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On Mary Poppins and the perfectionist trap

I once had a boss who, in a moment of characteristic levity, said that he thought I was “practically perfect in every way”. I took a while to digest this, struggling with a self-image of floating through the air with the aid of an umbrella whilst clutching a bottomless bag, and then retorted (probably equally characteristically) “So…what do I need to do to drop the ‘practically’?”

I have had cause to reflect on this since. Not least when asked that predictable interview question, “What would you say are your weaknesses?”, when it always seemed clever to practice a little reverse psychology and ‘own up’ to being a perfectionist.

These days I am a little bit wiser and recognise the trap of perfectionism for what it is: one of the ‘Twelve Traits That Trap Us’ identified by Kim Morgan of Barefoot Coaching in her Coach’s Casebook.

This didn’t stop me falling into the perfectionist trap when I was writing essays for my Postgraduate Certificate in Business & Personal Coaching. It has been some 40-odd years since I last wrote an academic essay and, during the ensuing decades I have honed my writing skills to the sharp, concise style needed for a career in public relations. So, I spent a summer tinkering with words, phases and concepts trying to make the essays as practically perfect as possible before I gave in (with a little bit of encouragement from Kim and from my Barefoot supervisor) and submitted them. And, sure enough, they were “good enough”.

Striving for the perfect is akin to putting on blinkers: you lose sight of the context and focus instead on the unattainable. When this happens, as a client of mine puts it “perfect becomes the enemy of the good”, and there is a risk that nothing will be done, or at least done well enough to keep the perfectionist happy.

It follows, then, that perfectionism and its close cousins, black-and-white thinking (“if it isn’t perfect, it isn’t finished”) and catastrophising (“if it isn’t perfect everyone will know I am not good enough”), are not helpful in life or the workplace, where they can lead to, among other things, missed deadlines, performance anxiety and low self-esteem.

Mary Poppins was, of course, super-human. For starters, she could fly and she had a bottomless bag. But she also took on the patriarchy, and won. And proved that empathy and kindness can challenge the economic hegemony. Had she been perfect, instead of just practically perfect, she may not have found the time. 

"Striving for the perfect is akin to putting on blinkers: you lose sight of the context and focus instead on the unattainable."
"perfectionism and its close cousins, black-and-white thinking, are not helpful in life or the workplace, where they can lead to, among other things, missed deadlines, performance anxiety and low self-esteem."