Brain Science – Episode #20

Navigating perfectionism

your shield against blame, judgement & shame

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High expectations for performance in both life and work are common, but what do you do when you get stuck and you’re not able to achieve the results you desire? In this episode, Mireille and Adam talk through the different aspects of perfectionism and ways in which is can be adaptive and helpful and other ways in which it poses additional challenges. What happens when we avoid the possibility of failure as opposed to simply having high standards for our performance? How can we begin to focus on healthy striving as opposed to reaching for perfection?


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I’m sure you’ve heard it said before, “to err is human”, and yet I think that while many of us have heard that statement, a lot of us also still prefer to not err, and dare I say, be perfect.

Even though I wouldn’t attest to saying, “Oh, I’m really striving to reach perfection,” there’s this little voice, and I think all of us hear it at different times in different ways, that says “If only you did, you coulda/woulda/shoulda done a little bit better, and then you could have gotten what you wanted.”

I totally agree with that. I mean, I think that there’s a part of us that is always attempting to reach a variation of perfect, and there’s obviously an ism to that perfectionism, and there’s sides of it. There’s healthy sides of perfectionism, which is striving towards greatness, which is a good thing, and then there’s this unhealthy side where you strive to the point where you never get there and your pursuit is only the perfection, and you miss out on the journey.

Yeah. I sometimes joke around everybody’s, to some degree, appropriately neurotic. We all have our habits or ways, and generally speaking, there’s a range of appropriately neurotic. Well, the same thing we could say that there’s, in terms of perfectionism, that there’s a way that it works better for everybody, and there’s a way in which it definitely doesn’t work to your advantage.

I’m sure we’ve talked about Brené Brown before, but if you haven’t heard of her, go check her out. Once upon a time, she worked for the University of Houston in their College of Social Work before she went on to do a ton of research around shame and vulnerability and connection. And so she actually distinguishes between perfectionism and healthy behavior, and she says, and I quote, “Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best. Perfection is not about healthy achievement and growth. Perfectionism is used by many people as a shield to protect against the pain of blame, judgment, or shame.”

[04:16] So really, perfectionism, as a construct, is this sense of being a gerbil on a wheel, like “Never enough, never enough, never enough”, because I always could do more. So Psychology Today, in one of their articles said “Perfection, of course, is an abstraction and an impossibility in reality, and striving for it can actually lead to procrastination, a tendency to avoid challenges, rigidity in thinking and overall lack of creativity.” That doesn’t sound like it works so well for much of anyone, does it?

No, I guess the lack of creativity will come when you put so much pressure on yourself that you feel like any direction you go or move is not in the perfect direction, and so you just don’t move, or your movements that you take aren’t as creative because you have limits and boundaries that are perceived, but not real.

Yeah, there’s so many ways that I can talk about creativity as a thing, but it really comes from who we are as people. So I really can’t think of a more vulnerable way in which we show up in the world than being creative, and that can be, goodness gracious, just about anything.

Yeah. I mean, you can be creative as a parent.

You could be creative as a husband or wife; you can be creative as a business partner; creative as an individual just putting yourself out to the world with no real feedback. There’s really no limit to how you can perceive creativity.

This is why vulnerability is so intertwined with it, because when I’m being creative, it’s like I’m exposed. So of course, if I can do it perfectly, what I’m trying to do is mitigate the fear around vulnerability. So in turn, that’s going to make me more aversive too, or I’m gonna not want to walk towards challenges. Because if I don’t know I’m gonna nail it, I’m not even gonna put myself out there.

Yeah, there’s a saying that says, “If something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right,” which is the exact opposite of “Done is better than perfect”, right?

Yeah. I mean, there’s so much value in just showing up, and when we look at it in particular fields or arenas, we do our best work, we are creative. We’re really our best selves when we practice the art of just showing up, and so if I’m always jockeying for perfection, ironically, my lens, the lens of my mind is focused on an outcome and not the effort in a direction. It’s as if I’m bracing myself for the hit before I ever know I’m gonna get hit.

