I met a woman who dreamed of creating beautiful jewelry but didn’t because she was “lazy.” Or so she said.
The truth was she was following a “rule” given to her years ago by someone else—someone who was no longer even in her life.
If you are not living the life you’re meant to yet, it’s not because you are lazy or stupid or lack motivation or don’t deserve it or any of the other negative, nasty things you’ve been telling yourself.
The reason you procrastinate, avoid taking certain actions or even sabotage your own efforts instead of going after your dreams is that, like the woman I met, you have an internal mental block that you may not even know is there.
Watch the video to find out how I know that’s true.
Do you find that a case of nerves can get in the way of going after what you want sometimes? Then this week’s technique can help.
Usually I use Tapping with clients to get rid of their deep-seated blocks to creating the life they want. But it’s not the only trick I have up my sleeve!
Do this simple technique when you’re just a little nervous about something and you will feel more confident in minutes. Watch the video now:
When you’re nervous you can’t think at your best or be as convincing or appealing as you are when you are confident, whether you’re giving a presentation at work or going on a date. Try this technique out next time you’ve got a case of the jitters and see what a difference it makes.
Today I want to give you a way to figure out whether your have a common block which can completely derail your progress. I’ll also give you a way to defuse it.
Although this block is common, it often manages to go unrecognized in most people since it only shows up when they start to make—and actually see—real progress towards their goals. That’s when it starts driving them to sabotage the progress they are making, which can be completely confusing as well as frustrating.
Why would anyone sabotage their own efforts just when they are starting to see some success?
Actually, it makes perfect sense that someone would sabotage themselves when they are starting to see improvement if the block they have is a fear of letting go of how they think of themselves. Take my client “Dominic,” an independent consultant who has a history of cycling back and forth between periods of expanding his client list and backing off from his business and letting it shrivel. He’s even been known to take a job in an entirely different field during a period where he is stepping away from his business. He truly loves what he does and wants to build a thriving practice, so we’ve been knocking down the internal blocks that get him off track.
After making some initial progress on his blocks, we decided to tackle his backlog of paperwork. Dominic had been letting his billing slide, which was doing a number on his cash flow. We made a plan, breaking down the project into several steps, then putting the steps on his calendar. We also made a plan for him get the billing done on a weekly basis going forward. What had seemed an insurmountable problem turned into something he could catch up on within a few days, then easily take care of after that. Dominic must have felt great, right?
Wrong. When I asked him how he was feeling, Dominic said with surprise in his voice that he was feeling “a little anxious.” As I asked more questions, he admitted that he didn’t know what it would be like to have his business running smoothly. He was a “flake.” Everybody knew that, including him. Who would he be when his business was thriving? He wouldn’t be that flake anymore. So who would he be?
Fear of losing…everything
When we have been holding a picture in our mind for a long time of who we are, anything that threatens to replace that picture can feel dangerous, even if on the surface we really want the change. It can seem to us, on some deeper level, that who we are will die if we change too much—even if we think the change is for the good. That’s extreme language, I know, but that’s how this block makes us feel. Then we will do anything, even sabotage what we want most in life, to avoid that frightening feeling.
Of course, we know that becoming more successful in our business or job will not make us die. But simply knowing that on an intellectual level does not change the emotional reaction we have to the “threat” to our self-image. And those emotions get triggered if we take a significant step towards change.
So if you notice that you start out full of good intentions on a new effort to move forward in your job or business, but pull back whenever you start to make progress, you may have this emotional block. If you have a pattern of doing something to screw up what had been off to a good start, you may have this block. Perhaps you just have a feeling that this might be a problem for you. If you have any of these indications, try this experiment.
What do you see when you visualize change, in detail?
Close your eyes. See yourself as more successful than you already are—maybe you are one more rung up the corporate ladder, or your business has a wait list of clients clamoring to hire you. Whatever you’ve been telling yourself is your next big goal, imagine you have achieved it and it’s effortless now. What do you look like? What does your workplace look like? Picture what you do during the day. Are you busy in important meetings? Traveling and giving presentations? Do you have more direct reports or people working for you? Who do you talk with and how do you interact with each other?
I assume that you will have more income. What are you doing with it? Imagine what it feels like to have more than you need to pay the bills, pay off all your debts, be able to go on more exotic vacations, pay for education, move to a bigger house, or donate more to your favorite charities—whatever you would do with the increase.
Now hear in your mind what the important people in your life are saying to you about your newfound success, whether that is your spouse, family members, clients, co-workers, bosses, or friends. Include important people from your past (your soccer coach, first wife, and brother you haven’t talked to in years). Don’t forget to “talk” to people who have died. Next, imagine what those same people are really thinking. Some of their thoughts will be the same as what they say to you, but some will be different.
