Reprogramming Your Inner Perfectionist
A few weeks ago, I read an article in the NY Times titled: Tough on Others, Tougher on Himself: The Perfectionist Behind the Milos Restaurants. As I read the story of the Greek immigrant who built Milos restaurant into a successful global brand I started to feel stressed. The more I read the more tense I became. The story of this restaurateur’s growing success was tempered with stories of fear, pressure, worry, doubt and of great anxiety. There were no stories of popping champagne to celebrate a new location, of warm meetings with regular guests, of pride and joy in operating and founding a highly regarded brand. Instead the story that was told was about the owner’s unyielding perfectionism:
“His obsession with perfection is wide-ranging and merciless. It encompasses all that he sees, tastes or possesses.”
This persistent quality impacts all who surround him, even his son, the wine director for the company, and his longstanding fish purveyor find him difficult to please. His son is quoted as saying “it’s not easy to work for him.”
I work with clients who live at all levels on the perfectionist scale. From owners obsessed with the minutiae of their operation, to managers who are relentless with their team and to chefs who refuse hear or accept feedback. But perfection isn’t an external existence, it is internal. It is a bar that will never be reached, it is a satisfaction that will never be achieved, it is a goal that is forever out of reach. So how does one become less of a perfectionist?
As someone on the perfectionist scale myself I have spent a lot of time trying to discover the common tendencies of perfectionism and how to confront and change these pervasive habits and behaviors. As I wrote in another blog post (Addition not Subtraction: Give Yourself Options for Making Change) it’s really hard to stop something. I always tell my clients that they might want to stop being so strict or stop being so hard on themselves but stopping a habit is really hard. Changing your wiring is a long process. What I recommend instead is adding new actions, not eliminating old habits.
When one is falling into the pitfalls of perfectionism I ask them to do a few things:
Give yourself credit for your actions: Perfectionists often operate from a position of scarcity; they feel compelled to do more to be the best even though it feels like they never achieve success. So acknowledging your actions visually helps you see how they add up. It might sound trivial but give yourself credit for the things you do. Give yourself a gold star, put a penny in a jar, create a log or journal of your actions that are on your own behalf. Noting your efforts will demonstrate progress and progress is inspiring. When you can look back and see how far you have come you will be able to see how you have actively achieved a goal over time.
Acknowledge yourself: Many perfectionists have an unyielding inner voice that pushes them to be better and do more. But if you can’t truly acknowledge yourself and your actions you won’t hear it or see it when you reach goals and achieve success. Self acknowledgement is a muscle so start to note when you make a difference, do something with integrity or make something better for another person. This exercise helps you focus on what you really value and helps you build a new muscle that can calm the relenting inner voice.
Note outside acknowledgment: Perfectionists look for acknowledgement from the outside world but are quick to dismiss praise because they feel that they could have done more or made better choices. But outside praise or acknowledgement is real and is meaningful to the person who shared it. So write down when people acknowledge your efforts and you will start to see more clearly that your actions make a difference.
Feel the love: Gratitude is an incredible tool. It has been scientifically proven to help us improve our moods, health and connection to others. So when someone acknowledges you, share how that makes you feel. Give thanks for their words and be sure to fully accept the compliment. Don’t brush it off with a negative reply (it was no big deal) or with a returned compliment (oh you’re always so good at presenting yourself). There is support all around you, all you have to do is catch some of it to make a difference.
For me, the pursuit of perfectionism is completely draining. And that’s what I felt when I read the story of this successful restaurateur: drained; not uplifted or inspired. So think about how your efforts are impacting others. I always preach: leadership is in public. Are you inspiring or are you draining to those around you? And, more importantly, do you feel inspired or drained by your own drive? Start adding some of the behaviors above and see if you can cultivate some new habits that build you up rather than break you down. You can reprogram your outdated habits in order to gain more fulfillment, satisfaction and success in your work and in your life.
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