Perfectionism, anxiety and learning to be kind to yourself

“If an interviewer ever asks you what your weaknesses are, just tell them you’re a perfectionist”. 
This was the advice given to me by my boss in my first ever job in IT. It is the kind of statement that makes eyes roll across the board, interviewees and interviewers alike know it as a cop-out answer. The view is that you’re not really revealing any weakness because employers want to hire perfectionists, perfectionists do great work right? The best work! Perfect work! It never occurred to me at the time, as I naively accepted this older and more experienced man’s instruction, that I’d grow to learn the real truth behind this statement.

“Perfectionism, in psychology, is a personality trait characterized by a person’s striving for flawlessness and setting high performance standards, accompanied by critical self-evaluations and concerns regarding others’ evaluations.” — says Wikipedia. Sounds great! If I were an employer I’d want to hire someone who strives for flawlessness, sets high standards and cares about others’ evaluations, they sound like a real achiever. However, perfectionism can often be a blocker to achievement. Imagine that you are constantly aiming for perfection. Not greatness, not excellence, actual perfection. You can’t help but set yourself up to fail. Achieving perfection is not something that happens often. Perfectionists measure their own self worth by how able they are to achieve this perfection, by how much they can accomplish. If accomplishments aren’t attained then they can be very harsh on themselves.

I was ‘diagnosed’ as a perfectionist with anxiety last year. It was actually a relief to finally have a name to put to the stress I was feeling. Every time I made a mistake or had a mental block on a piece of work I spiraled into depression and paralysis, making the mental block worse and my disgust with myself greater. One time, the anxiety I felt over my own failure was so bad that it manifested itself into crippling neck pain and doctors eventually put me on Valium to force me to relax and take time out.

The way that I could (and should!) have avoided these black holes is by asking for help, or giving myself time away from the problem that I had hit. Unfortunately the tech industry, and capitalism as a whole doesn’t encourage us to do those things.

There are parts of the tech industry that I love, sure, but there are so many parts that discourage us from living healthy lives. Tech lauds the creator, the achiever, the ‘genius’. These people seem to be able to do everything right, know everything, continuously churning out new ideas and new products. They can instantaneously pick up new languages and new frameworks, hell they’ve written a new, popular framework while you were still struggling over learning the previous one. They are also constantly working, they never seem to need to take a break. We put these people on pedestal and endeavor to be like them, but we never hear about their foibles. We don’t know if they also have creative blocks, or how often they need to ask for help. It is also often easy to forget that they are specialists, they don’t know everything, they do know a lot about one thing in particular. We can’t all be this person, the genius. The average person is, well, average, but because of social media and this idea of the ‘tech celebrity’ we hear a lot about others’ accomplishments and not much about their hardships. We see people succeeding and creating and being excellent, but they don’t broadcast their mediocrity, or the times when they made mistakes.

Tech employers will often encourage the unhealthy belief that we should constantly be striving to work harder, create more, learn everything. Capitalism wants us to be productive, make more money so that you can spend it. Perfectionist employees will pressure themselves into tiredness, depression, paralysis and burnout all while probably continuing to turn in excellent work, never daring to ask for help because that would be admitting that they can’t do something.

So what can we do both as perfectionists and friends of perfectionists to make the tech industry a safer place to work?

  1. Be kind to yourself. Sometimes you just cant tackle a problem, that’s ok, it doesn’t mean that you’ll never be able to, it just means that you can’t right now. Give yourself some time and don’t let feelings of guilt or shame take over. Take a half an hour walk, or even a whole day or two away from the problem, but schedule in a start time for when you will try again in the future.
  2. Set deadlines/goals/targets/schedules that are realistic and tell someone about them. Too much freedom can often be stifling to perfectionists, we need something to aim for and improve upon. Given a blank canvas we’ll panic or procrastinate, or start and abandon multiple projects. Setting achievable goals will allow for striving for excellence while removing the paralysing nature of open ended tasks. Telling someone about a goal makes us feel more concretely about that goal. It is much easier to renege on a promise to yourself than a promise to someone else.
  3. Remember that ‘Perfect is the enemy of great’. How many projects have you thrown away because they weren’t perfect, or because you were worried about how others would judge them? Getting something out is better than abandoning your hard work.
  4. Acknowledge that you are your own most harsh critic. Most people don’t expect perfection from other people, perfectionists only think that they do. No one is going to judge you as harshly as you judge yourself. It is ok to make mistakes, everyone does! It is ok to release imperfect code. It is even ok if someone calls you up on a mistake you made, thank them, learn from it and you’ll both move on with your lives, the world will not end.
  5. Try to see yourself as you see your friends. It is easy to start putting yourself down when you don’t meet your own unachievable expectations. Consider how you’d react if someone said the things you’re thinking about yourself about one of your friends.
  6. Think your fears though to their logical conclusion. Perfectionists often think catastrophically, ‘If i make a mistake in front of my colleagues then that will be the end of everything’, without really thinking through what ‘the end of everything’ would actually look like. Consider the worst possible outcome of your fear, then be honest with yourself about how likely that scenario actually is. Then you can start to consider how such an event would actually play out and how bad or not it would actually be.

These are all still things that I am learning for myself. I’m starting to recognize when I’m engaging in black and white or catastrophic thinking, learning to be kind to myself, learning to ask for help. I think these are things that we should be encouraging our colleagues to do too.

The tech industry needs to get better at encouraging developers to ask for help and teaching that no one knows everything. You can make it easier for your junior colleagues by asking if they need help with anything and by doing code reviews and pair programming sessions. We should endorse a healthy work life balance and time away from the keyboard. We should acknowledge that everyone has a bad day occasionally and that we should treat mental health issues with the same weight that we do physical health issues. If you have the flu you take the day off, if you can’t face the office then don’t force yourself to be there.

If you’ve ever canned a project, or suffered from paralysis or depression or anxiety because of perfectionism, please talk about it. I’d love to talk to you about it!

The more I’ve spoken about my experiences with perfectionism, the more people have told me about their own similar problems, with the tendency for intelligence and achievement in tech industry employees, it is perhaps unsurprising that so many people suffer from perfectionism. The more open and communicative we are about it, the more pleasant a working experience we can create for everyone. I find this document by Anxiety BC gives very good advice.

Drop me a message below, or find me on twitter @thisisjofrank and finally, be kind to yourself.