Megan Bruneau, WOMEN@FORBES

During the first 25 years of my life, I experienced three crippling failures that I can recall. They’re seared into my memory, archived effectively save remnants of stomach-turning shame.

The first, spelling ‘surprise’ incorrectly during a third grade test–my only 19/20 of the year; the second, getting rejected by Jackson Shea when I asked him to be my boyfriend in sixth grade; and the third, double-faulting on match point during my twelfth-grade provincial tennis championship final (thus ‘losing it’ for the entire team. My brother didn’t speak to me for two weeks). I don’t remember failing at anything else. However, this wasn’t because I was good at everything. It was because I only took action when I was positive I would succeed. If I sensed the possibility of failure, I either hyper-prepared or avoided. I only tested on subjects I could ace; I never again asked someone out, choosing instead to be in ‘relationships’ with men who respected me as little as I respected myself. I chose not to take any of the tennis scholarships I’d been offered, and didn’t play again for years.

Why was failure was so excruciating for me? Because my self-worth depended on marks, athletic performance, and appearance. I wasn’t equipped to deal with the shame and self-criticism that would ensue should I not meet my unrealistically high expectations. Failure meant worthlessness, self-abuse, and unbearably painful feelings.

This was, as you can expect, paralyzing. Still, the all-consuming anxiety was less distressful than experiencing failure. My self-worth vacillated between fleetingly ‘good enough’ and worthless. The resulting self-loathing and depression was inescapable. At fifteen, I began using bulimia and alcohol to deal with my perfectionism-fueled suffering. During grad school, I replaced those coping mechanisms with anorexia (which was ironic, given I was doing my masters in counseling psychology), and isolated myself from everyone except my boyfriend at the time. Unprotected from the crossfire of my internal war, he dumped me.

Heartbroken, jobless despite seven years of post-secondary, and nursing a running injury that prevented me from using exercise to cope, I experienced a breaking open and immersion into the feelings I’d been avoiding my entire life. I discovered yoga, Buddhism, and how to be kind to myself, and ultimately learned how to take risks, grow, and achieve from a place of love rather than fear (skills I honed–and still continue to hone–over the next five years).

Perfectionism is a misunderstood epidemic in our society–a self-sabotaging way of relating to ourselves and the world that robs us of happiness, connection, and opportunity. Take a moment to read the following characteristics of perfectionism resonate for you:

– Difficulty sitting with uncomfortable feelings (anxiety, guilt, loneliness, rejection, etc.)
– Fear of failure or not meeting expectations (internal or external)
– A critical inner voice (particularly in response to perceived failure)
– Inflexible, often unrealistically high expectations
– Self-worth dependent on outcomes, achievements, appearance

How do these traits sabotage your career potential?

As illustrated in the opening paragraphs, perfectionists cannot cope with the idea of failure. Perceived failure is met with intense self-criticism, distressful emotions, and plummeting self worth, so we stay within our comfort zones and only act when we’re absolutely, positively, 100% certain we will succeed. Yet taking risks is how we grow, learn, develop, and create new opportunities for ourselves.

Consider how perfectionism holds us back from success:

– We procrastinate because unrealistic expectations and all-or-nothing thinking makes projects paralyzingly overwhelming.
– We’re inefficient because we hyperfocus on inconsequential details.
– We redo or sit on ‘not yet perfect’ projects, thus affecting productivity.
– We avoid presenting or public speaking because of anxiety (thus never giving ourselves the opportunity to improve).
– We’re defensive in response to negative feedback (because we globalize their criticisms to our self-worth).
– We’re struggle with to admitting failure, error, deficits, or shortcomings.
– We avoid networking because of social anxiety and our critical inner voice.
– We’re avoid taking risks because there’s potential for failure.
– We micromanage others because of our need for certainty and control.
– We avoid trying new things or learning new skills because we can’t promise success/perfection.
– We’re unwilling to bring on team members more skilled than us because we compare ourselves and feel inadequate.
– We feel like we’re on an ‘emotional roller coaster’ because when we do well, we feel good, but when we do poorly, we feel worthless.
– We’re unable to have unstructured alone time, because we believe we should constantly be ‘doing.’
– We believe the way to ‘control’ our feelings is to suppress them, yet we experience breakdowns or outbursts as a result of our emotional detachment.
– We lack confidence and self-worth, thus underselling ourselves when it comes to applications, interviews, proposed salary, and promotions.
– We create unnecessary chronic stress, causing insomnia, heart disease, a compromised immune system, digestive upset and hormonal imbalances.

So what do we do about it? Like myself, some of us hit rock bottom and are forced to climb out, our worldview transformed in the process; however, fortunately being broken open is not the only way to shift away from the self-sabotaging behaviors of perfectionism.

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