Bad Advice for Perfectionists: No Pain No Gain

Common maxims are well-intentioned but some are just plain ol’ bad advice for perfectionists, especially smart and caring women because they reinforce messages that burden them and hold them back.

This is Part 4 of a series on alternatives to making plans and beating yourself up–two things that become obstacles to getting unstuck. Be sure to check out Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 5.

Are you a perfectionist?

If you’re a smart and caring woman, I can bet you’ve got perfectionistic tendencies.

When you were younger, you were not only a good student, but you were probably a good friend and daughter too. You worked hard in school and then at work. You nurtured loved ones and were even active in improving your communities.

Over time, however, it gets to be TOO much. This often happens when you’re family begins to grow, but it can also happen when there is a crisis…which can happen to you when an elder relative suddenly needs care and that happened to all of us in the form of a pandemic.

Being everyone’s go-to person in high school or college was easy for you. Now, everyone always relies on you. And, you never say no, because you let no one down. You power through. Nothing comes in the way between you and the people you love. Finding new productivity tools, household hacks, you get it all done.

Sound familiar. Congratulations, you are a perfectionist.

The dead giveaway is in the extremes–words like “all,” “nothing,” “always,” “never,” “everyone,” and “no one.”

Sadly, all this peak performing is exhausting. Focusing on everyone else, you’ve lost yourself. You feel depleted wanting something to change, but you can’t figure out what that is.

And, that’s painful.

But, does it make sense to punish yourself even further?

“No pain no gain” may be helpful when in exercise or fitness. But, for perfectionists, it can be harmful. They don’t need more pain. And, yet this advice feeds them into becoming gluttons for punishment.

More specifically, “no pain no gain” reinforces for perfectionists that…

  • One’s “work” only counts when it brings about big results, is highly intellectual, or requires considerable effort or time.
  • Being critical of themselves is motivating.

Yet, neither of these is true. Worse yet, these two ideas hold women back…especially when they are stuck.

Here is what works instead:

Focus on an enjoyable process

“No pain no gain” reinforces that work needs to be hard and leisure should be fun. And such, dichotomous, or all-or-nothing, thinking is another symptom of perfectionists.

The truth is that when “work” holds our interest and gives us the right amount of challenge, we can experience flow. It’s those moments when we lose track of time because we get in the zone. This is when our activity becomes puzzling and pleasurable.

Finding flow isn’t about the impact you make or the outcomes. And, it doesn’t require a huge investment or any sort of pain.

It’s all about enjoying the process.

Meanwhile, “no pain no gain” also implies that there is a desired outcome. When I suggest searching for flow, perfectionistic women assume I mean they need to find a “purpose” or “passion” in life, so they hunt for those as if they could be found.

In my experience, you cannot plan or think your way to purpose or passion. Many of my career coaching colleagues suggest taking assessments and reflecting on past interests and accomplishments as a way to start. All good stuff. But, my clients, smart and caring women, have already done enough of this on their own and it didn’t helped.

This is because neither purpose nor passion should be considered outcomes, or things that are searchable. Rather, they naturally occur as you take action.

As you try out different activities, you get better and faster at figuring out what brings you flow. These activities don’t have to be grand. They require your interest in the process and your taking action.

And, the best way to start taking action is baby steps.

Yes, yes, you’ve heard me say it before, but I’m going to say it again:

Baby steps are far better than leaps not taken.

Celebrate and become your own cheerleader

“No Pain, No Gain” is also bad advice for perfectionists because it reinforces the belief that the way to motivate themselves is by being critical.

Perfectionists are good at being critical because they are good at spotting out imperfections. Their standards are high. And, since nothing is perfect, so much of what they see never measures up.

Worst of all, they become their own harshest critics. They only see in themselves how they fall short.

Meanwhile, smart and caring women are fantastic cheerleaders for their friends, family, and co-workers, but oddly they are terrible boosters of themselves. They freely celebrate the accomplishments of their children, staff, and friends, but they rarely celebrate themselves.

And, I’m not talking about being humble. Women I’ve coached have told me they are stuck because they are “lazy” and “procrastinate.”

When I point out that they are wrong, give them concrete examples of their accomplishments, or remind them how much they have done so that the people around them could succeed, they have trouble accepting the praise.

In essence, they punish themselves by withholding rewards and rejecting opportunities to bask…even a little.

They also can’t see how unfair it is to expect themselves to figure out what to do with their lives when they don’t even give themselves any time.

Thankfully, the solution lies in noting your progress and celebrating small wins. This is why daily got-done lists work to motivate you while long to-do lists can be a downer. It is also why great teachers ask students to regularly reflect on what they just learned and why parents should focus less on report cards.

Here are some suggestions you can easily test with today:

First, celebrate small wins–as many and as frequently as you possibly can:

  • Did you convicne the mechanic to come and fix your dishwasher right away? Boom! Celebrate.
  • Survived a long afternoon of zoom meetings? Yay, kiss the back of your hand, pat yourself on the shoulder, or shut down the computer and say, “I’m done for today!”
  • Did you finally get to those ridiculous health insurance claims? Woo hoo, put on one of your tunes and have a little dance party. (Don’t have any music handy? Try my “Bossy Moves” playlist. Warning: I have odd taste and some of these are not “clean”!)
  • Woke up today? Hooray! Rather than avoid looking at yourself in the mirror or berating yourself for how you look, give yourself a high five.
  • Figured out a work-around for a problem, text or call a friend who would totally get it.

Your turn

Tune out this bad advice for perfectionists by tuning in to focusing on an enjoyable process, celebrating progress, and becoming your own cheerleader.

I’d love to hear what you think you’ll try and how it goes for you.

This post is the fourth in a series. Read the first one, the second, the third, and the fifth. Don’t miss future articles by subscribing to my newsletter.

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