Yeah, that reminds me of being paralyzed, bracing for a hit means you’re stuck in a place, in an emotion or no movement; you’re prepared for something that’s not actually coming. So you’re preparing for the wrong thing, really.

Yeah, and ironically– so with that, when you’re bracing yourself, you tend to constrain the way in which you think or see things. So your mental framework just got narrowed tremendously. So it’s like, I can’t then be creative. I have to stay within the confines of this box, so that I’m sure never to fall out of line. Except then I never get out of my box. I never do things that I don’t know are going to be perceived well or received in a favorable way. I will be more robotic.

[08:13] Yeah. What’s interesting is this idea that Brené brings up, which is this concept of a shield, that people use perfectionism or the pursuit of being perfect as the shield to protect against the three things that we don’t want often to happen when we seek connection, which is blame, judgment or shame. And that concept of a shield is like… Obviously, a shield does what - it’s a metaphor or it’s literal context is it shields you, it blocks something from getting you that you don’t want to get you, whatever it might be. It could be a sword, it could be blame, it could be judgment, it could be shame… But the point is that we will often unintentionally use the pursuit of perfectionism, being perfect, as a shield, and not know it, just in our everyday life. Sometimes it takes a wakeup call like, “Hey, just get that done; don’t seek perfectionism,” because you’re just trying to shield yourself from something that’s just – you should just put yourself out there. You know what I mean? Like, get out of that rigid framework.

Yeah, and so when we talk about this today as a construct, perfectionism is this means of running away from the possibility of shame, and we’ve talked about shame in earlier episodes, and what it does to our brain. But shame is really, as a construct, this sense of not being enough; feeling like there’s an inherent defect. So no amount of striving is actually going to create the outcome that I need in order to feel better… Hence why it’s so self-perpetuating. And now I’m stuck on this wheel of “Keep going” and “You’ve got to do more, you’ve got to do more”, and it’s out of a place of compensation. If I believe that there’s something wrong with me, I’m going to do everything in my power to prove that there is nothing wrong, and nobody can sustain that over a lifetime.

If it’s defensive, defenses are designed to protect and to help us buffer other things in life. Well, too much pressure on that one defense system - it’s gonna break, because all it takes is the right context situation or intersecting variables and like, “Oh, shoot! I couldn’t keep up.”

Well, what you have to really ask though is why are people so focused on this external approval?

Well, you just nailed it. That’s where it goes awry, is if and when my sense of self, my belief about who I am and what I can do is based on, dare I say, predominantly based on the feedback from other people. That’s when it doesn’t work well. Because it’s literally like somebody sees behind my mask that I’m then not acceptable or lovable, and that it’s any small failure that I then encounter is a major threat to being both discovered and then rejected.

Well, how do you combat that then? So it’s not advocating “Don’t seek perfectionism, don’t seek being perfect.” It’s the opposite of that, which is, “Where do you find your worth?” Maybe even beyond that, how can you be more secure in who you are, who you believe you are, and not rely upon the feedback of others to have that as a foundation?

[12:04] Sure, you’re going to have the feedback from others speak into that. It’s not so much to decouple it and to remove it. It’s just to say– you said predominant, but what if you can flip that and say, “Well, the majority of my self-worth is derived from what I perceive as my self-worth, versus allowing others to speak into that and change it”?

