Sunday, January 13, 2013

Perfectionism: A Killer of Joy

English: perfectionist measuring and cutting grass
Perfectionist measuring and cutting grass (Wikipedia)
by Lori Moss

A colleague once said to me: "If you want to get the job done, give it to Lori Moss."

It was a defining moment. It was the first time I heard what was really being said.

You see, the remark was not intended to be flattering.

It was actually an expression of resentment toward me and what I viewed (rather self-righteously) as my "work ethic" or what might more honestly be called "my need for total control."

There are any number of "good" reasons and moral justifications for engaging in perfectionism, including:

- We have an investment in being the best, single-handedly
- We believe others do not share our same high standards
- We believe others are incapable or unwilling to do the work we've been able to do
- We believe mistakes are unacceptable
- We believe our reputation is dependent upon being flawless
- We fear that the work will not get done if we don't stay and see it through
- We want to head off future problems by doing it ourselves; damage control
- Training is not a strong suit. It seems easier to do it ourselves than to muster the patience and take the time to teach.

One of the challenges we face is that our perfectionism is re-enforced by those around us who benefit from it. Customers and employers respect our follow-through, diligence, and that the job is always done perfectly and on time. This re-enforcement keeps our distortions about perfection alive and well.

However, behind the facade of superiority lies a very painful truth: we believe if we are not perfect, we will not be accepted or appreciated, much less praised. Less is not acceptable. Without perfectionism, we will be judged as inferior.

The dictionary definition of a martyr is: "someone who assumes an attitude of self-sacrifice or suffering in order to arouse feelings of pity, guilt and inadequacy in others." Martyrs try to dominate by manipulating emotions, and they stifle creativity, joyfulness and the possibility of fulfillment for others. Even though the martyr voluntarily assumes responsibility for anything and everything, she feels bitter about having to carry the whole load.

When perfectionism is at the root of martyrdom, everyone involved feels the undertone of distrust. It doesn't take long before those we circumvent, shove aside, out-shine and out-pace begin to resent the perfectionist game we have mastered.

It may be difficult at the time to see the insidious way perfectionism robs us of any hope of personal freedom. The truth is, perfectionism is a silent killer in the workplace.

Yes, the perfectionist may get the job done, but the impact of her behavior on others is devastating to morale, and her energy investment in trying to have total control is simply not sustainable. She ultimately burns out, loses her enthusiasm and becomes overwhelmed by the pressure to keep it all going.

The bottom line is - perfectionism will always limit us. However, we do have alternatives to the debilitating compulsion to be perfect.

  • We can change the way we define the quality of our work. We can accept that there is a point of diminishing returns, where our massive investment simply does not net us a corresponding improvement in the result.
  • We can admit that we really don't need to spoil our customers or employers at the sacrifice of our well-being and possibly our sanity. If the environment does not support this healthy, self-valuing shift, then we also have the choice to move on to a new endeavor and leave perfectionism behind.

Perfectionism can be overcome through awareness of the fear that fuels it. We can then get support in making more appropriate decisions. By facing our insecurities and fears of uncertainty, we will be able to make authentic, sustainable and fulfilling choices that still produce a high quality result for those whom we serve.

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