Do you have a perfectionist gremlin standing in the way of your progress?
Picture a girl picking up that dreaded brown envelope on GCSE results day. She’s nervous – even more nervous remembering remarks made by those who know her: “what are you worrying about? You always get amazing grades.” Her friends and family shuffle beside her as she slowly starts to tear it open, but the fear of what’s on the paper prompts her to run to the nearby loo and lock herself away. She opens the envelope and reads:
Not Perfect. She’s hugely disappointed. How crazy is that!
The girl in the story is me: I, like many others, grew up with a substantial perfectionist attitude. Now, having realised how perfectionism can hold me back from progress (and general happiness), I’d like to share my thoughts on what perfectionism is, its relation with gender and how to avoid it getting in your way, especially when it comes to a career in STEM.
What is perfectionism and why can it be a self-blocker?
The ‘perfectionism’ I’m talking about is a personality trait. It’s typically described as striving for flawlessness, setting high expectations and generally being excessively self-critical.
Of course, this can be a good thing. When we have high standards for our performance, we reflect on what we could have done better, learn and push ourselves to achieve greater results.
But good perfectionism can turn bad.The pursuit of unachievable targets is exhausting and doesn’t help your mental health. The continued negative reinforcement of ‘not achieving the increasingly high bar you set yourself’ and a tendency to actively avoid failure is a lethal cocktail that paralyses. And that paralysis manifests itself in things like not voicing your opinion through fear of getting it wrong or not applying for a role because you don’t tick all the boxes.
Imperfection is also key to learning. When I started my career journey into agile tech development a few years ago, I learned that seeking to ‘fail fast’ is a core concept of agility, because in failure there’s learning. It was liberating and turned everything I knew on its head. In fact, leading agile organisations reward people who fail in tech developments. The crux of that (still quite zany) approach is that if you’re being perfect all the time, you’re never working on innovative things.
Is perfectionism gendered?
Perfectionism isn’t exclusive to one gender. However, it can be learned through parenting styles and societal gender differences. And while there are great strides being made in gender neutral cognitive development, we can’t get away from natural parenting styles that treat genders differently. There’s a general acceptance and appreciation of boys being ‘reckless’ and constantly taking on new challenges, while girls often have more pressure to be neat and tidy. Women may subconsciously feel their perfectionism is valued, and that men are valued for their risk-taking.
How can you shake off a perfection gremlin?
Having started my career in tech as a perfectionist, I know it’s possible to let go of those impossible standards, at least enough to be happier and do better at work. And for me, shaking off that perfection gremlin comes down to three secrets:
1. Adopt a growth mindset
Instil in yourself the belief that, even if you don’t get something now or have experienced a ‘fail’, you have all the potential to grow your abilities in the future. Frame it as an exciting opportunity for your development, and don’t forget the other things you are brilliant at. It’s important to reflect on those positives so you don’t lose sight of them.
2. Listen and talk to others to see yourself objectively
We can be pretty hard on ourselves, especially with a large perfectionist gremlin on our backs. To avoid that irrational thinking, talk to others about your performance and seek feedback regularly. The more you hear from others, the more balanced perspective you’ll gain, and you’ll likely get evidence of your strengths.
3. Normalise failure
This was by far the big one for me. Accept failure as a necessary aspect of progression, and don’t sweat it after it happens. Doing this means replacing negative associations with positive ones. So, consider reflecting on each failure and writing down what you’ve learned to show yourself the huge positive that comes from failure. Maybe you can even be like those leading agile companies and reward yourself for the failure – financial, food or otherwise!
Your perfection gremlin may have helped you in the past, and could do again, but being conscious of their existence and knowing when to put them to one side is powerful. And, of course, no woman or man is an island, so use your communities and peers if you think you’re struggling with your gremlin. Practice makes progress.