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Why perfectionism is such a confidence killer

Black Swan, starring Natalie Portman, tells the story of destructive perfectionism in the ballet industry. Image: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Confidence is essential for forging new paths in our careers, building relationships and for our mental health.

But if there’s one thing that can seriously dent confidence, it’s perfectionism, leadership specialist and author of The Power of Real Confidence, Michelle Sales, told Yahoo Finance.

“One of the main issues around confidence is essentially perfectionism. When we are a perfectionist, it can have a real impact on our confidence in that we refuse to do things until they're just right. We overwork things,” she said.

“Confidence is really built on your sense of being able to achieve something, not necessarily that you will have the capability to do it, but that you actually believe that you can do something.

“Perfectionism really impacts that.”

What causes perfectionism?

An inability to let something lie until it’s perfect - which is often impossible - can come from a number of factors.

“Sometimes it comes from our upbringing and our family and what our parents expect of us. Sometimes it comes from our workplace; we've had leaders that have perhaps been perfectionists themselves and they ask us to do and overdo and overthink and overwork what we're delivering.”

But it’s most likely a mix of our upbringing and our workplace, while genetics can also have a part to play.

According to Canadian psychologists Paul Hewett and Gordon Flett, perfectionism can also surface as an adult in three ways: when you choose to pursue perfectionism on your own, when you believe that significant people in your life expect you to be perfect and base your worth upon it, and when you expect other people to be perfect.

Thomas Curran, a social psychologist from the London School of Economics and Political Science has also noted that the number of people believing they need to be perfect has skyrocketed in recent decades.

Analysing 40,000 university students from around the world, he found that between 1989 and 2017, the number of students who felt they should be perfect rose from 9 per cent to 18 per cent.

“Perfectionism develops in our formative years, so children are more vulnerable,” Curran said in a TED Talk this year.

“Parents can help their children by supporting them unconditionally when they’ve tried but failed. And mum and dad can resist that understandable urge in today’s highly-competitive society to helicopter parent.

“There’s a lot of anxiety communicated when parents take on their children’s failures and successes as their own.”

How do we learn to relax?

Sales said the first step is to acknowledge that achieving perfection is often very difficult, and frequently impossible.

“A question that I love that really helped in this space is asking yourself, ‘What's the worst that could happen?’

“It really helps us to think about that, and to ask ‘What is good enough?’”

Being comfortable with those possibilities is a good start in building confidence.

“A little bit of self compassion, going easy on ourselves when things don’t go well can turn those qualities into greater pieces of success,” added Curran.

However, he said society also needs to consider whether a relentless schedule of competition, testing and evaluation is actually delivering benefits great enough to outweigh increased anxiety.

“We have a shared responsibility to create a society and a culture in which young people need less resilience and less perfection in the first place.”

The future of work will be discussed at the Yahoo Finance All Markets Summit on the 26th of September 2019 in the Shangri-La, Sydney. Check out the full line-up of speakers and agenda for this groundbreaking event here and buy tickets here.

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