If I’ve missed anything, be sure you put it into your picture. The goal is to really imagine all the aspects of your success. When you’ve spent some time getting a complete picture of this success and what it will change in your life, check out how you are feeling about it. You might expect to feel happy, excited, hopeful, even relieved, and you probably will feel some of those emotions. But if anything negative came up—like nervousness, worry, fear, heaviness, sadness, or overwhelm—some part of you is probably trying to avoid the loss of the “old” you.
Getting a negative feeling from inside yourself while visualizing your dreams coming true? Yep, you’ve got the block we’re talking about here.
Three simple steps to end the self-sabotage
One way to get around this block is to set aside time every day to do exactly what you just did. Visualize yourself as this more successful you, going through your day with all the perks of the success. You really only need to do this a few minutes at a time. But to make this work, you need to do three other things:
First, if negative things come into your visualization, like your boss yells at you, or you screw up and tick off your clients, or you are working too many hours, correct that part of the visualization. Visualize it again, but this time visualize the way you really want it to turn out (even if you have your boss acting out of character). After all, this is supposed to be the success you want, so see it that way.
Second, while visualizing, put each of your thumbs on the side of the index finger next to it and rub gently in slow circles near the base of the fingernail. This is a relaxation technique that will help you let go of the negative emotions that come up when you are visualizing your own success. This is key, since those negative emotions are the ones that are driving you to sabotage yourself when success starts to loom on the horizon.
Keep doing this exercise for a few minutes each day until the new you feels comfortable, and there are no more negative emotions connected to seeing yourself as successful.
We usually think that, to change how we think of ourselves, first we have to change what we do. It’s counterintuitive to think we have to change how we think of ourselves in order to change what we do, but that is exactly how you will get past this particular block.
So if you’ve discovered you have this block—you’re thinking of yourself as less successful than you want to be—it’s time to get started changing your thoughts. Until you do, it’s going to be nearly impossible to change what you are doing.
In my last two tips I’ve described the benefits you get from using optimistic explanations when you have setbacks in your business (“What Optimism Will Get You”) and what the elements of such an optimistic explanation are (“The Elements of Optimism That Can Unblock You”). I have culled this information for business owners from Martin Seligman’s classic book Learned Optimism, which is filled with ways to use optimism in multiple areas of your life. I recommend going to the source if you really want to dig in and make significant change to your whole life.
Of course, some people are naturally optimistic. If that is you, you have my permission to skip the rest of this post. This post is for the rest of us. It shows us how to develop an optimistic explanatory style to use when things go wrong in our business so that we can avoid feeling helpless and instead keep our energy and motivation going.
First, a quick recap. A pessimist explains bad things that happen in her business as permanent (“I’ll never sell this”), universal (“no one wants what I have to offer”), and internal (“It’s all my fault; I’m horrible at marketing”). An optimist explains his setbacks as temporary (“My sales figures have gone down with the dip in the local economy, but they’ll go up again when the economy picks up”), specific (“The last person I talked to didn’t need my services, but the next one might”), and external (“She wouldn’t listen to my offer all the way through; now must be a bad time for her”). For more examples of what this looks like, check out my last article.
Seligman has an involved technique using the ABCDE model from cognitive therapy to recognize and change your pessimistic explanations to optimistic ones, but I’m going to boil it down to its essence here, which is the “D.” “D” stands for “dispute.” When you catch yourself overwhelmed or feeling like giving up when you have a setback, call to mind what you told yourself about it. You probably have thoughts like: “I’m such a loser;” or “Why would anyone hire me?” or “Nothing is ever going to work out.” Those thoughts feel pretty powerful—and true—don’t they? And they sap your energy for going forward, making you feel like giving up.
Now imagine that those words were being yelled at you by your worst enemy. They don’t feel so true or powerful now, do they? In fact, you probably would tell your enemy exactly where he got it wrong. It’s time for a big realization. You are your worst enemy. So dispute what you are saying the same way you would dispute it if it came from your enemy.
Of course, this is easier said than done. You’ve probably got years, maybe a lifetime, of practice coming up with such negative explanations. So Seligman provides four ways to dispute with yourself:
look for the evidence;
consider alternative ways of looking at what happened;
think about the real implications of what happened; and
decide how useful your explanation is.
What Is The Evidence?
So you have been telling yourself a lot of lies and half-truths with these negative explanations for what happened. They only feel true because they are coming from inside of you. But just because they feel true doesn’t make them true. I’ve heard of one ABCDE approach that describes “E” as “play detective and look for the Evidence.” Look for the evidence that what you told yourself is true or false, or likely to be true or false. Look for ways that it is overstated. Look for what the statement missed. Be Sherlock Holmes. Often you will find you jumped to the worst possible conclusion based on very thin evidence indeed. This can often come up naturally when you think about disputing what an enemy said.
What Are the Alternatives?
So you’ve told yourself that you are a total loser and nothing ever goes right for you because something went off the rails at work. I know, I know, it feels true. Stop listening to your feelings now and listen to your head. What are other ways to look at what happened? If you are having trouble getting started, go back to the list. You are looking for explanations of the negative event that make it temporary, specific and limited to what happened, and/or due to causes outside of you.
