Give perfectionism the boot

Strive instead to put forth your best effort

Debra Chatman Finley knows no one’s perfect, but it took her years to actually believe it. She fought her way up the corporate ladder for 15 years to become vice president of marketing at Prudential Reinsurance Co./Everest Reinsurance in Liberty Corner, New Jersey, in 1995. But the higher she climbed, the more her self-esteem plummeted.

Rather than being excited about her new six-figure position, Finley, 44, began to internalize the increasing pressures associated with being the highest-ranking African American in a largely white company. She did more than outperform her white counterparts–she secretly vowed to never make a mistake in front of them. When things didn’t go exactly as planned, she would get depressed, then force herself to work even harder.

Late nights and weekends in the office were a regular part of Finley’s routine. She literally studied for meetings, hoping to eliminate any possible chance for error. “My work was a large part of my identity,” she says. “How well I performed determined how good I felt about myself.”

“Perfectionism can be an obsessive-compulsive disorder that causes the sufferer to believe he or she must do everything right,” says Daniel E. Williams, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in East Orange, New Jersey. “Subsequently, perfectionists put undue stress on themselves to do everything perfectly, which, of course, is impossible.”

After watching her stress levels skyrocket, Finley quit her job last year and sought professional counseling. “Now I’m not afraid to make mistakes if I know I’ve done my best,” says Finley, who used her time to earn a master’s degree in psychology from the College of St. Elizabeth in Morristown, New Jersey. “Sometimes I can even find pleasure or humor in my shortcomings–it’s such a relief. I no longer feel the need to be perfect. Having shortcomings is OK.”

If you’re battling perfectionist tendencies, consider these simple suggestions from the State University of New York Potsdam Counseling Center:

  • Set realistic goals.
  • Focus on the process of getting things done–not just the end result.
  • Understand that you can’t learn and move forward without making some mistakes.
  • Avoid all-or-nothing thinking in relation to your goals.
  • Use feelings of anxiety and depression as opportunities to ask yourself, “Have I set up impossible expectations for myself in this situation?”
  • Confront the fears behind your perfectionism by asking yourself, “What’s the worst thing that can happen?”
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