“It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.” — Edmund Hillary
You’ve just finished that huge project, a really important one you’ve been working on for months.
And as you take in the congratulations from everyone around you – your boss, coworkers, and friends – something’s nibbling at you a bit.
While a part of you relishes the compliments as well as the accomplishment itself, another part of you (or, let’s be honest, perhaps even a pretty large part of you) isn’t quite satisfied.
Silently, in your head, you tell yourself the project could have been done sooner, better, even with fewer resources. You blame yourself for a glitch or two that could have been avoided, if only you’d done something different, known more, been more prepared.
While the praise from others pours in, this little part of you brushes off their words, and you feel a little fake taking in their compliments.
And the sweet taste of success starts to turn a little sour and bitter in your mouth.
What’s going on here?
The truth about high performers and success
If you recognize this type of situation, let me assure you that you’re hardly alone.
In fact, most of my clients – all of them mega-high performers – have faced some version of this type of critical inner dialogue.
My experience is that high performers are typically very hard on themselves – which might not be too surprising, given that having high standards and valuing excellence is usually part of what created that success in the first place.
What I want you to know is: holding high standards isn’t a problem, unless your personal values get twisted and overplayed into this concept called “perfect.”
And from what I’ve seen for many high performers, “perfect” can easily become the only marker of what is acceptable, much less “good” or excellent.
Dump the myth of perfect
Let’s get one thing straight right now: perfect doesn’t exist. It’s a complete and total myth.
Think about it: what in life is truly perfect – flawless – all the time?
It is rare, if ever, that all the desirable elements of anything line up exactly in one place at one time for more than a brief period of time: an ocean sunset, a rare flower blossom, or a baby’s smile.
The dictionary defines perfect as “having all the required or desirable elements, qualities, or characteristics; as good as it is possible to be.”
What I like about this definition is the part about “as good as it is possible to be”.
Because what I notice for myself, and for my clients, is that what constitutes “good” usually changes – perhaps even daily – depending on what’s going on internally and externally.
What I’ve seen consistently is that my high performer clients, who initially hold ‘perfect’ as their baseline standard, typically have strong personal values around quality, excellence, or achievement – values which are also more typically accessible and achievable than some ideal of ‘perfect.’
And so while perfection isn’t attainable (or even a reasonable standard), the good news is that values like excellence, quality, or achievement can be always honored, lived, and acted upon regardless of whatever circumstances you find yourself in.
How to find peace inside “perfect”
If you’re being extra hard on yourself, try this:
1. Stop and simply note your inner dialogue, without taking the content of it as “truth”, such as “you could have done better”, “what you should have done was…”, or “if only I”d….” With enough practice, you’ll be able to distinguish useful self-critique from harsh inner criticism.
2. Look underneath: often, there is a hidden personal value buried underneath what we’re hassling ourselves about. What value of yours is being revealed to you? Again, listen for the part of the criticism that’s useful, versus what activates more shame or negative inner chatter. For example, “you could have done better” might reveal a value about always improving.
3. Use your uncovered values to drive your next choice. If you value continuous quality improvement, focus on what you learned. Acknowledge where you demonstrated that value, and befriend it as an ally in your leadership.
In the Comments below, I’d love to hear from you. What’s your take on ‘perfect’? What helps you find peace and satisfaction in your own accomplishments?
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Editor’s note: This post was originally published in April 2016 and has been updated for content and relevancy.
Photo credit: Pixabay