How Two Events Changed My Mind On Perfectionism And What I Do To Manage My Inner Critic
Manage your inner critic and find the part of the brain that motivates you through positive emotions
My yearning for learning
One of my favourite quotes is from Alan de Botton, “Anyone who isn’t embarrassed of who they were last year is not learning enough.” It might sound a bit harsh if you have an inner critic like mine (more on that below) but it is truly something I have aspired to achieve in the last 5 years in particular.
I believe my energy for learning comes from two sources: my purpose and my perfectionism.
My purpose is to Ignite Your Spark. I want to ignite the passion, the purpose, the strengths in the entrepreneurs and leaders I coach and mentor. I believe entrepreneurs are a force for good, for change, for solving small and big problems and creating meaningful jobs. I want to be your thinking partner, your supporter and challenger whilst you go on the entrepreneurial journey; I want to help you not only to survive but to thrive.
My motivation to learn is not to accumulate knowledge for myself but to pass it on to you, the entrepreneur. Purpose in my experience is the source of incredible energy.
The second motivational force for my learning is my perfectionism. I used to think perfectionism was a good characteristic. Working hard to excel at whatever you are doing is a good thing but there is a tipping point where that fear of not living up to your ideal standards or others’ judgements can drive you to be a workaholic or prevent you from doing something in the first place because you can’t reach those high standards quick enough.
I would never give myself 10 out of 10 for anything I did because I would always find something I could have done better. It can be pretty exhausting being a perfectionist and not always easy to work with one!
What has changed my mind about my perfectionism?
A few years back I had a joint birthday partner with my partner, Tiger Lily (that’s not her real name but she doesn’t like the spotlight), and I decided to do something completely out of my comfort zone. To sing a song in front of 120 of our friends and family. I was told by my headmaster when I was 10 years old I couldn’t sing and as a result I became very self-conscious about singing in public. Lots of singing in the shower but not when anyone else was around.
On the day itself it was a complete surprise to her and everyone else in the room. My headmaster was right in the sense I was and am not a good singer but singing John Legend’s All of Me for TL is one of the best things I have ever done. I am good enough.
The second reason I have decided perfectionism has not been a force for my good came from feedback I was getting from people I deeply respected. I was being told that when I stopped trying so hard, to make it all perfect and just let my true self shine, my impact was significantly more powerful. I am at my best when I am free, confident and compassionate not an unconfident, impatient perfectionist. I am good enough.
These two bits of insights I describe above kick-started my I am good enough journey but I continually have to work at it. Our inner critical voices never fully go away. The inner voices in us starts as techniques to help us survive the real and imagined threats to our physical and emotional survival as children. A force which when we get hijacked by them affects how we feel, think and act.
Move from Saboteur to Sage
By the time we are adults, we no longer need these survival techniques but the neural pathways have been set and they remain an invisible force in our minds. To a degree the voices may have helped us get to where we are today but they have pushed us from a place of fear, anxiety, guilt etc. If we want to get over there and succeed even more we need to learn to not get hijacked but quieten or manage the inner critic. That way we can function from the part of brain which encourages compassion, curiosity, cooperation and creativity — positive rather negative reinforcement.
The inner critic may generate success but it doesn’t generate happiness. It is good to recognise you have played a bad shot but you do not want to take action when you are hooked by its impact on your thoughts or feelings. The speed of recovery from negative to positive emotions is the key to high performance. “Let the bad shot go,” and act from the part of the brain which motivates you through positive emotions. This will generate higher success and sustained happiness.
There are two effective routes to move from negative to positive reinforcement — weaken the negative and strengthen the positive. Shirzad Chamine, the Stanford lecturer and author of the book Positive Intelligence talks about weakening your Saboteur (i.e. your inner critic) part of your brain and strengthening your Sage (i.e. creative) part of your brain. I use these concepts when I’m coaching either my clients or myself.
How To Weaken Your Saboteur:
Get Beneath The Perfectionism
The core beliefs we develop about ourselves which for a perfectionist might be “I am not good enough” or “everyone else finds life easier than me” don’t just pop into our heads for no reason. They are either formed by your past experiences or taught to you by someone you looked up to. I have identified a couple of events in the past that I believe have contributed to my perfectionism trait. Getting beneath my perfectionism has been very helpful in itself.
Be Open With Your Perfectionism
It has been really helpful to talk about my perfectionism with people close to me and people I work with. Obviously to people who know you well it’s hardly a surprise but it might be useful for work colleagues to understand your tendencies. You can use others to help you manage the critic by, for example, setting limits on how much time you should spend on a project or how much information you need to gather for a decision you are making.
Recognise The Overly Critical Voice And The Triggers
Recognising my perfectionist inner critic voice has been a key step to weakening it. Typically, the voice is repetitive, it doesn’t ask questions, it loops around and around and it has a different tone to my ‘normal’ voice — a bit more frantic.
I have also over time recognised what triggers the perfectionist voice. An example for me is when I am doing something for the first time. I can go into overdrive learning mode with the belief I need to be an expert in something before I can expose my new skill to the outside world. If I listen to the voice too much, if I get triggered, it can really slow me down.
Label, Normalise and Separate
I have normalised the voice by putting a character on it — Captain Hook. This helps me see the voice as coming from something separate to me, it is a thought process separate from the real point of view. As a result I am not consumed by it and it puts things into perspective.
How To Strengthen Your Sage
I use various techniques to strengthen my Sage, a few of which I will touch on below.
One of the most powerful things I do is to stay present in what I am doing rather than be consumed by the past or the future. I practice mindfulness during the day as well as meditate every morning. The ‘informal’ mindfulness during the day might take the form of feeling the weight of feet on the floor or listening to the sounds around me or using the ‘478’ breathing technique to centre myself.
I will show myself some compassion. Treat myself like I would treat a friend, with understanding and kindness. I cut myself some slack. I will not try and push away the inner critic. I show Captain Hook some compassion too — it’s not such a bad character and I can learn to live with him as long as I take away his sword and put him in the passenger not the driving seat. Ok so he doesn’t drive — co-pilot rather than captain!
Get Curious and Reframe
I will get curious and explore with wonder what is going on. I will intentionally consider different perspectives from what the inner critic is saying. “What’s a different way to look at this?” I will try and come up with at least 3 scenarios why this apparent bad situation could turn into a gift and an opportunity.
Try Something You Are Not Good At
I am increasingly trying things out that I am not particularly good at. So far it has showed me that the worst that can happen rarely does and actually doing something is often the best way to learn.
It is hard to drop my perfectionist streak and I think it will always be something I need to manage as it is so deeply engrained. But I am optimistic it will get weaker as the years go by if I continue to deliberately weaken the Saboteur and strengthen the Sage muscles.
My desire to learn comes much from a positive place these days. And I am appreciating how letting go of my perfectionism is helping me to progress in directions I would previously not have considered. I will always want to excel at what I do but it’s ok to not get it right and to make mistakes. I am good enough.
We don’t need to get rid of our butterflies but to align them all in the direction you want to go.
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Hi, I’m Mark, I help accelerate the development of Founders into CEOs through coaching and mentoring. I have been there and done the entrepreneurial journey from all perspectives — as an entrepreneur, director, mentor, coach and investor. I am also a business angel focusing on fast-growing tech businesses in the UK, US and India.
About this publication
The Coach for Entrepreneurs is a series of blog posts covering all the topics which I believe will help entrepreneurs survive and thrive the entrepreneurial journey. Each blog is an extract from The SPARK Newsletter which I publish in full on my website Fit to Lead.