Natalie Englander On How To Get Past Your Perfectionism And ‘Just Do It’
Develop self-compassion — this is the ‘perfect’ antidote to perfectionism. So much of perfectionism is characterized by self-criticism, and learning to love yourself and be kind to yourself is fundamental in healing. Self-compassion requires hard work and effort but it’s definitely worth it.
Many successful people are perfectionists. At the same time, they have the ability to say “Done is Better Than Perfect” and just complete and wrap up a project. What is the best way to overcome the stalling and procrastination that perfectionism causes? How does one overcome the fear of potential critique or the fear of not being successful? In this interview series, called “How To Get Past Your Perfectionism And ‘Just Do It’, we are interviewing successful leaders who can share stories and lessons from their experience about “how to overcome the hesitation caused by perfectionism.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Natalie Englander.
Natalie Englander is a Principal Cognitive Behavioural Psychotherapist and a Mindfulness & Self-Compassion Teacher, and she’s also known as The Perfectionism Therapist on Instagram. Natalie works for the NHS as Deputy Clinical Lead for a mental health service, a position she reached by the age of 29, and she also runs her own private practice where she helps woman struggling with perfectionism, low self-esteem and anxiety. As well as being a therapist Natalie also happens to be a recovering perfectionist, and she uses her social media platforms and podcast guest appearances to raise awareness and show that there is another way of being a high-achiever without all the perfectionism baggage!
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I grew up in Hertfordshire in the UK with my parents and three brothers. I had a lovely childhood although my parents divorced when I was young and this definitely had a big impact on me. I’d say all of my family are high-achieving perfectionists, and these traits began to show up for me when I turned 15 and started studying for my GCSEs at boarding school. To my surprise I got all A*/A grades and three As at A-Level — and there was born my desire and drive to succeed! One of my A-Levels was in Psychology and I knew as soon as I started learning about how the minds works that I wanted to be a therapist, so I kissed goodbye to wanting to be an actress (growing up with all boys certainly doesn’t make you a wallflower!) and headed to university to study Psychology.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
It’s got to be the quote from Winnie the Pooh by A. A. Milne — ‘You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think’. It’s such a hopeful quote and feels like a friendly embrace with a sprinkle of empowerment on top. Part of working on my perfectionism has included believing in myself more, and this quote has always served as a helpful reminder for me.
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
I’d have to say Kristen Neff’s book ‘Self-Compassion: the proven power of being kind to yourself’. I was first drawn to Neff’s work because it intrigued me that she was offering an alternative to self-esteem with self-compassion, which she believes to be a better and more effective path to happiness. I noticed in my work with clients that self-worth could change day by day depending on the latest successes or failures, so self-compassion seemed like a more stable and long-lasting option. And from a personal perspective, the three components of self-compassion — kindness, common humanity, mindfulness — definitely appealed to me as a recovering perfectionist, and it also felt like the logical next step in deepening my mindfulness practice and taking it to a new level.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Being conscientious and organist — if you asked any of my work colleagues about me these are the words that would probably spring to mind first. Being conscientious means that I like to do my work well and thoroughly, and because of that I have self-discipline and strive to complete tasks to the best of my ability. And I think being organized is a wonderful skill to have but it’s often underrated because there are so many benefits that come with being organized! When you’re organized you’re more able to get stuff done and you’re able to do so without feeling as overwhelmed. It’s also allowed me to build a reputation for being efficient and reliable, which has definitely been important in helping me to achieve leadership positions.
Having good interpersonal skills — this is probably the most important character trait and most instrumental to my success, particularly when it comes to having got promotions and worked my way up the ladder. Without good people skills being a leader is near impossible. I’d say my good interpersonal skills have always been a character trait, but I feel like I’ve had a sneaky advantage to hone these skills having been a therapist for a decade where my days have been spent actively listening to people with empathy and tuning in to the feelings and perspectives of others to help them manage their problems.