Yeah. Look, everybody is totally entitled to their own opinion of what they like and what they think is good enough or acceptable, but we’re all different. Nobody starts, really, in the same place. I mean, genes play a role, environment plays a role, opportunities… There’s so many things that each individual comes to the plate with. So going, “You need to perform at this level” or “Because I perform at that level, so I’m going to hold you to my own expectations” doesn’t necessarily work. So it is a decoupling of saying, “I can’t solely base my self-perception on the feedback from one, just anyone”, and two, “How do I, to some degree, create a filter around the feedback I do get from other people?” I always give the analogy– not that I can relate with this in any way, but if I were in the grocery store checkout line and the cashier told me about how I was doing as a mom, because my kids were losing their cool as toddlers, for whatever reason… It’s not to say he/she couldn’t give me feedback give me feedback about how I’m doing as a mom, because my kids are melting down and maybe it’s irritating, or whatever… Or I’m not meeting the expectation of parenting at that moment. But does this person know me? Do they know who I am? Do they see me outside of this context? Do they know my children? Do they know what time of day it is? There’s so many things that give context to that situation, and so for me to go– it’s not like I might not be affected by what she says, but if I’m to say, my sense of myself as a mother is rooted in the feedback I get from a person working a job at a checkout stand - that’s probably not the most helpful feedback.

Right, because that person’s feedback is limited to their awareness, experience and understanding of your life, and it’s just a fraction, a moment. And it’s also based on a majority of assumptions. It could be comparative to the person prior to you, which may have been more collected, not losing their cool, but a completely different context potentially. So there’s a lot of assumption even in there.

There’s a saying around assume, which we won’t say on the show because, hey, that’s just a little crass, and we have a very wide field audience, and we don’t cuss on the show, but the point is, you know what happens when you assume. Things happen.

Right, and so when we’re talking about perfectionism, you said, “What do we do?” Well, I’m gonna back up a little bit, and while we’ve talked about it in general terms, I want to talk about it from the perspective of how researchers have sought to clarify it. I don’t know how familiar our listeners are in terms of different things in terms of research, but doing research, what investigators look at is aspects of reliability or validity. Are you familiar with these?

[15:56] I’m not an expert researcher, but I can imagine you want validity and reliability in your research and the data?

That would make sense.

Well, so validity says, “Is what we’re measuring or how we’re looking at this actually that?” So it’s like, “Is it true?” And then reliability says, “Hey, if somebody else were to repeat exactly our research, would they get the same outcome?” So what I want to talk about is this perfectionism in terms of its validity. So researchers said, “Let’s break this down - what makes up perfectionism?” So there was a researcher who created this test called the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale; it was developed by Robert Frost. So he identified six different factors that are usually displayed by people who struggle with perfectionism. They include - one, excessive concern over making mistakes; two, high personal standards; three, doubts about the quality of their actions; four, the perception of high parental expectations; five, the perception of parental criticism; and then six, preference for organization and orderliness. That’s a lot.

Well, I identify with many of those, personally.

To some degree.

Sure, and I think many of us can. But this is just it - just because you do some of these things doesn’t mean like there’s something wrong with you. That’s why I prefer to think of every topic we talk about in terms of what’s functional and what is not as functional; or what works well, and is adaptive, and what doesn’t work well, which is maladaptive.

So in this, one of the things that they found is it really is this excessive concern over making mistakes that contributes to people who have more difficulty. Because if I am so concerned– just what we were talking about earlier with outcomes… If I’m trying to mitigate a potential ill outcome, aren’t I gonna be really concerned and probably not show up?

Yeah. You’re too busy being concerned…

…to show up. “What were you doing?” “I was being concerned.”

Right, and so with this, that doubts about the quality of their actions – I see that or hear that similar to this undercurrent of anxiety, suspicion around how good am I doing. I’m not sure. So concern over mistakes is significant, and then the sense of doubt about the quality of your actions. Well, there was this other researcher named Danielle Molnar, who is out of Brock University in Canada, and she looked at perfectionism as it relates to health, in general, of people. And what she looked at, she took 500 Canadian adults between the ages of 24 and 35, and she broke the construct of perfectionism down into three different lanes, so to speak. She talked about perfectionism in terms of self-oriented, socially prescribed, or other-oriented. Okay, so self-oriented perfectionism is wherein individuals impose high standards on themselves. I’m sure you never do that.

Nope. Never.

Never, right? That’s how you’ve gotten so far in life.

