Protecting Your Potential

Thursday, December 22, 2011

How do you want others to see you? How do you try to present yourself to them? When I ask perfectionists this question, responses include wanting to be known as someone who is competent, intelligent, independent, and autonomous. In addition, perfectionists always want people to see their potential and recognize what they are capable of doing. It is very frustrating for a perfectionist to receive an “unfair” evaluation of their skills and talents because they had an off day or didn’t spend enough time on a given project. They want others to “see (and evaluate) me only when I’m at my best.”

When you consider working on a project, it occurs to you that you might not do it perfectly (fear of failure) or that you might make a mistake in completing it. At that point, the mere thought of beginning the project becomes so unpleasant that you simply put it off. As a result, this focus on “protecting your potential” typically leads to rumination about the evaluation of the end product, task avoidance, and eventually, missed deadlines.

Here is an example: Max was getting into more and more trouble at work by turning his reports in late week after week. When I asked what the primary obstacle was in getting them completed, Max confessed that he was worried about how others would evaluate his writing if he turned in a poorly written report. I asked Max how long he had been working at his current company. His response: “Ten years.” When I asked, “And how does your supervisor currently judge your writing skills?” he replied: “He says I’m the best writer in the department, except that my work is always late.”

In my own quest to be a perfectionist, I thought positive evaluations from others came when I did things extremely well and didn’t make any mistakes. My thinking went like this: If I’m supposed to excel in college and get into graduate school, then excel in graduate school and get a competitive internship, and so on – don’t I have to appear competent and above average? If I were really a standout, I would be able to anticipate any possible criticism and fix it before anyone saw.” As far as I was concerned, feedback equaled criticism and was therefore a failure on my part and a sign that I must not have tried hard enough.

It came as quite a shock to me to find out it was the opposite. Here are the things I learned when I actively sought out feedback and even criticism from others:

  1. Other people’s perspectives are just that – different perspectives. It wasn’t always a criticism; sometimes, it was just another strategy, and occasionally, it was a better one. Often, if I ended up incorporating it, I felt more of a sense of collaboration and teamwork. Sometimes input from others stimulated my own thinking and creativity, which resulted in a better end product.
  2. Constructive feedback can save you time. There have been multiple instances in which I have been working on a draft of a document, fretting over the word choice, spelling, and grammar only to end up finding out that this section of the final report wasn’t necessary. Receiving input on an earlier draft would have saved me an enormous amount of time.
  3. Asking for input doesn’t necessarily mean you abdicate the role of final decision maker. I’ve noticed that sometimes I (and probably other perfectionists) resist feedback – because we feel somehow that if someone gives us a suggestion, it needs to be addressed and incorporated. And sometimes this is the case – but not always.
  4. Asking for feedback from someone who is complaining and frustrated can disarm them. Many times, people just want to voice their opinion and know that someone is paying attention. Once they are able to say their piece, most often the issue is dropped.

The paradox of perfectionism: What you think is supposed to work doesn’t. And what you fear doing is sometimes the most effective course of action.