When it comes to our professional lives, we all want to be taken seriously and be viewed as competent, efficient, and valuable to our team, colleagues, or company. This is a basic, universal human need.
But problems arise when you begin attaching our self-worth to your levels of competency and productivity. Sometimes it takes years before this is clear to you and those around you.
For me? It took about 26 years and almost 3 degrees.
My self-worth was based on the quality of what I created, a strong work ethic, and “big” career goals. Specifically, these goals involved climbing the ladder of academic achievement by getting a Master’s degree and then pursuing a Ph.D. in psychology.
There were plenty of respectable motivations for doing this; I wanted to teach at a university, mentor college students, and inform people through research. But for all the honorable motivations, there were plenty of inadequate ones to which I was consciously unaware.
I wanted to be viewed as highly intelligent and important, to be commended and rewarded for the quality of my work, and to feel that rush of pride when I told people what I did for a living. Mostly, I was afraid ofinadequacy and incompetence.
It was only after I left the doctoral program that I began to see how much these hidden, misguided motives were driving me. In fact, they drive many of us more than we know.
Perfectionism shows up differently for different people. Perfectionists are often mistaken for just high-achievers, but there are critical distinctions.
First, it leads to all-or-nothing thinking in which phrases like “never good enough” or “always procrastinating” are constantly echoing as self-criticisms in your head.
Perfectionists tend to be driven primarily by fear. Rather than a desire to achieve, you operate from a place of fear of failure. This fear is what propels you to achieve and obtain more and often leads to burn-out.
Perfectionism pushes you toward certain ambitions so that you can maintain a sense of worthiness. It leads you to believe you need more education or more expertise before you are credible enough.
As humans, we like to attach our identity to things we believe we can control. There is nothing fear loves more than convincing you that control is the key to life satisfaction. The irony is, of course, that we can never control outcomes.
There is wisdom in former NBA star Michael Jordan’s question, “Why would I think about missing a shot I haven’t taken yet?” In other words, what is the point of worrying about failing at something you haven’t even tried yet?
But when you succumb to fear-based perfectionism, you stop paying attention to how you feel, what you want, and what makes you happy. When self-image takes precedence over creativity and joy, you allow perfectionism to triumph.
“You can’t stop here,” anxiety whispers.
“You must achieve more,” perfectionism adds.
And before you know it, some of your dreams no longer belong to you.
Another danger of perfectionism its sneaky, covert nature. It evolves into almost indiscernible forms; it is merely a form of anxiety dressed in fancy clothes, clipboard in hand, reprimanding you for not trying hard enough or producing enough.
Perfectionism disguises itself in big ambitions and pretends to be the superpower not the villain, like an unhealthy, codependent relationship with an addict whose drug of choice is constant approval.
It also tricks you into believing it’s valued in society. Unfortunately, in many ways, it is valued. At least on the surface. But the value of what you produce can be at the cost of your well-being, mental health, and relationships. In fact, research suggests that those higher in perfectionistic tendencies experience more anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation.
Some of the harmful beliefs we acquire over time are “I am worthy of respect only if I am smart” and “I am worthy of being taken seriously only if I consistently work hard”. These are dangerous lessons. They are lessons I am still unlearning.
I’m sure you have a laundry list of reasons why you worry about failing or not meeting expectations (even the ones you set for yourself). I do too, most days.
But trust me when I say from experience: only in releasing the illusion of control do we find the freedom to be the most authentic version of ourselves.
You might be too busy asking “how do I want to be seen?” to stop and consider “how am I already best equipped to serve people?” It wasn’t until I withdrew from the Ph.D. program that I began to acknowledge the credentials and experience I already had.
When you are too focused on all the things you think you “should” do or “should” become, you miss out on finding what truly fulfills you.
Instead of frantically searching for purpose, what if you can find purpose in where you currently are? What skills do you already possess that you’re passionate about? What are you already qualified for? What would you do with your life if you believed that who you are right now is already enough?
Believing you are worthy without all the extra stuff like degrees, awards, resume lines, or job titles is the only way to move forward. This is a radical idea in our culture but, more importantly, it is our antidote to perfectionism.