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How to break free from perfectionism

Ease impossible standards and still find success.
By Samiha Khanna

The profession of accounting lends itself to perfectionism.

Kelly Sics, CPA, CGMA, a sole proprietor based in Milwaukee, Wis., explains why: “A balance sheet has to balance — perfectly — or it is not correct,” she noted. “A financial report must be free from error and should be uniform in appearance; a perfectionist will ensure this. Many business decisions come down to the numbers. An error could have negative results for an organization.”

Most perfectionists have a lifetime of achievements on paper, said career consultant Alina Tubman.

“They are motivated by the quality of their work and can be held accountable for their work product,” she said. “This is a positive trait and can help you excel in school and propel your career forward.”

But perfectionism has its downside, as Jessica Cormier, CPA/CFF, can attest. Cormier, whose high school nickname was “Jessica Braud (pronounced bro) with the 4.0,” was cheer captain, participated in a half-dozen clubs, and graduated fifth in her class, she said. And one afternoon in her early 20s, her goal was to nail the sport of snowboarding.

“I was catching on very quickly and teasing my husband that I was better than him,” said Cormier, a fraud, forensic, and litigation manager at Horne LLP in Baton Rouge, La. But after several tumbles, Cormier was covered in ice and not amused. She ditched her friends and walked down the entire mountain alone, she said.

Cormier realized she was afraid to take on new challenges unless she could execute them perfectly. She has since taken on new adventures, but accepts that her marathon time and golf swing don’t have to be the best in the game.

Perfectionism can be even more of a hurdle at work than it is on the slopes. It can undermine your confidence, cause you to spend much more time than necessary on tasks, and prevent you from taking appropriate risks for fear of failure. When taken too far, perfectionism can even lead to anxiety, depression, and burnout, according to psychologists.

“These days, many people say they are perfectionists, and some even wear it as a badge of honor,” said Katie Bennett, a certified career coach and co-founder of career, life, and leadership coaching company Ama La Vida

“However,” she said, “it is important to remember that there is a big difference between someone who pursues excellence and a true perfectionist. The former is a healthy and rewarding trait, and the latter can be extremely toxic, hindering not only one’s mental state, but also their personal and professional relationships. The trait of perfectionism will push one to do more, and try harder and harder, but will never reward one with a feeling of satisfaction or accomplishment.”

Bennett offered the following advice for curbing perfectionistic tendencies:

  • Determine whether your perfectionism is an issue. Ask yourself these questions: Do I have trouble meeting my own standards? Do I often feel my work isn’t good enough? Am I rarely content or satisfied, even when I seemingly achieve my goals?
  • Practice self-compassion. True perfectionists lack self-compassion, Bennett said. “Understand you are human, and humans sometimes make mistakes,” she said. Consider how you’d respond to a close friend in the same situation, and speak to yourself with the same kindness, shutting out any self-critical thoughts.
  • Become a “satisficer.” Perfectionists are “maximizers,” meaning that even when their standards are met, they’ll keep looking for something better, Bennett explained. “Satisficers,” on the other hand, will stop looking as soon as they find choices that meet their needs. They tend to be happier than maximizers, as they experience less anxiety around making decisions.
  • Aim for 90%. Another way of easing impossible standards is to work only to 90% of your ideal goal, then stop. “This may be hard at first, but luckily, perfectionists also tend to have discipline,” Bennett said. As she pointed out, a perfectionist’s idea of 90% is an average person’s idea of 160%. Sparing that last 10% may help perfectionists see that they can be successful while not meeting 100% of their exceedingly high standards.

Cormier also revealed one of her personal strategies: Channel a Disney princess.

“My advice is to be like Elsa and ‘let it go,’ which is going to take intentional effort, but you have to start realizing that mistakes are part of the growth process,” Cormier said. “You will make a mistake. You will live. You will learn from it, and you will be better off because of it.”

Samiha Khanna is a freelance writer based in Durham, N.C. To comment on this article, email senior editor Courtney Vien.

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