Doing Your Best and Being a Mess

I want to promote ‘close enough is good enough’, ‘good enough is good enough’, permission over perfection.

The shift to a virtual working world (for those privileged enough to be able to do their job online, if they have a job at all) brings a multitude of challenges. Beyond ‘How to lead a team virtually’, and ‘How to work remotely’ one insidious challenge comes from an increased exposure to social comparison.

While much of the shared content on social media is generous and communally focused, I personally experience a lot of pressure when I see posts on Linked In or FB of, for example, wonderful creative activities parents are doing with their kids. My mind goes: “I’m not doing that. If I’m not doing that what does it mean about me? … (insert unkind, self-critical thoughts here).”

One of the strongest influences on our behaviour is what other people are doing. It’s called the principle of social proof. Especially when we are uncertain, we look for social proof. This is a time of massive global uncertainty and we are looking to what others are doing to guide our decisions and actions. And as a consequence, many of our inner critics will be busy judging how we are measuring up.

Sally Helgesen and Marshall Goldsmith in How Women Rise write about the Perfection Trap which is particularly problematic for women. Striving to be perfect can…

  • create stress
  • waste your time
  • keep your focus on small details distracting you from the big picture
  • prevent you from taking risks as you fear making mistakes
  • create a negative mind-set
  • set you up for disappointment because perfection is unrealistic
  • train others to expect your intervention as you hold on to control and responsibility

These gender expectations start in childhood as girls are rewarded more than boys for being good students and good girls, internalise expectations about being conscientious and precise, and worry about being good enough.

These expectations continue to be reinforced by others in the workplace. For example women might fear making mistakes (internal), but research shows that when women actually do make mistakes they tend to be viewed more critically and punished more harshly (external reinforcement) than men in similar situations.

Here are four ways to respond to the pressure of perfection.

Connect to the big picture
It’s critical to take the time and space to discover what matters most for ourselves. You might do this by contemplating your legacy, your gifts and strengths, and how you want to spend your time. Be wary of cultural messages about what you think should matter to you. This resource by Russ Harris* might help.

Prioritise, prioritise, prioritise
You have limited time, energy and money. Allocate these precious resources where it matters. Where can you be most useful in order to achieve the things that matter to you most? Tiffany Dufu in Drop the Ball puts it elegantly when she describes asking herself whether she is working towards her highest and best use by doing any given task on her to-do list. Your values (above) serve as your compass to guide you.

Delegate or let it go
This is the hard bit. Do what matters, delegate some, and let go of the rest. Importantly, expecting less of ourselves and more of others requires that we not only release a task to the other person, but we must also resist criticising when it’s done differently or doing it ourselves, even when it doesn’t get done.

And for the rest, drop it. I do not bake for school bake sales any more even when my kids come home with a cake carton (presumably to fill). That is not my highest and best use as a mother. Presently in lockdown, I’m unhooking from stories my mind tells me about being a bad parent if I don’t craft with my kids on the dining table or create an obstacle course on my driveway. What matters to me is to have discussions with my children about history and human rights and equality as we watch Hidden Figures or Green Book together.

Allow and accept
And when we are delegating or letting go, we need to allow ourselves and others to make mistakes and to be imperfect. This is an ongoing practice not a place we arrive at or a task that is completed. We can learn to make space for uncomfortable feelings like guilt or frustration and allow them to be there, without being dictated to by them. We have to remind ourselves that we are worthwhile and have something valuable to contribute even in our imperfection.

I wish you all the best with being an imperfect mess.

*Russ Harris


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