If this still has you stumped, ask a friend you trust to give her alternatives. Don’t argue with her, just write down her list. Some of her possible explanations will be acceptable as is. You can also use her ideas as a springboard to get your own creative thoughts flowing.
Once you have a few alternatives on your list, you can go back to look at the evidence. Which one fits the evidence you have best? Or if there is no evidence, recognize that you can’t choose between the alternatives. (“She just hung up on me. I don’t know if she’s mad about the report, just got an urgent message about her kid, or AT&T decided to take away my cell phone service again. It could be any of them.”)
What Are the Implications of Your Explanation?
Let’s say that your explanation is correct. Yes, this client has fired you and is never coming back because you screwed something up. Does that really mean no one will ever hire you again? That you have nothing to offer? That all your clients will pull their business and you will have to go into bankruptcy? That you will end up living under a bridge? Take a deep breath and stop catastrophizing. Go back to the evidence. Consider what is likely to happen. Then look at what you can do to improve the situation going forward.
How Useful Is Your Explanation?
Let’s say you got yourself dead to rights. You screwed up big time and it’s bad. Will thinking about that screw up now do you any good? Of course, if you make a mistake you want to learn from it. (“My presentation was really poor. I probably did my reputation some damage with that one. I need to get some help on developing my presentation skills and put in some practice before the next one.”) But what about just brooding about how bad it went; going over and over how you blew it? Is that really useful? Probably more likely it is getting in the way of things you need to do, so you need to stop thinking about it.
There are three great ways to get out of dwelling on a negative event:
Do something physically distracting, then force yourself to think about something else that can hold your attention. So, if you keep flashing on that awful presentation, splash cold water on your face or snap a rubber band on your wrist whenever the thought comes to mind. Then think about, say, what additional product your favorite client might need from you. For this to work, you will want to have your interesting alternative thing to think about worked out in advance.
Schedule a time to think about what is bothering you. Then, whenever you catch yourself dwelling on the event, you tell yourself “Stop! I’ll work on that at 8 tonight.” You need to actually schedule the time, it needs to be at least fifteen minutes, and you really need to sit down and think about it during that time for this to work, though.
Write down your troubling thoughts as soon as they come up. You can then come back to work on ways to fix the mess deliberately rather than having the thoughts come up and pull your focus at inconvenient times.
Of course, you could combine two or all three of these approaches to get the maximum benefit. Schedule a time to think about the negative event. Then, whenever a negative thought about it comes up, write it down, snap that rubber band, say “I’ll think about this at 8 tonight” and think about something else. Or just pick one approach. Whichever you choose, do something to get on with what is important to you and get out of the negative spiral of dwelling on a negative event.
So go ahead and dispute the negative things you tell yourself when things go wrong. Pretend that a drunk on the street just said what you told yourself. Tell him all the ways he’s wrong. Tell him what the evidence is. Tell him the big picture and the real implications for what happened. Or decide what he’s saying is not useful now and take steps to turn your attention on to other matters. Whatever you do, don’t roll over and take it. You wouldn’t take it from a drunk or your worst enemy. So don’t take it from yourself. Dispute it and get your energy and motivation back. It may just be the way to get your business on track.
Last week I started a series on the practical application of Martin Seligman’s Learned Optimism to improve your results in your work. Last week in my post What Optimisim Will Get You I explained why using an optimistic approach can get you past some of your blocks and when to use it. This week I’ll explain the three elements of the optimistic explanatory style that get you motivated and energized.
Optimism as Seligman describes it is not some sort of dewy-eyed, happy-go-lucky approach to life that someone is born with. Likewise, being pessimistic does not mean going around being grouchy all the time. Instead they are ways of explaining events in your life. And since you can learn how to use an optimistic explanatory style, you can get the benefits of being an optimist even if you’ve never thought of yourself as one before. (By the way, if you think of yourself as a “realist,” you most likely use a pessimistic explanatory style more often than not.)
We will focus here on ways to get unblocked by changing how you explain to yourself why bad things happen in your job or business. Explain setbacks the wrong way and you’ll feel helpless, like it isn’t worth trying anymore, and your career or business will suffer accordingly. Explain them in the right way and you’ll bounce back quickly from the same setbacks, sometimes with more excitement and energy than ever, leading to all sorts of good results at work. So identifying when your explanations are blocking you and changing them to more motivating language are important skills to develop.
Everyone feels at least momentarily helpless in the face of a failure. The pessimist decides he is helpless and gives up. The optimist looks at the same failure and thinks of ways to limit it so he can go on to succeed. To react to a setback with optimism, you need to look at the three Ps of how you explain what happened, or your explanatory style: Permanence, Pervasiveness and Personalization.
