perfectionist can really prevent us from moving forward optimally. Fortunately, you now have some keys to take a step back.
Thank you Gaelle!