Ambition and drive — being ambitious means that I have a strong drive to succeed, and this means that I work hard and I’m dedicated to overcoming a challenge and sometimes exceeding expectations too. It’s also meant that I love to learn and grow, and with this has come the ability to remain curious and always reflect. Reflect on myself, what went well, anything I could improve for next time, and so on. You’re definitely taught to reflect a lot as a therapist too which is useful, because reflection is often a skill that needs to be built.
Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. Let’s begin with a definition of terms so that each of us and our readers are on the same page. What exactly is a perfectionist? Can you explain?
A perfectionist is someone who;
- Relentlessly strives for extremely high standards that are personally demanding and often unreasonable.
- Judges their self-worth based largely on their ability to strive for and achieve such unrelenting standards.
- Experiences negative consequences of setting such demanding standards yet continues to go for them despite the huge cost to them.
It’s perfectly fine to have high standards, but what often isn’t so fine is the way in which these standards are pursued if you’re a perfectionist. It’s also worth noting that there’s a difference between being a high-achiever with healthy striving for excellence vs being a perfectionist with unhealthy perfectionism.
Healthy striving for excellence includes having high but standards but;
- You learn from mistakes
- You’re able to tolerate uncertainty
- Achievements are judged objectively
- Your goals are achievable
Unhealthy perfectionism includes having high standards but;
- Mistakes feel catastrophic
- Uncertainty is highly aversive
- You always feel like a failure or not good enough
- Your goals are unrealistic
As a CBT Therapist I also follow Professor Roz Shafran’s work on perfectionism and she playfully outlines 5 types of perfectionists:
- The Driven Academic Achiever — who must achieve 100% at all times without fail.
- The Risk Evader — with the all-or-nothing approach who lacks the confidence to try new things.
- The Aggravated Accuracy Assessor — who must achieve exactness and is fixated on the ‘re-dos’.
- The Controlling Image Manager — who wants to be perfect and be regarded as perfect.
- The Procrastinating Perfectionist — who is paralysed by fears and self-doubts that impair the ability to start of finish work.
In the past I’ve definitely experienced flitting from the Driven Academic Achiever to the Aggravated Accuracy Assessor — oh the joys of perfectionism!
The premise of this interview series is making the assumption that being a perfectionist is not a positive thing. But presumably, seeking perfection can’t be entirely bad. What are the positive aspects of being a perfectionist? Can you give a story or example to explain what you mean?
I’m a recovering perfectionist and a successful leader so it can’t all be bad right! But let’s explore this in more detail in Psychology terms…
Perfectionism includes ‘perfectionist concerns’ and ‘perfectionist strivings’. Perfectionistic concerns include things like self-criticism and are associated with anxiety, depression and eating disorders. However perfectionist strivings include things like striving for achievement and can be linked to positive outcomes such as self-efficacy.
So whilst they are technically some positive aspects of being a perfectionist, on the whole I’d maintain then when we think anecdotally about the positive aspects of being a perfectionist we’re probably thinking of high-achievers as opposed to a true perfectionist with clinical perfectionism.
It’s funny because as a human I want to say ‘yes there are benefits to being a perfectionist’, but as a therapist I know this isn’t really the case. Having worked on my own perfectionism I’ve come to learn that most often the cons outweigh the pros, especially once I realised that I can have high-standards and achieve great things without the down-sides of perfectionism.
What are the negative aspects of being a perfectionist? Can you give a story or example to explain what you mean?
The negative aspects of being a perfectionist that I’ve experienced have often been an inability to switch off and relax as a result of my constant striving and this has led to burn out. I have to work hard at self-care and taking a break, and try to keep a balance between doing and being, as opposed to swinging from all to nothing i.e. from go go go to exhaustion.
As a therapist I know that perfectionism can have a negative impact on the way we think and behave which in turn can affect how we feel, often leaving us feeling anxious and depressed.
In terms of how perfectionism impacts on our thinking, perfectionists often experience several common cognitive biases. These include;
- Discounting the positives — discounting the good things that have happened or putting them down to something else other than yourself.