Permanence: Temporary (Optimistic) v. Permanent (Pessimistic)
First, Permanence. An optimist thinks of a bad thing as a temporary setback, arising out of temporary conditions that will or can be changed. A pessimist believes it is something permanent that’s going to last for a long time because it was caused by traits that will not change in himself, or the economy, or in potential buyers, or in “people.” To use the optimistic approach, look for ways that a situation is temporary or the conditions for it can be changed.
Instead of thinking “No one is going to buy from my company in such a bad economy; I’m doomed,” you might think “Yes, the economy is bad right now, but it always cycles out of downturns eventually. I just need a plan for how to get through this lean patch.” Or “What can I provide that people need now because the economy is bad.”
Instead of “That was terrible. I’ll never get the hang of sales,” think “I blew that sales pitch, but I can go back over my notes and practice for the next one, and maybe get some pointers from my friend on how to handle that kind of objection.”
Instead of “My boss ignored my idea at the meeting because she doesn’t want to try anything new. I won’t bug her about it anymore,” try something like “My boss has seemed pretty out of it lately. Maybe she has too much on her plate to consider my idea right now. I can check back with her in a few weeks to see if anything has changed.”
So if you catch yourself thinking people, or situations, or even you, are “always” or “never” a certain way, and will never change, find ways to limit your conclusions. Remember: situations and people change all the time, so “always” and “never” thoughts are usually wrong on their face. Dig deeper for ways change may happen.
Pervasiveness: Specific (Optimistic) v. Universal (Pessimistic)
Next, Pervasiveness. A pessimist thinks a setback in one area means everything is going to go bad in all areas. She sees it as a universal failure. An optimist sees the setback as limited to the one event. He sees the failure as specific. Here’s how those two explanatory styles might look:
“All bosses will throw you under the bus to save their own career (so I’ll just keep my head down” v. “This boss will throw me under the bus to save his career (and I better get my resume updated)!”
“My services are worthless” v. “My services are worthless to this guy, but maybe that guy over there needs what I do right now.”
“The job market is in the tank. No one is getting hired right now. I’m never going to get an interview” v. “The overall numbers don’t look good, but my region is picking up faster than other parts of the country” or “my industry is actually growing” or “I’m not getting hired by statistics; I just need one offer from one company with one opening. There is always turnover from people retiring, moving away, or even dying. Something will open up if I just keep sending out resumes and networking.
Personalization: Externalization (Optimistic) v. Internalization (Pessimistic)
Finally, Personalization. A pessimist internalizes the cause for a failure, saying “I’m the cause of this problem” and calls themselves names (“I’m such an idiot.” “I can’t sell lemonade to people in the desert.” “I’m a total failure in this job.”) An optimist externalizes the cause, blaming outside people or forces. (“My co-workers didn’t do their homework.”)
Two things to be aware of on this last explanatory pitfall. First, it is the least important, so if you have limited time to make changes in your own explanatory style, focus on the other two. Second, and more importantly, you will not improve if you do not take responsibility for your mistakes. If you caused a problem, or were a significant reason for a failure, own that. But don’t call yourself names. Instead look at how you can change, learn or grow from what happened. That’s the optimistic and effective approach that will lead to better results in your career or business.
For the next week, pay attention to how you use the 3 Ps when something goes wrong. Do you see it as a permanent problem that is pervasive throughout all areas that is caused by your personal failings? If you find you lean toward any of those pessimistic explanations, you will want to get started on changing your explanations so you can be more effective and energized when you want.
Coming up next, I’ll detail some of Seligman’s specific techniques for changing a pessimistic explanatory style to an optimistic one.
I’m back! I took a few weeks off to follow Stephen Covey’s advice to “sharpen the saw” (and maybe get a little downtime in to increase my creativity), and now I feel ready to get back to work in a big way. While I was away, I spent some time re-reading an oldie but goodie, Martin Seligman’s Learned Optimism. In his book, Seligman points to research that shows that, for the most part, pessimists get bad results and optimists get good results in their achievements, mood, health, and (possibly) longer life.
The book is full of great information that you can use to improve many areas of your life. I’m just going to focus here on how you can use his research to improve your work, but feel free to get your own copy of his book to get all the benefits his approach offers. Since this is important, and Seligman has a lot to say, I’m going to describe it over several articles.
In this post we’ll look at what optimism can do for you, when you should use an optimistic approach and when you should choose a more cautious, pessimistic style. Optimism can be very powerful and overcome a lot of self-imposed blocks to your success, but you wouldn’t want to use it in every situation. Sometimes a touch of pessimism is called for.
First, What an Optimistic Approach Can Do For You
When a negative event happens, big or small—maybe the boss frowns at you, a client ends the relationship, you get fired—everyone feels at least momentarily helpless. For someone with an optimistic explanatory style, it hurts, but the feeling goes away relatively quickly and they can get on with creating the life and work they want. For someone with a more pessimistic explanatory style, that helpless feeling can go on a long time, leaving them stuck right where they are. So how we explain what happens to us determines how helpless or energized we become, which affects what we do, which in turn affects what we achieve.
