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Let Go of Perfectionism with These 3 Shifts

In the work world there are no gold stars for effort or report cards to gauge your progress.

Yet a common mistake is treating work like school. As CEO and author, Sallie Krawcheck points out, “Let’s not confuse what made us successful in school for what can make us successful in our careers.”

While an honor roll mindset can translate into a drive to succeed that lands you deals and accolades, it can easily lead to workaholism and burnout.
The industriousness that served you well in school may now be what’s actually hindering your productivity and professional progress.

That’s because when you hold yourself to exacting standards — as many high-achievers do — you can get caught in the trap of perfectionism.

The result? Feeling perpetually frustrated, stressed, unacknowledged, or like you never measure up.

Here’s some signs an ‘Honor Student Hangover’ might be costing you:

You beat yourself up when you make a mistake

For you, a goof is really hard to rebound from — even if it doesn’t have a larger effect on your career standing.

Perfectionists experience shame, as opposed to guilt, over screwing up. Shame says, “I am bad” (which suggests a character flaw), whereas guilt says, “I did something wrong” (which suggests it’s in your control to fix or improve).

If something isn’t perfect, it’s not good enough

You insist on dotting every “i” and crossing every “t” on every single task, or else it just doesn’t sit right with you. That tunnel vision can stunt your ability to make decisions and move forward.

Attention to detail is obviously an important skill that makes you successful (even if you’re not being graded on it anymore). But there’s a difference between excellent and perfect. The latter does not exist.

You push yourself to work harder — not necessarily smarter

You’re never satisfied with yourself, most notably when you’re treating yourself to hard-earned, well-deserved downtime, which you probably view as wasteful.

This penchant to give your all to your career can come at the expense of your well-being, leaving you ripe for burnout.

You expect gold stars

In her book The Happiness Project, happiness expert Gretchen Rubin talks about her frustration with not receiving metaphorical gold stars for adult achievements. If you feel expectant of, and disappointed by not getting a pat on the back for your successes, you’re probably suffering from ‘Honor Student Hangover,’ too.

Here’s the thing: it’s great to have high standards, and even better to be able to actually hit them most of the time.

But if in your career you’re constantly striving for A-pluses, the effort is not only futile, but also harmful. You’re going to drive yourself to burnout.

Besides, it’s simply not possible. It’s not how the working world, well, works. Trying to achieve the same “Gifted and Talented” student status in your job is a dream destined to go unfulfilled.

Here’s how you can hold on to high standards, but keep perfectionism in check.

1. Face up to the ironic consequences

Not only does having an honor student hangover from your adolescence into your adulthood drive you nuts with unrealistic expectations, it can actually erode your self-esteem and performance.

If you’re constantly falling short of where you think you should be, you’re never going to feel good enough. Over the long term, that feeling of inadequacy can become a self-fulfilling prophecy: you’ll shirk new responsibilities, avoid taking risks, and otherwise stunt your professional growth all because of fear.

2. Consider multiple measures of success

As a student, you were graded on academic performance alone. In real life, how you define success is much broader and more within your control.

In fact, research shows that chasing after external motivators like a prestigious title or bigger paycheck won’t make you happier. Pursuing meaningful work and deep relationships, on the other hand, can result in authentic happiness.

3. Have some compassion for yourself

Remove “I wish” and “I should” from your vocabulary. Only say things to yourself that you would say to your close friend. Cut yourself some slack.

If you’ve had a life-long track record of achievement, carrying your honor student outlook into your professional life is something that probably happened naturally, and it’s not the easiest habit to break.

Start to separate the parts of that mentality that are productive from the ones that no longer serve you.

Then you can strive to continue succeeding without the weight of trying to reach an unreasonable bar.

Let Go of Perfectionism with These 3 Shifts

Melody Wilding, LMSW

Melody Wilding, LMSW is a performance coach, licensed social worker, and has a Masters from Columbia. She helps established and rising managers and executives advance in their careers. Her clients work at companies like Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, HP, and Deloitte. She also helps entrepreneurs take bold steps to grow their businesses. Melody has helped over 10,000 smart, self-aware people like you. Her coaching gives you actionable strategies to reach your goals. You get concrete steps to overcome the complex struggles of success. Melody loves arming ambitious people with tools and tactics to boost their confidence. She can teach you skills for assertiveness and influence. Her specialties include better managing your emotions at work. Melody also teaches Human Behavior at CUNY Hunter College in NYC. She writes about psychology and careers for Inc., Forbes, Fast Company, and more. Click here and grab the FREE COURSE to go from insecure to unstoppable confidence 5 DAYS TO FREEDOM FROM SELF-DOUBT..

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APA Reference
Wilding, M. (2018). Let Go of Perfectionism with These 3 Shifts. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 29, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 23 Sep 2018 (Originally: 23 Sep 2018)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 23 Sep 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.