When I was at the Washington University in St. Louis Olin Future Women in Business Weekend, I had the privilege to attend the Own It Summit. At the summit, I was able to see an array of talented female leaders speak on their experiences and expertise.
One of the presentations I attended was on perfectionism. If you’ve been following me for a while or know me at all, you’ll know that I’ve always tried to balance my perfectionism with my ambition to ensure that I produce quality work in a manageable and efficient way. (That was a long winded way to say I’m quite a perfectionist.)
One day, I was sitting with a mentor and I offhandedly mentioned something I was doing and justified it by saying “because I’m such a perfectionist” and she stopped me and said, “why do you choose that word?” It really made me think about the vocabulary I was using to describe myself. She told me, “I’m going to suggest a shift for you. Instead of saying ‘I’m a perfectionist’, try saying, ‘I’m impeccable’.” I sat for a few seconds, nodding, and saying the new word under my breath.
While my vernacular never did shift from “perfectionist” to “impeccable”, my mindset did.
There are pros and cons to perfectionism, and I don’t want you thinking that it is inherently a positive or negative thing. Being a perfectionist, by my definition, simply means that you are consistently seeking to create something that is continually better than it currently is.
If this is a part of your character, know that it is what you make it to be. Currently, it may be a more negative manifestation, causing you to delay starting or finishing work, giving you feelings of fear and discontent. It may also be a more positive manifestation, ensuring that you’re producing quality work and continually re-evaluating and achieving your goals.
Either way you’re interpreting your perfectionism, I encourage you to try a new shift: asset mindset.
I learned this concept from Associate Dean of Undergraduate Research at Washington University in Saint Louis, Joy Kiefer, during her Perfectionist talk at the OwnIt Summit, so the following concepts can be attributed to her and her research. Here are my major takeaways:
1. Perfectionism is driven my shame and fear
“When perfectionism is driving, shame is riding shotgun and fear is in the backseat”
Take a second to think about it: why do you really feel like that thing/yourself needs to be perfect? We seem to have this feeling that, “if I look/work/live perfect, I can avoid or minimize criticism/blame/ridicule.” Now, if you’re like me and you’re thinking, “nonono, I don’t care about what other people think,” you’re either lying to yourself, or you’re that person that you’re trying to avoid those things from. For me, it’s the latter. Of course I care if other people are thinking negatively toward me (it’s human), but my perfectionism really stems from the need to not have those things for myself. This goes directly to the point that Dean Kiefer made during the presentation, which I have to quote directly because it’s so perfectly worded:
“Perfectionism is your way of protecting yourself from your inner critic.”
So, how do you distance yourself from your inner critic so you can deal with this compulsion in a more intelligent way? That brings me to my second takeaway:
2. If you can name it you can tame it
Most of my readers have probably never heard of this concept of an “inner critic,” but it’s pretty self-explanatory. It’s that little voice in your head that tells you you’re not good enough, your paper isn’t good enough, your project won’t get a good grade, you’re going to fail the test, etc.
Now, you know about the concept that in order to change something you first need to identify the existing conditions, but have you ever considered doing that with your inner critic? We’ve talked a lot about mindfulness of thoughts, and this is just another way be mindful. Try actually naming your inner critic and noticing when they are coming into your thoughts in order to gain some distance from it.
Let’s take a step back and talk about why this relates to perfectionism. If you’re a “perfectionist,” I can guarantee that your inner critic is running rampant nearly 24/7. You have to tame that inner critic in order to make progress toward becoming an asset-based thinker.
3. We focus way too much on the bad stuff
As perfectionists driven by fear and shame with rampant inner critics, in order to propel ourselves forward to succeed, we tend to focus on the negative things, or the “deficits” in our lives.
Now before we go any further, I’m going to clarify something important in the words of Joy Kiefer again:
“This isn’t about the power of positivity. It’s about looking at things realistically and choosing how to frame it.”
In order to change for the better, we must look at both the positives and the negatives of the situation. I don’t believe we have any problems looking at the negative, so let’s focus on trying to notice the positives, or the “assets.”
To understand this, let’s go back to the age-old glass-half-full analogy.
“The question is not: is that glass half full or half empty? It’s: what do I have with me in the glass?”
Identifying strengths is just as important as identifying weaknesses, if not more so.
Let’s take a look at the differences between deficit-based thinking and asset-based thinking:
Take a moment to look at both lists. What do you tend to focus on more? Notice that the asset-based thinking isn’t just focusing on what’s going good – it’s focusing on potential. It’s not asking you to become complacent with yourself or your surroundings in any way, which I think is a common misconception with these “positive psychology” movements.
4. We need to start focusing on our assets – 5 times more, to be exact
According to the presentation, “asset-based thinkers spend five times more effort and energy on learning what their strengths are and what they have to leverage than they do on their shortcomings.”
That may seem like a lot right now, but I’m going to share an actionable way that you can start implementing asset-based thinking into your life right now:
The SOS Awareness Tool
In any project or situation, you will have three main factors that you can discover assets within. Right now, I want you to get a piece of paper and write down 3 assets in each of the three categories for A. something going well for you and B. something that’s not going well.
- Self/personal assets – your purpose, passion resilience, courage, integrity, skills, subject matter expertise, emotional intelligence, analytical and intuitive skills, confidence, commitment, etc.
- Others/relational assets – collaboration, connectivity, respect, creativity, innovation, commitment, empathy, trust, giving and receiving feedback, resolving conflict, listening advocacy, inspiration, etc.
- Situation/situational assets – challenges that could lead to breakthrough solutions, setbacks that will promote new standards for performance, mistakes that will offer new insights and learning, opportunities that provide innovation/mastery/advancement
I hope you’ve enjoyed this food for thought. It’s been nearly a month since the conference and this topic is still actively on my mind. Thank you to Washington University in St. Louis and Dean Kiefer for her fantastic presentation.
Let me know your thoughts and what comes of the SOS tool!