Some might say…

Low bar. [laughs] So self-oriented perfectionism - I just have these expectations that I’ve got to adhere to or achieve. Then there’s socially-prescribed perfectionism, wherein individuals feel like others expect them to be perfect. And then other-oriented, where individuals place high status on others, so everybody needs to then adhere to Adam’s standards for work. That would be really challenging, because who’s got the same standard?

Right? So people experience these different perfectionistic traits to various degrees. So one person might score high on all three, but they might just fall in an extreme in one or two of those, not all of those. So she found that socially-prescribed perfectionism - this researcher, Molnar - this socially-prescribed perfectionism was associated with poor physical health, which then means, guess what else happens? You end up seeing the doctor more often, you probably have to take time off of work in order to go to the doctor, and gave themselves lower scores when it came to rating their own health.

Who would have thought? I mean, when we started talking today, were you like, “Oh, I had no idea my perfectionism could affect my health.”

Well, I guess it would make sense, because if you feel the pressure from others to perform at a certain level, which may not be in line with 1) your capability, or 2) your own personal expectation, you might feel anxious or have anxiety, which is the starting step to other mental health things that can occur. So it would make sense that that person, in that scenario. or that – with this, I guess, it’s probably a lot of people, not just an individual. It’s probably a lot of people dealing with this situation… And this spiderweb essentially of, “I’m anxious” and now other things come from that.

Yeah. Well, so even thinking about this, I can’t help but move this into the lane of work, because I think a lot of people work…

Social pressure’s there, yeah.

In the workplace, we want to perform well. So maybe you wouldn’t say perfectionism in the workplace is a negative thing, but if I don’t learn how to navigate myself, my mind, my energy in helpful ways, I then become a vicarious participant in my own challenges that I complain about.

It’s interesting, because an expectation of someone else on you is the standard of perfect. So if in work we’re rewarded for performance, for meeting expectations, which as I just said, I think it’s synonymous with the standard of perfection, because if someone says, “This is what I expect of you,” and you strive towards that, and if you meet that, then - well, you’ve hit a perfect score; you’ve reached perfectionism in that particular area. So we’re judged constantly in the workplace by our adherence to going towards and meeting or not meeting that standard, that expectation.

Yeah. Yeah. Now, can I take it a step further then and talk about it in terms of goodness of fit…

…between what you do? So going, what if there is a marked difference between your expectations and your bosses’ or your colleagues’ expectations of your performance - now what?

Yeah. I mean, I think there’s certainly a requirement to do a job. So if you just break it down to “What do we need someone in this position to do to adequately perform in this position?” That makes sense, you’re gonna have that. But the flexibility around that, especially when it comes to somebody else’s expectations of it - it can get a little bit fungible, I suppose. Blurry.

[24:04] Right. Yeah. Well, I think about this, for example, in the context of any startup company. When you’re doing startup, there’s usually a lot of work involved, and a few people are doing a lot of the work.

Well, what if that culture or expectation, once the company has been more established, it’s established some degree of longevity, performance, but those expectations never go away. Or, you know, we say expectations as if people/our bosses are going to say that those are their expectations. But what if your sense or perception is that this is what your boss expects of you, even though they then don’t tell you that that is their expectation of you?

Well, that’s just wrong.

[laughs] Simple as that.

It’s just wrong.

But it creates this conflict, because if you care and you have these high standards, to say “I want to perform well in my job, and yet the feedback I’m getting is I need to do more or do better, but at what cost? Is it costing me my health or other aspects of my life, relationships or other things I simply care about investing in?”

Yeah. It’s easy if you have a time-constrained job, I suppose. If your work is performed within an hour spectrum. The most standard way is 9:00 to 5:00 in terms of those hours. If you’re doing your job or performing within those areas, then maybe the health constraints and the family life constraints, and maybe now it’s more skewed because of work from home being more prevalent…. But I think that if you’re expected to work between 9:00 and 5:00 and that’s when your work occurs, and any expectation outside that spectrum - maybe you have less interruption into personal life, into personal health, but then again, you might need to go to a doctor or do routine visits for dental work or whatever it might be, and if you don’t have a flexible enough workload or expectation load in your job to be able to do those things in a routine manner, then that’s certainly going to impact your work.

