Perfectionism reduces our confidence – excellence enhances it.
Do you notice that despite all your efforts, the progress is slow, and the work is not as good as you imagined? Do you notice thoughts such as “this is not good enough” or “what if I cannot do this and I fail the course/lose my job?”
It is common to experience these feelings when we care about doing well in our work. Research on perfectionism defines it as a combination of highly demanding standards and harsh self-critical evaluations. Setting unrealistic goals and believing that we should not make mistakes increases our fear of negative results and worry about being judged negatively (Ben-Shahar,2009).
It is normal to have self-doubts when starting a new project that challenges us as we go beyond our comfort zone. If we focus on all that could go wrong, anticipating negative results, it will negatively affect our confidence to achieve our goals (Hill & Curran, 2016).
When we make mistakes, we tend to interpret them as signs of our lack of ability and feel discouraged. It can add significant pressure and experience stress symptoms, and we take longer to do things preventing us from meeting deadlines.
Without realising, we limit ourselves and miss out on development opportunities by not going beyond our comfort zone. As a result, the tension reduces our ability to maintain an open mind, and we think we need to work harder and longer. We can manage by taking time to acknowledge our feelings and take breaks to restore energy and regain our focus.
So, what can we do to do good work and derive a sense of achievement when we do well?
Aim for excellence: the expectation is that we achieve mastery through effort and practice. We make adjustments to improve and develop our knowledge and skills. It embraces mistakes because we learn from them, and through an iterative process, we constantly make adjustments, improve our work, and learn to master a skill.
Our attention is not on what could go wrong but on what we could create and master. As Aristotle said: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
Reframe negative thoughts: Notice when you have negative thoughts about your work or anticipate adverse outcomes. Then ask yourself: “Is this thought helpful?” and then ask: “what one thing can I do now to move forward?”
Reframe fear of failure: Because we care to do good work, we worry about mistakes. When we believe that we should not make mistakes, viewing them as signs of our lack of ability impacts our confidence in our ability. Instead, view errors and setbacks as part of the learning process.
Expect that it may take time to achieve results. Several trials and errors may be necessary to understand a concept or result in an experiment. If it does not work on the first attempt, it does not mean you cannot get a positive result later.
Focus on making progress: often, we have a definite idea of how things should be, pursuing unrealistic standards. We do not realise that our expectations add pressure and paradoxically prevent us from doing good work. Instead, focus on making progress and working on what supports your goals (Amabile & Kramer, 2011).
Practise self-compassion: It is about being aware that we are human and that sometimes mistakes can happen. Treat yourself with kindness, like you would behave towards your best friend.
Take a moment to pause and redirect your attention to the present moment.
When we take a break and are away from screens, it helps restore energy. It creates some distance from the task so that we can look at it with fresh eyes when we return to it. It allows us to ground ourselves and redirect our attention to what matters.
Amabile, T. & Kramer, S. (2011) The progress principle.Using small wins to ignite joy, engagement, and creativity at work. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press.
Ben-Shahar, T. (2009) The Pursuit of Perfect. How to stop chasing perfection and start living
a richer, happier life. USA: McGraw-Hill.
Dweck, C. S. (2006) Mindset. How you can fulfil your potential. New York: Balantine books.
Gilbert, P. (2010) The compassionate mind. London: Constable & Robinson, Ltd.
Hill, A. P., & Curran, T. (2016). Multidimensional Perfectionism and Burnout: A Meta-Analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Review,
20(3), 269–288. https://doi.org/10.1177/1088868315596286