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How to overcome perfectionism: Progress over perfection

progress is greater than perfectionism


Leading in challenging times is a weighty responsibility that many CEOs, managers, executives, and parents can relate to. The burden of carrying this responsibility often leads us to confront our own limitations, strengths, and growth opportunities.

Like countless other leaders, Jess Kolko, a Transformation and Nutrition Senior Team Leader at Whole Foods, found their leadership put to the test during the global upheaval of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

They were successful. Here’s how you can be too: Challenging perfectionism, embracing vulnerability, and aiming for progress, not perfection.


The Perfectionism Struggle

Perfectionism is a common struggle. While aiming for perfection can be seen as a noble pursuit, its effects on mental health and personal well-being cannot be overlooked. Let’s dive into the intricacies of perfectionism, understanding its nuances, impacts, and ways to navigate perfectionist tendencies. 

Perfectionism manifests differently in each individual. For some, it’s the pursuit of flawlessness in their work, personal relationships, or appearance. For others, it’s an internal pressure to meet impossibly high standards or unrealistic expectations, leading to chronic stress, anxiety, and even low self-esteem.

While setting ambitious goals and striving for excellence are commendable, an obsession with perfection often becomes counterproductive. The relentless pursuit of flawlessness can lead to negative consequences like stress and anxiety, and can even impair one’s ability to function optimally. Perfectionists may find themselves trapped in a vicious cycle of never feeling ‘good enough’, fearing failure, and struggling with persistent burnout trying to meet high expectations and achieve unrealistic goals. 

The allure of perfectionism often conceals its profound pitfalls, trapping individuals in an unending cycle of extremely high standards and relentless self-criticism. The pursuit of flawlessness, while initially motivating, frequently leads to detrimental effects on mental health and well-being. Perfectionists find themselves ensnared in a web of anxiety, stress, and fear of failure, as they continuously strive for an unrealistic level of perfection in their work, relationships, or personal endeavors. This constant quest for flawlessness not only impedes progress but also breeds an environment of chronic dissatisfaction. This mindset erodes confidence and can even hinder creativity. The fear of making mistakes or falling short often leads to procrastination, avoidance, or even life paralysis, ultimately impeding productivity and personal growth. The pitfalls of perfectionism are multifaceted, impacting every aspect of life and overshadowing the joy of achievement with an unrelenting burden of unattainable standards.

For a significant portion of her life, Jess Kolko, a life-long high achiever, grappled with perfectionistic tendencies. It became a recurring theme in their personal and professional growth journey. However, they realized that vulnerability and acknowledging imperfections could be strengths.

Liberation from perfectionism is the end result of authenticity and self-acceptance. The more you criticize yourself, the more you move below the line into drama. But when you rise above the line and embrace radical self-acceptance, you empower yourself.

Strategies to Overcome Perfectionism

Managing perfectionism requires intentional efforts. Setting realistic goals, practicing self-compassion, and reframing thoughts around mistakes and imperfections are essential steps.  

Embrace Vulnerability

One of the most challenging aspects of perfectionism, particularly when operating at a high level, is the fear of making mistakes and the subsequent pressure to hide or cover them up. However, mistakes will inevitably be made. What sets leaders apart is how they handle those mistakes. Leaders who attempt to sweep their mistakes under the rug only encounter greater challenges later on. It creates a culture where people cannot be fallible humans. This approach is not only unrealistic but also destroys trust and psychological safety within a team. When you choose to acknowledge your missteps and share them without shame or judgment, you create an atmosphere of acceptance and vulnerability within your team. By setting an example of humility and embracing your imperfections, you can foster an environment where team members feel comfortable acknowledging their own humanity, especially when the world around them is in chaos.

Realistic goal setting

Setting achievable goals and expectations is essential. Establishing realistic but healthy high standards allows for progress without the suffocating pressure of an unattainable standard. Often our own standards are the ones we feel we’re falling short of. If you stop setting impossible standards for yourself and appreciate your own hard work, you can begin to let go of self-critical perfectionism. 

Practice self-compassion 

Self-compassion is an important mindset shift in overcoming perfectionist thoughts. Cultivating kindness towards yourself, accepting mistakes are not the end of the world, and are inherently a part of the human experience, adopting a growth mindset and treating oneself with understanding and empathy gives you a good chance at significantly alleviating self-imposed stress and criticism.

Aim for Progress, Not Perfection

Acknowledging and addressing perfectionism requires conscious effort and a shift in mindset. Instead of fixating on flawless outcomes, embrace gifts of imperfection as stepping stones for your growth. Adopting a growth mindset allows you to view mistakes as learning opportunities and encourages resilience in the face of setbacks.

In the pursuit of perfection, it is easy to become trapped within the confines of established norms and comfortable routines. The belief that avoiding risks will prevent failure may seem logical, but it also hinders growth and innovation. Sticking to the status quo can cause you to miss out on valuable opportunities. To ensure that business growth continues even during times of uncertainty, it is essential to prioritize personal growth. 

Creating a culture of continual growth, innovation, and open-mindedness starts with you as the leader. You can create an environment where progress is valued more than unattainable perfection, and what could be more perfect than that?

Jess Kolko’s journey in leadership exemplifies the transformative power of challenging perfectionism and embracing progress. By acknowledging vulnerability, owning mistakes, and seeking growth through coaching, Jess has grown both personally and professionally. Their story serves as a reminder that leaders, just like everyone else, are human beings who struggle with letting go of perfectionism and have their limitations and room for improvement.

Perfectionism, while often perceived as a powerful motivator for success, can have negative effects on mental health and overall quality of life when taken to extremes. Embracing a mindset that values progress over perfection, acknowledging imperfections as part of the human experience, and seeking support when needed are crucial in navigating the complexities of perfectionism.

Let’s embrace a journey where progress, resilience, and self-compassion reign supreme, leading us to greater fulfillment and a more balanced approach to life’s pursuits. Remember, perfection may be an ideal, but progress is the real essence of growth and fulfillment. 

When leaders let go of the need for perfection and instead focus on making progress and working toward healthy achievement, they create an environment that fosters authenticity, growth, and innovation. By valuing progress over perfection, leaders can inspire their teams to break out of limiting thought patterns and negative self-talk and instead contribute to positive change in their organizations.

Leadership in challenging times requires a willingness to confront our own imperfections and embrace progress over perfection. Jess Kolko’s journey serves as an example of how leaders can grow and thrive by challenging perfectionism, embracing vulnerability, and aiming for progress. By creating a culture of acceptance, vulnerability, and continual growth, leaders can inspire their teams and foster an environment that encourages authenticity and innovation.

Let us remember that leaders are not infallible, but their ability to acknowledge their humanity and prioritize progress sets them apart. As you navigate the ever-changing landscape of leadership, try to embrace progress and continue to evolve, both personally and professionally.

This article is related to my interview with Jess Kolko – Listen here. 

Photography by Kelley Raye //

Dr. Caneel Joyce is a CEO Coach and social scientist who helps people break out of the invisible traps and make whole-life changes easily and naturally.

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