What if it’s for mental health reasons, seeing a therapist? What if it’s going to the gym at lunchtime because that’s when you can fit it in? Everybody’s an individual. Sure, you can maybe get up earlier potentially, but the point is what if you needed a more flexible schedule and your expectations at work were too rigid or not flexible enough to allow for that life and work to blend and balance as necessary?

Yeah, and what if, along with that, to say, “Well, I perceive, I believe that my bosses’ expectations are that I have to keep churning and burning, just keep going.” So I can’t work out, I can’t go to the doctor, I don’t have time, I gotta eat my lunch at my desk, because I need to keep outputting and reaching that expectation.” That can’t work.

So it’s interesting talking about this too from a research perspective. There’s an article in the Harvard Business Review that talked about this, and this research asked the question - are perfectionists better performers at work? Do they, in comparison, output more, or in what way are they better performers? So there was a meta-analysis of 95 studies - and if you don’t know what a meta-analysis is, what that means is they didn’t actually run the research themselves with actual participants. A meta-analysis in terms of research goes and looks at everybody else’s research, and then goes, “What can we extrapolate or infer from the themes of all of that research?” Does that make sense?

Gotcha. Yeah.

[28:09] So these studies took place from the 1980s to today, and examined the relationship between perfectionism and the factors that impact employees’ effectiveness. These studies included nearly 25,000 working-age individuals. That’s a pretty big sample size. So what they’ve found, the short answer was this - that perfectionism is a much bigger weakness than job applicants and interviewers probably assume. Results predicted that there were some beneficial workplace outcomes, like perfectionists tend to be more motivated on the job, worked longer hours and can be more engaged. Bbut I don’t know that people think about this when they’re going about their work or they’re interviewing. I always think about things in terms of the question behind the question. Generally speaking, when people ask questions, there’s usually another question that’s behind the question I’m actually getting.

What are you really asking, right?

Yeah, right. Because somebody is trying to fit my response or feedback to them into their construct that they’ve already got, which is the other question leading their question.

Manipulation to some degree even.

Yeah, but not always unintentional. So with this research, what they’ve found is there’s two distinct, but related sub-dimensions of perfectionism. See, so researchers tried to look at this construct from a number of different angles and go, “What can we find?” So they delineated between excellence-seeking perfectionism (say that ten times fast), excellence seeking, which involves this tendency to fixate on and demand high standards, and then failure avoiding perfectionism, which involves this obsessive concern and aversion to failing to reach high-performance standards.

Got that? [laughs] So excellence-seeking perfectionists not only try to evaluate their own performance, but also - guess what - hold this high-performance expectation for others in their lives. So I’m not only talking about the workplace, but in the home too. Whereas failure-avoiding perfectionists are worried that their work is not quite right or good enough, and believe that they’re going to lose respect from others if they don’t reach their level of perceived perfection. Both of those show up in the workplace.

They sure do, yeah.

Because if I’m trying to live up to a standard, this excellence-seeking, or avoid not quite right or good enough, I mean, I’m really going to struggle with putting any work out there. Ironically, some of these, like the failure avoiding perfectionism, could look like procrastination. I don’t know. Have you ever thought about the reason behind your procrastination? I’m not saying you procrastinate, Adam…

Sure, everybody does, yeah.

Well, that’s the awareness that comes into play. It’s like, what is making me not do this? …which can often define the next step towards doing it. You may not be doing something because of the shield we talked about earlier. You may be seeking to do it well, and maybe that’s a variation of perfection, but the point is that, when you procrastinate against something, you’re shielding from some negative response of some sort, and the next good step can be surmised by examining why you haven’t taken the necessary step to reach the goal or do the thing or have the outcome.

