Often when I speak with a client who has worked to exhaustion and arrived at burnout, we find a specific kind of inner critic at the root of the problem – the perfectionist.
While the liabilities of perfectionism as well as its constructive potential are well-researched, and I’ve written about them before, this roadblock comes up so frequently that it seems imperative to develop a viable alternative.
According to Richard Schwartz, founder of the Internal Family Systems method focused on dealing with inner critics, the perfectionist is a part of our self that seeks to protect us from judgment by imposing extremely high standards.
For example, if my presentation is perfect, then no one can call me lazy or incompetent, says the perfectionist. If my presentation falls even slightly below perfect, then humiliation, loss of reputation and respect will ensue … maybe even causing a downward spiral leading to the loss of my position. No wonder perfectionism causes stress!
One reason it is very difficult to overcome this type of inner critic is that it often lays claim to a stellar track record of academic and professional success. ‘Hey,’ says the perfectionist within, ‘I got you stellar scores on your annual review and I got you straight A’s all through grad school, and I helped you earn a reputation for excellence that led to your recent promotion. Are you sure you want to get rid of me?’
Of course the rational response to that is ‘Heck no, please stick around!’
Asking a high performer with a longstanding and successful inner perfectionist to get rid of this voice is like asking an olympic swimmer to get rid of their favorite stroke. As a coach I can say that does not look like a promising strategy.
So how can we keep the winning attributes of perfectionism – having high standards – while leaving behind the elements that lead to exhaustion and burnout?
In my experience there are two key elements of perfectionism that lead to exhaustion and burnout:
- Mean-spirited self-talk, disappointment and guilt when failing to reach an extreme and vague image of success
- Inability to rest or stop working because the unattainable goal remains out of reach
Both of these elements turn the admirable art of seeking high standards into a negative emotional experience. From this perspective, even when I do get a great performance review, I am not able to celebrate or feel content because I am focused on how I could have done even better, or I am already focused on the next unattainable goal.
Have you ever gotten a great performance review and then found yourself feeling down and thinking, ‘But when will I ever get the promotion?’ It’s a vicious cycle and a sad place to be.
An effective way I have found to overcome the perfectionist disappointment cycle is to help clients set specific and attainable goals and develop an inner champion voice that cheers them on and helps them to celebrate success.
With this excellence approach, the probability of success is even higher because efforts are focused and positive emotion begins to overshadow disappointment and guilt. Going back to the swimmer analogy, this is like saying, ‘Keep doing your winning stroke, but lower your elbow so you aren’t tearing up your shoulder while you do it.’
3 steps to seeking excellence include:
- Is the desired outcome specific?
- Is the desired outcome attainable?
- Is self-talk positive and constructive?
One final element of the perfectionist that we want to salvage is the practice of dreaming up lofty and grandiose goals, like ‘become a CEO’ or ‘write a bestseller.’ We want to salvage the beauty and inspiration of grandiose vision, but avoid judging ourselves against it in an unfair way.
The excellentist knows that the path to greatness is made up of many small successes and many small celebrations and s/he masters the art of letting herself win many times along the way.
As Hans Selye, the scientist who coined the term ‘stress’ in 1936, wrote: “We should strive for excellence, for the best that we can do. Not for perfection – for that is almost always unattainable – and setting it as an aim can only lead to the distress of frustration” (Hans Selye, Stress Without Distress, (1974), 109).