Let’s see how this works. Imagine your boss tells you that your work on that last report was not up to her expectations. If you are a pessimist, you think things like “I’m no good at this,” or “Bosses always shoot you down,” or “I never get anything right.” This way of thinking saps your energy, leaving you with a feeling of Why Bother. If you are no good, you never get anything right, and your boss will always shoot down your efforts, there is no point to even trying. So you lose motivation, put in less effort at work and the next thing you know your reviews go downhill and you’re stuck in a dead-end job (or are out of work!).
Now let’s look at what happens if you use a more optimistic explanation for what happened. You feel bad, of course, but soon you start telling yourself things like “I’ve been worrying about Mom’s health lately, so I probably wasn’t as focused as I could have been,” or “This project was really rushed and I just didn’t have time to do it right,” or “I really didn’t understand what my role was and so I screwed it up.” With explanations like that, you shake off the pain of the moment and start making plans to do better next time, tell your boss what you need to fix the situation, or find a new job that is a better fit for you. You don’t feel helpless for long, and you have the energy you need to take action to succeed.
So the optimists go on to clear things up with their bosses, do better on the next project, learn new skills, apply for that interesting job, and get promoted. The pessimists sit back and tell themselves there’s no point, so those positive career moves elude them. Another way of saying this is that the optimist persists in the face of challenges; the pessimist doesn’t. This means that pessimists fail more often, even when they could have succeeded.
You can see how an optimistic style could also propel a small business owner beyond her more pessimistic competitor. Say they both lose an important customer. Ms. Optimist thinks “I didn’t give him enough attention over the past month,” or “The local economy took a hit that made it hard for him to buy from me now, but I just have to find a way to hang on until the upswing happens and clients like him can come back,” or “Sometimes I lose one for reasons I can’t control, but what I provide is useful so I can always bring in more customers.”
Compare her motivation and energy level after the loss of her customer to Mr. Pessimist, who says “I’m such a loser,” or “The economy is in the tank and there’s nothing I can do about it.” Ms. O looks for ways to improve what she offers and how she gets the message out to potential customers; Mr. P hunkers down and waits for the ax to fall. Who’s going to succeed?
The Value of Pessimism
This is not to say that pessimism doesn’t have it’s place. There are definitely advantages to using pessimism in certain situations. It would seem that pessimists tend to have a better grasp on reality. Optimists see what could be; pessimists see what is. Therefore, pessimists are by and large more accurate, particularly in situations where there are unexpected and frequent disasters.
Pessimists also tend to be more cautious. While an optimist thinks that things will work out, the pessimist buys insurance just in case. Pessimists save more money for a rainy day. They avoid danger.
So a touch of pessimism belongs in every career and every life at times. The trick is figuring out when to use a pessimistic approach and when to use an optimistic one.
When to Use Optimism versus Pessimism
Here are some guidelines for when to use an optimistic approach and when to be more pessimistic in your work.
In a situation where you want to achieve, like selling, getting a promotion, or being chosen to work on a high profile project.
If you need to keep up your morale, like cold calling or networking.
Where you want to lead or inspire people.
Where creativity is needed.
Where the cost of failure is low, like applying for a job.
If you are planning for a risky or uncertain future.
When counseling others whose future is not rosy, say, in a yearly review with an underperformer.
Where physical safety is at issue.
Where the cost of failure is high.
Let’s look at that last bullet-point more closely, because it is really the crux of your decision. If the cost of failure is high, you should use a pessimistic approach. Seligman gives examples of the pilot deciding whether to de-ice the plane again or the partygoer who needs to decide whether to drive or take a taxi home. Accidents and death are high costs to pay for failure. Choose caution and pessimism in those situations.
There are many situations where the costs of failure may feel high, but in fact are quite low. Consider the salesman who has to decide whether to make another call where he may be rejected; the independent professional who is considering offering a new service; the executive who has hit a ceiling at her current employer who is thinking about using (or building) her network to look for a new position. While rejection feels bad, it doesn’t really kill you. For that reason, all of the people in these and similar situations should choose an optimistic approach.
Seligman also lists jobs that require an optimistic approach and those that need a more pessimistic one. Here they are. Only optimists need apply for:
Presenting and Acting
Highly competitive jobs
Mild pessimists, or cautious types with a keen sense of reality, do well in “‘low-defeat jobs, jobs with low turnover, jobs that call for specific technical skills in low-pressure settings.” Seligman’s examples are:
Design and safety engineering
Technical and cost estimating
Financial control and accounting
Law (but not litigation)
Personnel and industrial-relations management.
Of course, even a job that calls for a realistic approach will have times where an optimistic approach is called for. Think of an accountant. He needs to be a realist with the numbers but use a positive approach when motivating his team. Or when he needs to bring in new clients. So even if your career falls squarely into the pessimist camp, realize that there are times to be optimistic. Flexibility will be your friend.