[32:00] Yeah. So I think about these– I’m like, how can I make it even simpler? Excellence-seeking is the relentless burn; like, you’ve gotta go and go, and burning the candle on both ends phenomenon. Whereas failure-avoiding is the buffering from the bad. I’m always trying to buffer. So am I burning, trying to output as much as I can at my expectation, or am I trying to buffer against shielding? Oh, shoot. It wasn’t enough.

I never considered the procrastination side being a dimension, as they say here, a sub-dimension of perfectionism… You know, like the opposite - you’re not trying to excel, you’re trying to under-excel by not failing, or avoiding failure, and that’s an interesting extreme that you see on both sides. Is there a third sub-dimension that’s the middle ground there? What’s the middle between excellence-seeking and failure avoiding?

Well, these researchers didn’t delineate between those, but that’s an awesome question.

Yeah, because there’s always extremes, right and left of a scenario of a spectrum. So what’s in the middle ground? …which might be a normal performing perfectionism standard, I don’t know.

Well, so we can talk about it in terms of what is healthy, or healthier perfectionism, or normal neurotic… [laughs]

That’s funny.

You have to look at what you’re focusing on. So in this context, if I’m looking at whether I’m trying to burn something and do it to a high standard or buffer against, that focus is going to provide different outcomes. So the beneficial effects, like the good side of perfectionism, were stronger for those who are higher in this excellence-seeking. So the ones who are like, “Let me try to do my best in everything,” as opposed to aversion, the ones who avoid. Which makes sense. If I’m like, “I’ve gotta move, I’ve gotta get better,” that sense of striving – and maybe instead of my normal neurotic, we substitute healthy striving. The effort is put forth in a direction repeatedly over time. There’s a sense of delight and joy and positive emotion around “I get to try again.”

So that’s the beneficial side, but the detrimental side was stronger for those who actually have this failure-avoiding, but also still had the excellent seeking, which makes a lot of sense. If I’ve got both sides, I want to buffer from the bad, but then I’m trying to excel; I mean, it’s hokey-pokey. I take two steps forward and one step back. I put my foot in and take it back out, because I I’m not sure… Which - if I’m going back to the researcher I talked about earlier, Robert Frost, with concern over mistakes and that high personal standards, that’s where the rub really doesn’t work, because I’m never gonna get it. I’m afraid to err, but I also have really high standards. I’ve gotta practice doing the work and put myself out there if I’m going to approximate my own standards.

Would it be then if you identify as a perfectionist, and to agree with what this research has said around excellence-seeking and failure-avoiding to balance those two? So if you have more of a balance of those aspects– so recognizing that as a perfectionist, if this is how you identify, as a perfectionist, I can see, based on this research, and see it in their own work and their own practices and prospectives etc. that they see the excellence-seeking, which is the opposite of failure-avoiding. If you’re excellent seeking, you know what you’re running away from, which is the failure; and if you’re failure-avoiding, you’re not so much not seeking the excellence, but you’re like delaying or deterring or whatever it might be around certain things, essentially to balance these two as best you can.

[36:20] Right. What is healthy perfectionism then? If you’ve been listening like, “Okay, well, that’s great. Now I know what doesn’t work. Tell me what does.”

Yes, please. What does work?

It is really – having these high standards is not a bad thing. You can have those and work towards them, because they’re what motivate you forward. I mean, I am always considering this, and I think a lot of people who have goals and going, “I want to get better, I want to challenge myself, I want to move up in the workplace or I want to expand the breadths of skill that I’ve got”, but when I’m then looking at any concern over mistakes, or that failure-avoidance, that I’m going to pull in this other thread that helps me manage that differently. So that focus is going to look at the buy-in; asking myself this question, “Is it worth it? Why would I do this thing that has the potential for failure or the potential for increased vulnerability or rejection, or God forbid, the loss of my job? Why would I do it?”

