Hi, my name is Lerato and I am a recovering perfectionist. It’s been a few hours since my last dose of self-criticism and fear, disguised as high standards, and every minute is a victory.
In a world where young professionals are encouraged to be high performance individuals, expectations are high, criticism abounds and we are often our own worst critics. Research refers to it as ‘multi-dimensional perfectionism’, meaning that we have lofty standards as well as harsh internal and external criticism on multiple fronts. Millennial professionals the world over want to pursue their purpose, get promoted in record time, make partner by 30… all at the expense of our mental health and peace of mind.
Millennials are reported to have higher depression and anxiety rates than any generation before us; In our words, we’re going through “the most”. In exploring this difficult topic, I have two intentions: i) To help leadership in organisations better understand their young professionals and feel better equipped to engage and support them, ii) To share some of my own revelations, which are helping me thrive (and not just survive). I don’t purport to have the cure – cultivating and maintaining my mental health and wellness is a work in progress, but progress worth sharing I hope.
Perfectionism is the enemy of excellence
You may have been asking yourself why perfectionism is something I would need to recover from, and why I would draw from the language of addiction to express that. In my understanding, addiction is getting, and eventually needing, a ‘high’ from something that actually harms you. This is what perfectionism is for many young professionals. While we’ve been taught to believe that it’s somewhat obnoxious to list perfectionism as a weakness (especially in an interview), needing everything to be perfect often gets in the way of efficient, timeous performance and healthy self-perception.
The perfectionism I refer to here isn’t just about striving for excellence or having high personal standards – those are positive traits to be celebrated and encouraged. Instead, according to a study I recently came across, perfectionism is “a combination of excessively high standards and overly critical self-evaluations.” For the millennial generation, this extends beyond our performance in the workplace – we experience a multidimensional perfectionism that also includes how we believe others see us, and the standards we hold for others.
Sure, part of this self-criticism can be attributed to the fact that we feel the need to curate our life experiences, competitively comparing ourselves to our peers, particularly on social media. In the South African context, however, many millennial professionals carry the added responsibility of the social mobility of their families – siblings being able to get an education, parents living in more dignified homes, and sometimes even taking your family on a holiday for the first time.
All of this contributes to the irrationally high expectations we have of ourselves and the resultant increase in anxiety and depression. I interact with young professionals on a daily basis, and it’s clear that many of us are quietly wrestling this beast. What’s sad to see is the immense toll this takes on confidence, motivation and just plain happiness.
See, perfectionism isn’t just about believing things have to be perfect. Instead it’s the voice in your head that says; “If I don’t achieve the highest standard, I’m not good enough. I am not enough.” Brené Brown says we use perfectionism as a way to avoid or minimise shame, blame and judgement. As a result, many of us millennials are striving for a world that doesn’t actually exist, at the expense of our self-esteem.
The other head of this beast is that it’s counter-productive. Unrealistic standards (especially where your self-worth is on the line!) build pressure that makes it difficult to perform. So much pressure, sometimes, that it’s hard to even start; cue perfectionism’s plus-one: procrastination.
Procrastination isn’t laziness, it’s self-sabotage
Ever heard the saying, “Done is better than perfect”? Perfectionism goes hand in hand with procrastination; they are rooted in the same fear of inadequacy. Because you’ve built up this huge pressure in your mind for it to be perfect, you don’t start.
I know this cycle of self-sabotage very well – you want (it) to be perfect so much, you’re afraid to start. You leave it to the last minute and then cobble something together, telling yourself that you work better under pressure. But what you submit is just version one – you’re not even giving yourself a chance to achieve that standard. Ironic, isn’t it?
In his book “The Now Habit”, Neil Fiore describes it perfectly: “Procrastinators freeze in the face of fear and avoid work, assuming that the only way is the perfect way, that is, getting it right the first time. Anything else means total failure and, consequently, a great depreciation of self-worth.”
Antidotes to perfectionism and procrastination
So what is to be done about it and how can we rewire that mechanism in our minds? There are three big revelations that I’ve had which have been instrumental in my daily attempts to slay this beast. Firstly, my self-worth and my success are not the same thing. Secondly, failure is my friend. Lastly, I am not alone.
On self-worth: My revelation has been to (try continuously to) separate my identity and sense of worth from my work. I am not my talent, I have a talent. My inherent worth as a human being is not negotiable and cannot be subject to forces outside of my control (work, society etc.). In order for me to be creative, excellent and driven, I must operate from a place of worthiness. To be able to strive healthily for a high standard, I must believe that I am enough.
On failure: My revelation has been to try to lower the stakes, at least for the first attempt. It’s not going to be perfect at first, and that’s okay. What’s important is to start – start small, start silly, start stupid, but START. Once I start small, I can fail small and give myself an opportunity to improve, over and over again. Failing small might look like creating a rough outline of that report I need to write, with the disclaimer “draft” or “work-in-progress” emblazoned on it (thus lowering the stakes), and getting input early so my thinking can be refined.
On not being alone: Firstly, I’m sure that a lot of what I’ve described here applies to generations other than millennials – we all want to attain the highest expression of our talents. Just being able to tell your manager that you’re struggling to start because you want the work to be really good might just open up a coaching opportunity between you. For managers, just sharing your stories of fear and failure when you were in that life stage builds safety and eventually loyalty. Finally, it’s ok to share with our contemporaries that we’re going through “the most”. To paraphrase Marianne Williamson, when we allow ourselves to admit that we’re going through the most, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same.