Here’s the best news of all. You don’t have to be born an optimist to get the benefits of an optimistic approach. You can learn how to use an optimistic explanatory style, then apply it whenever you choose.
In my next article I’ll detail the elements that go into an optimistic explanatory style. It’s not just putting on rose-colored glasses! There are three specific ways of looking at events, particularly negative events, that help you move forward with energy and motivation. Next week I’ll explain what those three ways are. After that I’ll show you Seligman’s specific techniques for changing a pessimistic explanatory style to an optimistic style.
Nancy Linnerooth has been helping professionals, executives and business owners for well over a decade to get rid of their internal blocks so they can meet their career and business goals.
These internal blocks often show up as repeating patterns of behavior that undercut what they’re trying to accomplish, like procrastinating; avoiding public speaking, cold calling and networking; choking in interviews; and becoming overwhelmed and losing focus.
Nancy comes to the world of coaching with a diverse background as a practicing psychotherapist of many years and a recovering attorney who got her JD from Harvard Law School. So she understands the demands of working in a high-pressured, high-stakes world.
Last week I described why demanding perfection from yourself can sabotage your work or business. You can waste enormous amounts of time and energy feeling bad that you don’t do your job exactly the way you think you should, or perform better than everybody else, or get more done. You may put off taking action—speaking up at a meeting, taking on a new project at work, or telling others about your business—and so miss out on opportunities that could come your way. So while working to improve your skills is an important part of growth and development, perfectionism is a major block to anyone hoping to advance in their career or grow their business.
If you recognize yourself as a perfectionist who is blocking your own success, then the technique I detailed last week of changing your internal message from “I’m not good enough” to “I am good enough” is a valuable approach to changing your perfectionist mindset. By all means, use it. But don’t stop there. To get even more powerful results, and get them quicker, try the opposite extreme for while. Start taking immediate action. Do things before you feel completely ready to act, before your plan is perfectly formed.
Leap First, Ask Questions Later
When you see an opportunity, step up and take it. If your boss says she needs someone to take on a new project, open your mouth and say “I’ll do it” before you have time to think of all the reasons you’re not the best qualified. If someone at the next table at lunch is talking about having a problem that your business handles, lean over, apologize for interrupting, and hand them your card instead of thinking of the other people out there who must know more than you do. Go ask your boss for something new to work on. In other words, leap before you look.
For the next month, try this as an experiment. Do not analyze all the pros and cons of doing things before doing them. You’ve already been doing that and it hasn’t worked for you —you fell into the perfectionist trap. So it’s time to try a new approach. Instead, act first then figure out how to do the best you reasonably can with the opportunity you now have.
If you are a true perfectionist, you are probably going into conniptions right about now, thinking “I can’t do that, what if I get it wrong? What if I don’t do it as well as the other guy? I’m just not ready. There’s not enough time.” Do it anyway. It is a fast way to get out of your old rut. The more you do it, the more successes you will have and the more you will realize that your old way of thinking (that you aren’t good enough at what you do and need to do everything better to be valuable) is wrong.
How to Leap First, In Two Easy Steps
If you follow a couple of steps, it will be easier to do this experiment.
First, talk and think about your goals for everything you do in a different way. Whatever your project is, whether it is fixing a process in your department that is too slow, editing an internal manual, or training your client’s employees in the use of new software, your job is to improve the situation and make it better than it was—not to make everything perfect. Remind yourself of this at every chance you get. When you realize that your goal is to improve things for your company or your client, then you will realize that every improvement you make gives value. In this way, every improvement you make is a success. Remember, perfection isn’t achievable. Improvement is.
Second, plan from the start to make changes to your project, whatever it is, as you go along. This is actually a deliberate approach taken by many companies because it often gets them better results than waiting to start work on a project until it is all planned out. That way they, and you, can make changes as they go along to meet the needs that become apparent only after they’ve been working on it for a time.
Case in Point: How Cal Built Momentum
For example, take a client of mine who realized he should be out networking for a new job but was having trouble getting moving. “Cal” had all sorts of excuses. He hadn’t updated his old resume. He needed to optimize it for the type of job he wanted to get. He needed to create a plan for who to contact in what order to get the type of job he wanted to get. Heck, he needed to figure out what kind of job he wanted to get! Every way he looked, he saw ways he could do it wrong, and that had him stymied.
To cut the Gordian Knot, he emailed an acquaintance, asking for coffee and the opportunity to talk about what kinds of jobs were out there. No, he hadn’t perfected his resume, his plan of attack or even his goal. But he was moving, and things started to fall into place. The acquaintance had heard of a couple of jobs that might do. They didn’t, but they got Cal thinking of some other places to look for job postings. Another friend offered to make suggestions for his resume and came up with changes that were far better than Cal would have made on his own. Soon he was clarifying what he wanted in his next job as well as getting a better idea of what was available. He was also sending out better and better resumes. None of these things would have happened if he waited until he had everything perfectly ready to go.