I think for some reason because showing up pays in dividends. You need to keep showing up or– I don’t know, there’s numbers in the fact that if you keep showing up and keep doing, that something will result of it.

Yeah, and so this sense of focus on effort and opportunity. Does it matter to me? Is it worth it if I fail? I think I’ve shared this in other episodes about Brené Brown’s work as it relates to daring greatly. It’s the man in the arena who counts. It’s the one who’s willing to get dirty, experience loss and hardship because they’re trying to push themselves forward towards their desired ideals.

The University of Texas at Austin had specifics in regards to this, related to healthy striving. They said this - setting standards that are high, but are within reach. If I want to go, “How can I make mini-goals, so that I’m to some degree again buffering the possibility of threat or loss?” Enjoying the process.

I tend to make sense of this so much in the lane of health and exercise, and going, “What am I trying to work on, what am I getting better at?” This is why people run marathons. This is why– I mean, why do you ride your bike, Adam?

I like it. It’s fun.

Well, it’s– yeah, I mean, that’s a deep subject, but yeah, it’s the process.

And the outcome together, right?

The process that moves you towards where you want to get to.

Right. Now, you have to have some goals, but you also have to step in between there to get you there. That’s the process.

Yeah. And so with that, just like your son said, you’ve gotta bounce back. If you fall, you practice getting back up.

That’s right.

And look, if you put yourself out there and say, “This is what I care most about, and here’s what I’m optimizing for”, isn’t it pretty normal to think you’re gonna have some anxiety?

I would think so. Yeah, because you’re gonna think about– I’m not really sure how you even define anxiety, but let me take a stab at how it might manifest… If you are concerned about an outcome and you’re carefully watching for its progress, the tension that you feel as that comes about or not is anxiousness.

[40:19] Yes, well said.

It’s tension, right?

So I would imagine that if you’re paying attention to your life and setting outcome goals or setting goals generally or having some progress in anything, whether it’s health, fitness, work, school, whatever it might be, your job - you’re going to be paying attention to those details, and there’s always gonna be tension.

Yeah, great word. I love it, because that’s just it. There’s an uncertainty around the outcome, but that is also held alongside of the desire. And so with that, see mistakes as opportunities for growth and learning. Mistakes are part of the learning process, that’s how we figure it out. Like Edison, he just figured out how many hundreds of ways…

That’s right.

…that a light bulb doesn’t work. Then finally, because you’re trying to manage vulnerability, it’s not surprising to think that you might be reactive around criticism. In the workplace, we could talk about it in terms of feedback, but perceived criticism– if you are perfectionistic, you’ve already got your ideal, and then somebody wants to tell you something about how you did…

It might go bad. Yeah.

You might have a few feelings about that experience.

And that’s understandable.

Yeah. But recognizing, again, “Who’s on my team? Who understands the effort I’m putting forth?” We’ve brought this around so many times, but I can’t speak enough to the value of relationship and having those people who help you buffer some of these challenges and upsets and disappointments.

That’s a great point, because that’s what I was thinking about, is this board of advisors. Going back to the clerk scenario that may have spoken some words into your life for that brief moment… You might value the feedback or criticism they give you for your life, but at what depth? You allow your board of advisors, this tribe you surround yourself with to speak that deeply into you, not somebody who has a fraction of your moment of life, zero contact, zero understanding of who you are, what your goals in life are. That’s who, if we’re seeking perfection and we have this shield in front of us to push back against the shame, to push back against the feedback we get in life, we need to understand who the shield is trying to protect us from.

Yeah. Right. And people are gonna have things to say about how we perform.

I’m sure this happens just in people’s relationships, and going “I was trying to give you what you wanted. I was trying to do something – I thought you’d appreciate me unloading the dishes, or packing the dishwasher”, but then you get the feedback you did it wrong.

