Pursuing perfection is a familiar endeavor for many executives—but the strategy can have major drawbacks.
Research shows women are more likely than men to be perfectionists, and that’s especially true for women pursuing corporate success. The tendency holds us back in several key ways: It discourages women from pursuing stretch assignments, applying for a new job, or asking for a raise until we’re absolutely assured of success. Simultaneously, perfectionism is a major culprit when it comes to burnout, since it drives us to take on too many tasks at work and home. In short, perfectionism is a big reason why women don’t aim for big jobs and get bogged down by little ones.
It’s a pitfall that’s especially common among women with intersectional identities, says Tricia Montalvo Timm. A first-generation Latina who rose to the C-suite in Silicon Valley by advising high-tech companies big and small, Timm documents her journey to self-acceptance in her new book, "Embrace The Power Of You: Owning Your Identity at Work." In the exclusive excerpt below, she shares how women leaders can turn their perfectionist tendencies from a shortcoming into a strength.
— Audrey Goodson Kingo
Photo Credit: Tricia Montalvo Timm
Excerpt from "Embrace The Power Of You: Owning Your Identity at Work."
“You are enough.”
We all can say it to ourselves. The hard part is not saying it—it is actually believing it.
The first step toward believing you are enough is examining why you didn’t think you were enough in the first place. This can stem from many different causes, but for me it started with all the messages I had received growing up. I had internalized the belief that I had to be better than everyone around me in order to belong. I had to be perfect.
So, unwittingly, I became a perfectionist. Seems like a good thing, right? In some cases, it was. It enabled me to achieve great success in my life. Award winner in school. Promotions at work. But perfectionism has an ominous side, too. It can be a quiet little voice inside you telling you that you are not enough.
My writing doesn’t make sense.
My presentation is too long.
This email has a typo in it.
I don’t have enough experience.
This negative self-talk is constant, and you keep trying to make yourself better to quiet the disappointed voice in your head. For many years, I wanted to ignore it, stuff it down or get angry about this part of me. I wanted to be more like my husband, who never seemed to be fazed by his mistakes. When he messed up, he would shrug it off, say, “My bad!” and move on.
Why couldn’t I forgive myself for making a mistake? That was all I wanted. I wanted the freedom of not having to be perfect all the time.
Unfortunately, many of us, particularly people of color, suffer from this vicious cycle.
So, how do you end it?
Author Ethan Kross provided several helpful tools on an episode of the podcast The Happiness Lab with Dr. Laurie Santos. Kross suggests there is no evidence that we can stop negative thoughts from entering our minds, but once activated, instead of trying to ignore them, we can control what we do with them.
When negative chatter enters our mind, we have a choice. We can either narrowly zoom in and amplify it, which leads us down the rabbit hole of worries, insecurities and fears, or we can choose to zoom out and minimize it, transform it or replace it with other thoughts. Here are a few strategies that Kross suggests for combating negative self-talk:
Use “distanced self-talk.” This is when we try to coach ourselves through a problem using our own name or the second person pronoun “you.” Instead of saying, “What should I do?” you can say, “What would you do, Tricia?” We are much better at giving advice to others than giving advice to ourselves. By changing the language in which we talk to ourselves, we put ourselves in advisory mode, which makes it much easier for us to work through our problems.
Use mental time travel. We can distance ourselves from the experience with time. Ask yourself: “How am I going to feel about this issue tomorrow, next week, next year, in ten years?” This technique reminds us that no matter how awful the experience might feel in the moment, eventually it will get better. It puts that painful experience into perspective.
Activate an alter ego. How would someone we admire handle the situation? For me, I often think about how my husband Derek would react, since he doesn’t tend to dwell on things. However, Kross warns us to be sure to pick the right alter ego. You want to hear the voice of the supportive coach and not the critical parent, for example.
Normalize your experience. When we are stuck in negative dialogues, realizing that we are not alone is very useful. For example, in writing this book I learned that it is common for first-time authors to have inner critics. We think things such as, “Who would want to read this book anyways?” or “There are millions of books like this already out there. What makes mine unique?” When such negative thoughts popped up, it was comforting to know that others had gone through this same experience, and it was normal.
For perfectionists, negative chatter pops up frequently. If you often beat yourself up for “doing it wrong” or not being the best, I am here to tell you that it is okay to love and accept that perfectionist part of you. That’s right, I said, love that part of you. That part of you is here to make you better. It is here to protect you from a world that has put up a lot of obstacles in front of your success.
Instead of trying to change that part of yourself, what if you simply paused for a moment and appreciated this part of you that has made you so successful in life? It has served a wonderful purpose. Without it, you may not have achieved as much as you have.
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