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Unlocking Excellence: Navigating Perfectionism in High-Pressure Careers

Are you in a high-stakes profession where being perfect feels necessary for success, yet you are noticing it’s at the detriment of your wellbeing?  


There are many professions where actions carry significant weight and directly impact the lives of others, even being life or death. If you work in one of these careers, it is quite common for the pursuit of perfection to feel like the only path to success. The consequences of making a mistake can have profound, even life-altering effects. For instance, a simple oversight as a medical professional could sometimes mean the difference between a positive health outcome and a “code blue.” That’s why it is alarmingly common for individuals in high-stakes careers to struggle with perfectionism. The pressure to be flawless doesn’t seem like it’s just about personal achievement; it feels like a fundamental aspect of ensuring the well-being of those you serve. Perfectionism often gets confused as a necessity and responsibility. 


However, this relentless pursuit of perfection can take a toll on your own well-being. All too often it leads to burnout, anxiety, and ironically a decline in overall performance (American Psychological Association, n.d.). It involves a constant strain to strive for flawlessness, which depletes mental reserves, leaving you feeling drained and ineffective (Reilly, 2024). This can reduce your ability to excel and perform exceptionally, while also impacting your personal health and relationships (another key part of a successful career). 


If you are a perfectionist, it’s likely that you tend to hyper-focus, overthink, worry, and ruminate about all parts of a situation, even the ones you won’t be able to have control over (Bregman, 2019). In high-stake careers this probably seems critical to anticipating and preventing risky or dangerous circumstances. However, the irony is that it has little impact on the outcome; in fact, it just drains your personal resources. The cost of perfectionism is deteriorated wellbeing with little intended influence on the result (Reilly, 2024). 


If you work in a high-stakes, high-stress career, you likely wonder how it is possible to let go of perfectionist tendencies, when striving for perfection seems like the only way to ensure the best possible outcome. Overcoming perfectionism in these careers requires understanding a basic component of perfectionism: control. 


At the core of perfectionism is a desire for control—a yearning to preempt any potential mishaps to avoid feeling vulnerable (Dimaggio, et. al., 2018). But controlling every aspect of a situation is impossible. This is especially true in fast-paced, high-pressure environments that are inherently unpredictable. Learning to discern what you can influence — what’s in your control vs. what lies beyond your control — can be incredibly liberating. Even more so, it can help you be more efficient and effective. 


If you’re able to differentiate what is controllable and what it is not, and then actually let go of what isn’t within your realm of influence (arguably the most challenging part), you will be able to free up your energy, focus, mental capacity, physical resources and time for the things that you actually can impact. 


When working to conquer your perfectionism in high-stakes careers, it’s also crucial to differentiate between perfectionism and the pursuit of excellence. Perfectionism fixates on evading failure at all costs, driven by a deep-seated fear of making mistakes. Excellence, on the other hand, entails striving for the highest possible standards within the bounds of human capability, recognizing that errors are integral to the learning process.


Conquering perfectionism therefore requires cultivating a growth mindset (Dorwart, 2023; Dweck,  2006)). This mindset views challenges and setbacks as opportunities for growth and refinement, rather than as insurmountable obstacles. This approach shifts your perspective and relationship with failure so that you view it as an inevitable, necessary and even helpful part of life and work. This mindset will help you foster greater resilience, adaptability, and a more compassionate approach to self-assessment and personal development. It involves being self-compassionate, empathetic, self-aware, and realistic when setting goals and navigating adversity – all in the spirit of being as successful and impactful in your work role as possible (Dweck,  2006).


A key part of a growth mindset is recognizing that not all mistakes are equal. This understanding is an essential skill for overcoming perfectionism. In demanding professions, discerning between "bad" mistakes (stemming from negligence or avoidable errors) and "good" mistakes (resulting from unforeseeable circumstances or offering valuable learning opportunities) is paramount. Embracing the latter as avenues for growth can help mitigate the fear of failure that often underpins perfectionism (Edmondson, 2023).


While the impulse to achieve perfection originates from a place of genuine care and dedication, it's essential to acknowledge that true impact and influence in your role stems from a commitment to excellence. If you can redefine ‘perfection’ as prioritising putting forth your best effort while remaining open to continuous learning and growth, you’ll maintain your reputation as a high-achiever, reliable and successful individual; this shift will reap the benefits of pursuing excellence without the detrimental consequences perfectionism often inflicts on your wellbeing. The benefits of this reframe will be enhanced efficiency, heightened productivity, better performance, reduced self-imposed pressure and decreased anxiety.



References:


American Psychological Association. (n.d.). Perfectionism. In APA Dictionary of Psychology. Retrieved from https://dictionary.apa.org/perfectionism


Bregman, P. (2019, April 24). How to Manage Your Perfectionism. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2019/04/how-to-manage-your-perfectionism


Edmondson, A. (2023). Right Kind of Wrong: The Science of Failing Well. New York, NY: Atria Books.


Dimaggio, G., et. al. (2018). The problem of overcontrol: Perfectionism, emotional inhibition, and personality disorders. Comprehensive Psychiatry, 83, 71-78. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.comppsych.2018.03.005.


Dorwart, L. (2023, September 19). Perfectionism. Verywell Health. https://www.verywellhealth.com/perfectionism-5323816


Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Psychology Today, 39(4), 34.


Reilly, C. (2024, February 13). Wouldn't It Be Nice to Be Perfect? Studies Say Perhaps Not. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/colleenreilly/2024/02/13/wouldnt-it-be-nice-to-be-perfect-studies-say-perhaps-not/?sh=156b331f1e59



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