Yeah. I mean, my wife is the one who speaks most deeply into me. If she believes in me, I believe in me twice as much because she believes in me, or whatever it might be. The same, if she criticizes me, I take it doubly, because she knows me. She knows who I am as a man, who I am as a father, who I am as a husband, who I am as a son, and she knows all the parts of me, and so she knows truly what I’m optimizing for. And so I take her criticism, both good and bad, very deeply, because she knows me so well. And that’s the point…

[43:57] …is the shield, it’s who knows you so well that the feedback is worth receiving?

Right, and so with this, it gets a little trickier in the workplace, because I mean, obviously, you’re not, most of the time, going to have that relationship with a boss or a colleague.

But professionally, they will know.

So they’re gonna give–

They’ll know you professionally.

Right. Well, however, if you’re trying to buffer against that failure, you’re actually forfeiting them knowing you and knowing the work you actually can do. So it doesn’t actually work in your favor.

So you’re saying that vulnerability, in that case - you have to examine it further to truly understand it, because there’s benefits in being vulnerable in those scenarios? Not truly vulnerable, like “Here’s my life story, here’s all my failures and tribulations”, but more so so they can have more context of you and who you truly are and what you’re trying to optimize for, because in some ways, your bosses and your overseers, however you define them, they’re in some ways a guide to your trajectory.

Correct, and so in what way do you let them in on what you’re trying to optimize for and around in what you care most about? I mean, if they knew that for this particular task, you set up different constraints, because you’re like, “Look, I’m trying to work on my productivity within a shortened amount of time, so maybe there were some other flaws in it”, well that context played a factor in the outcome you got. But if you didn’t bring them into that data point, how would they know? Then they’re not going to respond to you from that perspective.

Well, they won’t have a full understanding of what you’re trying to do, at all.

You’re not setting them up to have the necessary context for the opposite of rigidity, which is flexibility. You set them up for a flexible criticism towards you, maybe even grace, because they understand what you’re trying to do.

Right. And so when I’m talking about what’s healthy striving versus perfectionism, this is another key thing - you acknowledge the contextual factors which also played a role in the outcome of the task you were trying to do. Because look, if I didn’t have access to another tool that I needed in order to do the job to meet my standards, doesn’t that count?

Because my output would have looked different had I had the access to the tool that I wanted.

[46:35] My perspective on this is very specific. So I’ve recently built several mountain bikes, and it’s interesting to build a bike from the frame up. And what I learned was that having the right tool is crucial.

I mean, I couldn’t build the bike – so I failed at bleeding brakes, which is a difficult task. It’s more difficult when you don’t have the right tools. And so I, for a while, felt like a failure, because I couldn’t bleed brakes. And what I realized was, oh, I was missing this particular tool that when compressing the brakes later on, the fluid didn’t come out. Well, that’s because I torqued the nut to the necessary specification. Had I had the right tool, I would have torqued it properly. So tools are important. The right tool is important to achieve a goal or a task.

Yeah, exactly. Exactly. And so that’s where you can start to look at what other things could help me manage this goal that I have differently? Is there a tool, is there a person, is there a thing that would be helpful instead of trying to just either avoid, or just wreck it and break it, because I’m trying so hard to push for something that doesn’t work well?

I really love having these conversations, because I even see it with you when we’re talking about these a-ha’s and ways in which our conversations make you think differently, and that’s what I want for all of our listeners… And recognizing, ironically, one of the greatest tools we have access to is our mind, and the way in which we assimilate data from different points. When it comes to trying to jockey for and around that ideal, there is nothing wrong with having high standards, especially for yourself. But you need to be able to consider the value of effort over outcomes, that if I stay in it– and asking yourself, “Is this worth it? Do I want to embrace the possible aversive things that could come with it for the delight that I could cultivate?” That’s when you begin to buffer in a helpful way, and you focus your efforts on aspiring, as opposed to requiring something of yourself, and progress over perfection.


Our transcripts are open source on GitHub. Improvements are welcome. 💚

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