Your Assignment: Do This for 30 Days
If you are a perfectionist, here is your assignment. For the next month, whenever you get that familiar, uncomfortable feeling that you’re not ready, or not good enough, to take on a project, whether big or small, step forward and do it. (Okay, start with just a small project first if you need to, but as soon as it is complete do another.) Next, set a limited goal only to improve the situation you are working on, whatever it is, not to make it perfect. Finally, get started on it, knowing that you can and will adjust what you are doing as new information comes in.
(By the way, if you know that this is what you need to do to get out of your own perfectionist trap but you just can’t bring yourself to start the experiment, a coach might be able to help you dismantle the trap so you can move forward.)
Some part of all perfectionists knows that they can do more than they are allowing themselves to do. If that’s you, try this experiment and see how quickly you can strengthen that part of you and really start succeeding the way you know you can.
Perfectionism is a block many people have that masquerades as a positive attribute. We often think that the drive to be perfect in what we do and who we are pushes us to achieve more in our work. It does, to a certain extent. More often, though, it slows us down or even keeps us from starting something that has the potential to really propel us forward. Let me give you two examples of what this block can look like.
The Professional Perfectionist
There is a particular breed of independent professional who never seems to be satisfied with their abilities. They are always getting one more training, learning one more technique, acquiring one more string of letters to put behind their name. I support being a lifelong learner and seeking more knowledge in our professions when done for the right reasons. But consider one perfectionist professional, let’s call him Carl, who isn’t using the pursuit of knowledge to improve his work, he is using it to hide from his work.
Instead of bringing what he already has into the world to help people, Carl holds himself back with thoughts that he isn’t ready. He not only delays things like marketing to prospective clients and referrers, he even avoids printing up business cards and talks down his own abilities to friends and acquaintances. He keeps telling himself things like, “I’m not good enough yet. I’ll just get one more certification. Then I’ll be good enough at what I do to offer it to people.” But since he always sees one more something-or-other that he can learn, he keeps his availability under wraps. His business just limps along with too few clients. And people Carl could help go elsewhere, or do without.
The Corporate Perfectionist
Perfectionism blocks people in the corporate world, too. A client I’ve been working with recently, “Jen,” would go into a tailspin whenever anything went wrong—if her code broke, the boss told her to change something she had been working on, or a co-worker was recognized for his work when she was not. Any time her work was less than perfect, or even just less impressive in some respect than a colleague’s, she would tell herself “I’m not good enough,” and her work would suffer because of it. For several days she would go into a funk, not just feeling down but unable to think clearly and get her work done.
That message, “I’m not good enough,” is what I call an emotional belief. It is a statement that we can argue with logically, and even know in our heads to be wrong, but deep down it just feels true. It turns out that Jen’s emotional belief came from growing up with a father who taught her that everything she did had to be done absolutely correctly or it was a failure. Getting 97% on an exam was not enough. Why did she get that one question wrong? She worked very hard to get his approval, which was always out of reach. That drive to be perfect worked for a time. She got great grades, went to impressive schools, and got a good job, but ultimately it held her back.
Jen and I have been working, memory by memory, on defusing the times her father’s disapproval trained her to believe “I’m not good enough.” As each memory loses its punch. Jen finds she can bounce back from things that go wrong that much quicker. What used to take her days to recover from now takes a few hours or less. This is a huge improvement, and it shows not just in her mood but in her work, too.
A Quick Test: Are You A Perfectionist?
High achievers often have a touch of perfectionism in them. It pushes them to do better than others. But when it becomes a block, it can seem insurmountable. Look around at your own life. Do you have any examples of acting like Carl or Jen? Do you put off moving on an opportunity because “other people are better than me” or “I’m not ready yet,” even though what you have to offer right now is valuable and would help people? Do you beat yourself up (metaphorically speaking) whenever things don’t go exactly the way you imagined they should?
Here’s a quick way to determine if you have a perfectionism block. Say out loud “I’m not good enough.” How true did that feel to you emotionally on a scale of 0 to 100 percent? If your number is anything greater than 0, you could benefit from making a deceptively simple change.
Your Quick Escape from the Perfectionist Trap
Whenever you notice that you are holding yourself to a standard of perfection—whether you are putting off something that you know you could do now because you don’t feel ready, or you are feeling bad because you have not done something quite as well as you hoped—think to yourself “It’s good enough.” For added punch, say it out loud. If you actually catch yourself thinking something like “I’m not good enough,” then think or say “I am good enough.”
You may have to say it several times if your feelings drown the statement out. And you will have to keep changing your negative message to the positive one for some time to come, probably months, to break the old habit of perfectionism.
At first, you won’t notice much change. In fact, you’ll probably notice that you “talk back” to yourself, thinking things like “Still, I could have done it better” or “But I don’t have the training that so-and-so has” or even simply a sarcastic “Yeah, right.”
