Kathryn Mayer discovered early on she had talent as a tennis player. She was winning (a lot), but also started feeling like she was only as good or bad as her last match. The pressure to be “perfect” soon became too much: she quit the sport entirely.

Many women leaders suffer from the same pressure to always be high-achieving, says Mayer, Founder and President of KC Consulting and author of the forthcoming The Productive Perfectionist: A Woman’s Guide to Smashing the Shackles of Perfectionism. But as new research is showing, perfectionism can hurt rather than help our careers, not to mention the toll it takes on our sense of self over time.

One recent study by the British Journal of Psychology showed that those who strove for excellence rather than perfection showed better performance on divergent thinking and associative tasks, and also scored highly on self-efficacy, creative self-efficacy, and creative personal identity. But letting go of the need to be perfect can be easier said than done, and it takes an intentional mindset to shift long-standing patterns.

The first step is simply recognizing the pain that perfectionism might be causing in your life. "If you don't feel good enough, you may start to realize you're in a negative mood all the time, you're resentful, and you're angry," says Mayer. “Perfectionism keeps you anxious and with a narrow focus in life, because you don’t want to step outside and do something you’re not going to succeed at.”

These feelings can start to be addressed by building a more positive emotional foundation. Mayer suggests starting by focusing on one of three simple moods — gratitude, compassion, and joy — and starting a practice that centers that feeling. It can be as simple as starting a gratitude journal listing five things a day you’re grateful for, or centering compassion and learning to speak to yourself in a kinder, more loving way.

Shifting perfectionism doesn't mean you have to sacrifice your ambition, however; it often just means redefining success. One of Mayer’s clients recently was promoted to CFO, and when her boss asked her to do something, she jumped right in wanting to impress her new leader. But by trying to cover every possible angle, the project ended up taking too long.

Instead Mayer suggests opening up more questions in the process by defining success for both yourself and the people you're working with. "You've really got to understand what is good enough and ask more questions," she says. “Understand what success looks like, and keep defining it with whoever you're working with to ensure you're in agreement."

She also suggests doing an exercise she calls, “Why Should I?” Often perfectionists have very high standards they don’t even realize that they have, and those expectations don’t necessarily belong to them. They’re often instilled by parents, society, or even an old version of yourself. “You don’t really want to have a should, you want to have a want,” says Mayer. “So instead of I should be promoted, it’s more like I really want to get promoted because I want to do this or that.”

By embracing the possibility of failure, leaders can also lean in to taking more risks, which are often necessary to make a lasting mark in your career. "You can't play it safe and continue to be successful,” says Mayer. “You have to learn how to get out of your comfort zone.” In general, it can be worth noticing if you have a tendency to anticipate every possible risk as you go, but sometimes you need to move faster than you might be comfortable.

Understanding this framework can also be beneficial for managing your teams. One of Mayer’s clients was a leader who liked to dive right into a project, but quickly realized that her team wasn’t jumping in behind her. She found that she had to make it more comfortable for them to fail. “She started sharing a lot more of her own foibles, and how she too was scared,” said Mayer. “She started being much more open and vulnerable, and was able to get their input on how they could move faster.”

As for Mayer herself, she found new joy in taking African Dance, something that she’s self-admittedly not very good at, but does it for the joy and fun of the experience. And she eventually got back on the court. “I'm not trying to become a professional tennis player,” she says. “I had to redefine what winning is.”

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