Are you a perfectionist or a high performer?

As the title suggests, being a perfectionist and having a high performance orientation are two very different things.

Perfectionistic people are driven by an often relentless internalised pressure to achieve extremely high performance standards, no matter the situation and context. Perfectionism is based on a rigid and fear-based approach to tasks and responsibilities in personal and professional life, which leaves little room for experimentation or flexibility. Any outcome short of exceeding targets and expectations is likely to be interpreted as failure, and validation of self-worth are conflated with academic or professional achievements, results and appearance.

This is an extremely draining and inherently self-defeating behavioural style as the pursuit of perfection is doomed to fail: it’s like chasing a phantom. “Perfect” is an absolute concept which only exists as an ideal but unattainable abstraction, never in real life. It is an impossible goal that we can strive for, but which we will never been able to hold on to for more than a fleeting moment.

Trying to live up to such unrelenting standards can leave you deeply exhausted, chronically stressed, depressed and never feeling good enough. It is also linked to anxiety and impostor syndrome. Not only can perfectionism rob you of your life satisfaction, self-esteem as well as your mental and emotional wellbeing, it also actively undermines your resilience, stifles personal growth, and impacts negatively on your overall performance levels: perfectionists are likely to turn down opportunities and are prone to delay and procrastination in order to avoid risk of failure or making mistakes.

Being a healthy striver with a high performance orientation, on the other hand, focuses on constant improvement, self-development and expanding one’s skills and knowledge. This is encapsulated in the concept of a growth mindset which interprets mistakes as crucial learning opportunities on the journey to outstanding achievement, not something to be ashamed of or hide from others.

If you have a perfectionistic streak in yourself, you are not alone: a 2018 survey by health technology company Medibio suggests that 33% of women in Australian corporate workplaces had high perfectionism scores, compared to 21% of men. What can you do to overcome these unhelpful tendencies? The below strategies can assist you to increase both your wellbeing and performance levels:

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  • Audit your behaviour. Double-checking your work is a good idea, maybe even triple-checking if the stakes are high. But are you checking and re-checking your email and documents multiple, dozens of times even? Do you ruminate endlessly over past mistakes or any less-than-perfect feedback you have received from others? Could you easily point out and describe in detail your three (or five or ten) biggest weaknesses, but struggle to name your top three strengths? If your main motivation at work or in your personal life revolves around avoiding mistakes and looking flawless in the eyes of others, this is a red flag – but something you can work on and change over time.
  • Interrupt your inner voice. Many of us live with a hyper-critical inner voice that constantly raises doubts about the quality of our work, other people’s perception of us, and our qualifications as a partner, parent, friend or colleague. It constantly points the finger at our real or perceived shortcomings, mistakes and weaknesses, and rarely finds reasons to be proud and satisfied with who we are. If you want to change your overly negative and harsh self-talk into something more empowering, compassionate and coach-like, the first step is to notice what is going on – then interrupt it. Once you become aware of the pattern, talk back to the inner critic and challenge its disapproving messages. This may feel weird at first, but can help you to quieten down its destructive narration and replace it with more positive messages, such as “I am doing a good job and this has to be enough for now”, or “everyone makes mistakes sometimes, but that doesn’t mean that I lose control of my life”.
  • Learn to prioritise. Perfectionists believe that every task is equally important, and that everything needs the same, extremely high level of attention and effort. An inability to prioritise, however, can quickly lead to exhaustion, frustration and missed opportunities. It may be helpful to think about the things that need your attention along two dimensions: are your actions reversible, and will they have important consequences?  If a decision or task outcome is reversible or only has minor consequences, either delegate or reduce the time and energy you spend on them – so that you will be able to dedicate your limited time and valuable mental resources to decisions and tasks that are irreversible and have far-reaching consequences.
  • Enjoy the process. If you are a perfectionist, your focus is probably glued to the outcome of every project and endeavour you embark on. Try to shift your attention away from the end point and on to the whole journey instead. While this is likely to feel difficult and unfamiliar in the beginning, you can train your mind to pay more attention to the experiences on the way, not just the final result. As you are working on a new task or project, what are you enjoying most about it? What skills or insights are you are developing? Does the work enable you to collaborate with others? Are there any surprise discoveries along the way? Journaling about what you are learning and discovering can further help you to become more mindful of the process, and to appreciate the experiences you are making along the way. This can help you to broaden your definition of success and achievement.
  • Try a bit of exposure therapy. Exposing yourself to the source of excessive fear in small and controlled doses is a tried and tested technique that can help people overcome their phobias. In a way, perfectionism is a bit like a phobia about making mistakes, or being criticised by others. Yes, it will likely be uncomfortable and challenging to start with, but notice what happens and how other people respond when you relax your standards a bit (most likely, nothing will happen, and other people probably won’t even notice as they are distracted by their own lives!). Remember that you will need to practise your chosen exposure several times before you start to feel more relaxed about it. Don’t give up if your inner tension doesn’t ease up straight away – this is to be expected and normal. Some ideas you may want to try include:
    • Send an email to someone without re-checking the text more than once.
    • Tell your colleagues that you are tired and need a break (or other feelings that you consider a weakness).
    • Admit that you don’t know the answer to something.
    • Leave a visible area in the house a little messy.
    • Talk at a meeting without first mentally rehearsing what you are going to say.
    • Try a new cafe or restaurant without checking its online reviews first.

For further information and tips, see Factsheet 3: Guide for legal practitioners – Managing perfectionism here (scroll down the section called “Factsheets and videos”).

If you would like to learn more, don’t hesitate to reach out to the QLS Solicitor Support service on ethics@qls.com.au or p. 3842 5843 to speak to someone in a judgement-free and supportive environment.

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