Keep going. Say it again. “It’s good enough, and I’m good enough.”
This is so simple it might seem too good to be true, but it works—if you stick with it—by challenging your negative mindset and re-writing a new message. (If your belief that you’re not good enough doesn’t budge after you’ve been challenging it for a while, it’s probably time to see a coach.)
Each time you remind yourself that you are good enough you will be taking a step forward on the road to changing the old message that has been holding you back. You will start to notice that it gets easier to bounce back from mistakes and take chances. And when finally you no longer hold yourself back by demanding perfection, you will discover that your “good enough” takes you very, very far indeed!
One of my clients, “Angie,” is making an important presentation this week. It’s high profile, and she would like to impress a number of higher-ups in her company who are attending. This is a great opportunity, and it comes with a lot of stress. Now I know Angie. She will come through this experience with flying colors, presenting her information in a clear way, fielding all the questions with ease, displaying her knowledge and ability beautifully. She thrives in high-stakes situations.
Compare her experience with that of another client I spoke to this week. “Barbara” told me about a high-pressure opportunity she had two years ago to show what she could do. She took the LSAT, the test would-be lawyers take before applying to law schools. She’s smart, motivated and really will be a good lawyer in time. But when she took that test she was too stressed to demonstrate any of that well, and her score showed it.
Do you stress-out preparing for important events? Don’t. Do the opposite.
What do you do right before an important “performance?”
Do you pore over all your notes just before stepping up to the podium? In the car on the way to the sales presentation do you rehash all the possible objections your potential customer may have and how you can respond to them? Do you reread the interviewer’s LinkedIn bio for the twentieth time while waiting for the receptionist to take your name? If so, you may be shooting yourself in the foot.
If you want to do your best in a high-stakes situation, the worst thing you can do is get yourself stressed. Don’t get me wrong, you have to do your prep work. Practice your powerpoint presentation. Learn the answers to customers’ objections. Research the company you are interviewing with. But do those things before the day of the event. When you cram the day of you increase your stress level. As I’ve mentioned once or twice before, the more stressed you are the less of your brain you can access. So cramming right before an important event, whatever that event is, will actually lower your performance.
So how do you get yourself in the right mindset to succeed? Just follow the immortal advice of Bobby McFerrin: Don’t worry, be happy. I mean it. If you aren’t happy already, get yourself there. When you are happy, you actually have access to more of your brain so you can think faster, be more creative, keep focused — everything you want and need in a high-pressure situation. So when going into such a situation, it’s in your own best interest to be happy.
How do you do this? Coming right up—but I couldn’t resist linking to the video, first.
How can you “get happy” when you want to?
It doesn’t have to be hard to do this. There are a lot of different ways that can work. One simple way to get happy is to think about one of the best moments of your life. Really try to relive it. Think about what it looked like — the colors, the light, the expressions on everyone’s face. Remember the sounds and how it felt physically. Go through all the senses, bringing up as much detail as you can. Take your time. The more detail you call up, the more you will be able to really feel the happiness you felt at the time.
Music is also a great way to bring up certain emotions. So listen to music that makes you want to dance. Heck, actually dance if that makes you happy. (Okay, don’t do either of those things in your office if they will get you fired.) I know people who swear that meditating raises their mood. For others, it’s looking at a baby picture of their kid. Still others go for a walk in the park. It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as whatever you do gets you feeling good.
Let me be a bit clearer. When I say do whatever works to feel happier this is not license to take drugs or alcohol. Remember, your goal is to access more of your brain. Drugs and alcohol have the opposite effect. Instead, I’m encouraging you to use natural ways to improve your mood. Think of what usually puts a smile on your face. Maybe it’s remembering swimming with your best friend in fifth grade, or planning a dream vacation, or watching old clips of the Marx Brothers. Give yourself some time to really think about this. Then pick one that you know really works for you.
You will need to schedule time right before the event to do whatever it is you’ve chosen to feel happier. The activity doesn’t have to take a lot of time. Thinking of the happiest day of your life could take less than a minute. Just be sure you don’t get yourself stressed out trying to take a ten-minute walk in the park if you only have three minutes. That would undo all the good you are trying to achieve.
Can’t get happy? You might have some unlearning to do.
I realize that some issues can’t be fixed with this quick tip. For example, problems like fear of public speaking will need more work to root them out. Barbara believed that she couldn’t take tests well. I know she can—once we break the old connection she has in her mind between taking tests and stressing out. So we’ve scheduled some time to “unlearn” that belief and get rid of the stress she feels around retaking the LSAT. Then she’ll be ready to take that exam again. And this time, she’ll get happy before walking into the testing center so she can really show them what she’s got.
Of course, if you’re like Barbara and have something big holding you back, you’ll want to work on it to level your own playing field. But for every other high-pressure event you have, just remember to get happy. Your performance will peak, and maybe you’ll get that promotion, or sale, or recognition that you’re ready for.