- Shoulds and musts — using words like ‘should’, ‘must’ or ‘ought’ to put unreasonable or unrealistic demands on yourself.
- Self-criticism — putting yourself down, having negative thoughts about yourself, and blaming yourself for situations that aren’t totally your responsibility.
- Over-generlisation — seeing a pattern based upon a single event, being overly broad in the conclusions we draw, and making broad generalisations about your experience.
- Black and white thinking — sometimes called ‘all-or-nothing’ thinking where things are either all good or all bad.
- Compare and despair — seeing only the good and positive aspects in others and getting upset when comparing ourselves negatively against them.
In terms of how perfectionism impacts on our behaviour, perfectionists often engage in approach or avoidance behaviours;
- Approach behaviours include things like excessive checking, list making, correcting others, and excessive organising.
- Avoidance behaviours include things like giving up too soon, indecisiveness, putting things off and avoiding tasks you fear you’re unable to do adequately.
These behaviours can create some short-term relief in our efforts to manage anxiety and attempt to control outcomes, but they don’t help in the long-term. I’ve definitely experienced both the approach and avoidance behaviours!
From your experience or perspective, what are some of the common reasons that cause a perfectionist to “get stuck” and not move forward? Can you explain?
Procrastination — need I say more!
Often the reason perfectionists procrastinate is because they hold unhelpful assumptions which can generate discomfort (e.g. boredom, frustration, fear, despair) when doing a task, so procrastination then becomes a strategy to avoid the discomfort.
Common unhelpful assumptions linked to procrastination are;
- Fear of failure, i.e. ‘I must do it perfectly otherwise I’ll fail’
- Low confidence, i.e. ‘I’m not capable of doing this’
- Intolerance of uncertainty, i.e. ‘I need to be certain of the outcome’
- Seeking pleasure, i.e. ‘YOLO, I’d rather do something enjoyable’
- Wanting control, i.e. ‘Things need to be done my way’
Here is the central question of our discussion. What are the five things a perfectionist needs to know to get past their perfectionism and “just do it?” Please share a story or example for each.
1 . Learn practical strategies to tackle procrastination;
- Set time limits to do a piece of work
- Get the worst task done first
- Build momentum by ticking off an easy task first
- Plan to do just 5 minutes, and then see if you can do another 5 minutes and so on
- Figure out what time of day you’re most productive
- Figure out where you’re most productive i.e. in your office, kitchen, coffee shop
- Plan rewards for after you’ve completed the task
2. Live by the mantra ‘Done is better than perfect’ as wisely said by Sheryl Sandberg. And remember that it’s likely that your version of ‘done’ is probably pretty excellent in everyone else’s eyes!
3. Re-evaluate the importance of achieving — when your self-esteem overly relies on your ability to achieve it’s helpful to broaden your interests and develop other ways of feeling good about yourself so that it’s not just about striving for and achieving high standards.
4. Build self-worth — work on your self-esteem and feeling good enough. Usually therapy is a great place for this — I speak not only as a therapist but also from personal experience as a recovering perfectionist.
5. Develop self-compassion — this is the ‘perfect’ antidote to perfectionism. So much of perfectionism is characterized by self-criticism, and learning to love yourself and be kind to yourself is fundamental in healing. Self-compassion requires hard work and effort but it’s definitely worth it.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
Ooo! So I’m actually working on something that I’ll be launching in 2022 and it’s all about redefining self-development… We live in a world where we’re constantly striving to be bigger and better, when in actual fact maybe the key lies in instead nurturing what we already have and learning to love and accept ourselves. Now wouldn’t that be the ultimate form of self-development, imagine how much better our lives would be then.
Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens!
Arianna Huffington — because she’s a powerful and successful woman and she looks fabulous. I bet she’d have some amazing stories to tell and I love her mission with Thrive Global to reduce stress and burnout. Her books are great, and I really like that Arianna is redefining success!
How can our readers follow you online?
Come and say hi on Instagram @the.perfectionism.therapist.
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Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!