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Overcoming Perfectionism: Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway

Updated: Apr 9

During my student life, I suffered quite substantially from "perfectionism". To the point where it impacted my sleep, was delaying deadlines and calling in sick for presentations, because I felt what I could offer wasn’t good enough. Thankfully, I have largely overcome these challenges. I still set the bar high at times, but I no longer become paralysed or avoid tasks. I now know what I’m worth, that my best is all I can offer and that there’s no invisible bar out there which can set the standard for what I have to offer.

I recall when I was 11 years old, and had to do a test, to see what high school education level would be a good fit. This is a common procedure in the Netherlands, even though many 11 year olds have not fully developed their intellectual capacities yet. In Dutch, we call these children so-called late bloomers, a group to which I belong. I remember that people had high expectations of me, and that I felt the test result was a little disappointing with not having directly an "intelligence level" leading to a university career later on. I also recall many moments of competition with my peers, and feeling like a failure because I was "behind" compared to my peers, or not fully understanding the teacher or a topic. It's quite incredible to me how much pressure we put on young children to perform and match a certain made up standard. Already the term late bloomers, suggests that you can be late, perhaps too late, with certain things in life. But what if we would accept that everyone and everything has its own natural timing to blossom? Just like flowers blossom, when a certain set of circumstances are at play, so too do people need their time and circumstances.

Okay, I digress. My critics on the school system deserve a different blog. During my high school years and bachelor, my perfectionism progressed. I consistently did not show up for presentations. I had such a big fear to speak in front of groups. Luckily, one day during my Bachelor Social Work, my supervisor called me over, to ask what was going on. She gave a strong warning that if I continue like this, it wouldn't be possible to continue my bachelors. But most importantly she gave me the safety to express my fear for failing, and she supported me to show up regardless of what state I am in. That was a big turning point in my personal development and thus my remaining student years. She really confronted me with my behaviour and how it was holding me back in life. A mirror I needed at the time to start making a change.

Exposure therapy

It has since been a practice, every time I feel scared, to show up nonetheless. By this approach, which is at the core of "exposure therapy", you train your brain that you will survive when you are not that well prepared or feel like you lack knowledge. I have been doing this consistently in other areas of my life as well. "Feel the fear and do it anyway" has become a guideline which I live by. I am still sometimes scared of doing things, but I have become so used to doing things scared, that it barely ever stops me from partaking in an activity. I think that is the biggest misconception that people have about fear: that they wait until the day they are no longer scared. But fear is a common and at times, functional emotion (in the sense that it provides you with information), not to be avoided. Successful people are no less scared, they just have figured out a way to move forward through life while being scared.

After my masters degree I started working as an interim policy/project manager. Every 3-6 months I applied for assignments that I had no previous knowledge or experience in. This was a whole new level of exposure therapy which showed that I'm capable of making a meaningful contribution regardless of my level of knowledge or experience. Of course, you also learn what you're not particularly good at, or what doesn't bring you joy. This comes with the realisation that that is not a problem or a failure on your side that needs fixing. It's rather a given to accept, and a sign to find ways to work around it, for example by finding the right people by your side that can complement you with their skills and talents.

Know what is expected

Often, when we stress over something we need to deliver, it's because we've constructed an idea in our minds of what we believe others expect from us. This expectation is often unclearly communicated. And we all know that when our minds start to fantasise, things can easily become exaggerated beyond what is necessary in reality. Instead of succumbing to these fantasies, you can simply ask the person to whom you need to deliver what outcome they expect from your presentation or written plan. Ask thorough questions: What precisely do I need to deliver? What goals do you aim to achieve with this? What effect do you want for the reader/listener? And, of course, you're not entirely subject to the whims of fate; you can propose a plan based on what is feasible and comfortable for you, considering the time available. In this way you take charge of your uncomfortable feelings by setting out a path forward that works for you. The bottom line: don't remain in the dark, guessing.

Lower the bar

We often set way too high standards for ourselves. However we do not need to be perfect, to be loved, accepted or approved. Good is good enough. Already repeating this as a mantra, really helped me to retrain my brain. Also a very helpful rule of thumb for knowing when something is good enough, is the 80-20 rule. It means that with 20% of efforts we can produce 80% of the result. To add the remaining 20%, will cost us 80% of our efforts. The remaining 20% is not going to make all the difference to the quality of the final product, yet this is where we waste most of our energy and concerns. So, next time you have completed the basics of your product, send it out for feedback instead of going over it another 20 times yourselves. Good is good enough.

Practice compassion

Another aspect of healing perfectionism, is working on your self image and practicing self love. This is a deep process. It's about becoming aware of your inner dialogue, and the conditioning you have undergone as a child, that made you believe what you believe today. It's about reconnecting back to your essence, to feel that beneath all the insecurities, fears, doubts, and expectations, you are whole and good as you are. That there is no outside bar or standard that can judge your worth. It's also about practicing self compassion, and sending your unhealed parts the love, recognition and safety, you have been longing for but not received. It's about a constant inner dialogue between your unhealed parts, and the part of you that knows better and that wants to be your biggest cheerleader.

Going on this journey, a coach can be so helpful to inspire you to take bold moves in the direction of healing perfectionism. If you'd like to get a feel for my coaching style or would like more information, you can book a free 45-minute discovery call right here. No strings attached! ---------

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