Stylish at Work

My name is Sanam, and I am a recovering perfectionist

CareerSanam Khamneipur SmithComment

I am writing about perfectionism because it's a force in my life that needs to be tamed. Anyone who knows me well, knows I have high expectations, but also rules for myself and my actions and performance, that are above and beyond what they need to be.

This tendency I’ve had since childhood is serious, and needs to go. I liken it to an addiction because it gives the illusion of control, and in some ways numbs or hides what the reality of a situation is. Dinner parties need to be perfect, with everything tasting delicious and no dish burnt, outfits impeccable, home totally in order, and closet color coded and sorted, when possible, from heaviest fabrics to lightest, per Marie Kondo’s book The Life Changing Magic of Tidying (which I write about here). I’ve even included a recent photo of my closet to prove my point.

I am that person that when asked in a job interview what my greatest weakness is, says “I’m a perfectionist.” Anyone who hears that wants to roll their eyes and respond with something like “How could that be a bad thing?” or “That’s not really a weakness, how could it be?”  Well, I’ll tell you how, three ways (and there are many more).

  • Negative Focus instead of a positive one - If you’re only focusing on perfection as a standard, then anything less than “perfect” will fall short. This may seem like an obvious one, but seriously striving for perfect masks the beauty or accomplishment of whatever task you’ve done.  The accomplishment becomes unworthy unless it meets the impossible standard of perfection. In short, it disables you from seeing the positivity in something.        
  • New Ideas Die before they’re born. With perfectionism, there’s not room for happy accidents or mistakes. The best ideas sometimes comes unintentionally, from “mistakes.” If you don’t allow room for those mistakes to exist, then you’re ending many possibilities.
  • Learning Slows - Striving to be perfect can lead you to avoid trying new things or putting yourself in situations where you might make mistakes, thus missing out on a whole lot of learning. Trial and error is how we learn new things, and stretching ourselves to do things that are outside of our comfort zone whether in work or in life, is a hallmark of growth.
  • Relationships Suffer - Invariably, when we expect perfection of ourselves, we also have that standard in mind for others. We end up being critical and judgemental based on impossibly high standards. We start to judge people, whether it’s a coworker or loved one, as somehow flawed and falling short of our ideals. We end up disappointed, and end up in a lose-lose game.

So where is all this leading to? I’m calling myself out on my perfectionism because I want to change. Here’s a view things I’ve learned to tame the beast of perfectionism:

  1. Practice Letting Go - This one is easier said than done, but awareness is the first step. Once you know perfectionism is a challenge in your life, you can practice simply deciding not to be as attached to an outcome. Doing things to gain perspective helps greatly, whether it’s meditating, going for a quick walk and fresh air, or getting the second opinion of a trusted (non-perfectionst) person in your life.   

  2. Recognize There’s Not One “Right” Way - even the term perfect presumes that there’s only one possible positive outcome, but in reality there are always many. Remind yourself of this truth.

  3. What’s the worse that could happen? How likely is that to happen? - As yourself this question and find out the answer. This can help dampen your concerns. This tip, which is a great one, is from an interview on Forbes of Dr. Brene Brown by Oprah.

  4. If there were a serious life event that were to occur (birth, death, etc.) how would the importance of this rate in comparison? - Whatever thing is happening right now that's not "perfect" or how it's "supposed to be" may seem super serious, but sometimes you’ve got to ask yourself the big questions to get things into perspective.

Do you have any perfectionist tendencies or know anyone who does? If so, I hope these tips helped!