Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Tackling perfectionism: Is ‘good-enough’ not good enough for you?

“I can’t be happy with being ‘good-enough’ as a mother and at work.  It feels like failure to me”

Many of the women returners I talk to hit a barrier when we start to discuss the compromises they will have to make when going back to work. 

Emma* had a high-achieving accounting career before having children. Describing herself as a perfectionist, she told me how in her 20s she had worked long hours and “given 100%”. Soon after returning to work after her second child, she became overwhelmed and exhausted: “I felt like a poor mother and was frustrated that I could not give as much to work as I used to”. After one particularly stressful month, she decided to give up work and become a full-time mother. Six years later Emma is discussing her options with me. She wants to return to work now the children are at school as she wants to 'use her brain more'. However she is finding it hard to compromise on her family life.

Like many previously high-achieving mothers, Emma’s perfectionist focus had switched to "Supermum": being the best mother, finding the best schools & classes for her children and creating a perfect home. All her time and energy had been put into bringing up her family and she could not see how to cut back.

Perfectionism can be a major barrier to returning to work - the reality is that we have to make trade-offs.  If we set impossibly high standards for ourselves, looking to be both the perfect employee and the perfect mother/partner/daughter, we are at risk of continually feeling inadequate. Do we want to always feel like a failure? We can make this worse by the classic perfectionist's reluctance to delegate - we have to do everything as no-one can do things as well as us.

If you find yourself falling into this trap, spend some time thinking about your priorities and what is most important to you. Is it necessary to dedicate yourself totally to your children to meet your own view of what a good parent is? Are you spending too much time and energy on things which really don’t matter that much? If you are really motivated to work, how can you free up the necessary time and energy? For example, does the house need to be tidy all the time? Will your children really suffer if they don't have homemade food at every meal or homemade cakes for their school cake sale? What can you give up? What can you delegate to your partner, a child-minder, a cleaner, etc.? Exploring your job options, consider whether you are making life harder for yourself by looking for the ‘perfect job’. Work out your key motivations for wanting to return to work, what is essential for you in a job and what you can compromise on.

Aim towards viewing compromising as a good thing - it means we’re making positive choices.  As Rosabeth Moss Kanter said in a recent Harvard Business Review blog: “You can have it all. It just won’t all be perfect.”

Try out a new perspective on success. Success is typically seen as high achievement in one activity, feeding the myth of the perfect mother or the perfect lawyer/doctor/teacher/manager. Consider instead that personal success can be about creating a full, rich and satisfying life by doing just enough and being ‘good-enough’ in a variety of roles rather than outstanding in just one. We don’t have to give up our high aspirations, just to redirect them towards a more reachable objective.

*names and some details have been altered for confidentiality

Posted by Julianne

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