The Placebo of Perfectionism: How to Tell the Difference Between ‘Must’ and ‘Maybe Later’.

There are some amazing and unique ways that us thirtysomeones stick out and shine, and one of my personal favorites is our resilience. There are some huge challenges that we face in our thirties and so many of us answer challenges by responding, “Because I have to,” and we inevitably get the job done, whatever it is.

For example, having kids or a high-powered career takes its toll on your time, your resources, your sleep schedule but you know you have to power through, ‘because you have to.’

But since last post, I’ve been wondering how much of this statement is true, and how much is placebo. Do we really have to? Or are we putting unneeded pressure on ourselves? What would really happen if we didn’t do all the things we say we ‘have to’ do?

Do we ‘have to’ make dinner tonight or is it okay if we have take out twice this week?

Do we ‘have to’ finish the to do list at work or can we delegate more and enjoy more of what’ s left of the summer at home?

Of course, we ‘have to’ do certain things to keep our kids, our partners and ourselves happy and alive. But we also have to be clear about what is a need, versus what’s a story we’ve created about the importance of perfection. In other words, are we overusing the words ‘have to’ to fulfil an impossible ideal and run ourselves ragged in the process?

Personally, the words ‘have to’ rule my life when it comes to my work. Because I work for myself, it can be tricky knowing what is positive self-motivation, and what is my overactive perfectionist brain talking. Like a placebo, that perfectionist inside can be very convincing sometimes and it’s only after a while and a bit of stress that I notice I was following the wrong advice. The key to discerning which shoulder is speaking is sometimes easier said than done but here are some key words to look out for – warning words that your perfectionist brain is taking charge of your life.

1. ‘Have to’

2. ‘Should’

3. ‘It’s important’
As I said before, some things truly are important, like feeding the children and walking the dog. But when we hear, ‘it’s important’ before driving to eight stores all over town just to get matching party hats for everyone that’s coming to our kid’s first birthday party that she probably won’t remember… alarm bells…

To tell the difference between authentic ‘have tos’ and the perfectionist ‘have to’ try this:

Ask yourself ‘For Who?’

In the case of moms, many times the answer is ‘me’. Because kids don’t really care. So in the end, you’re putting restraints on your own time, because of yourself. It’s a vicious and often unnecessary circle.

This is also true for a lot of perfectionists in general, myself included. Here’s my own personal rule I have for this that might help you at the office.

If I’m trying to be good at my job and my perfectionism rears its beautiful head, I allow it. But, I don’t let it tug at me when I’ve left the office. In other words, I don’t do extra work at home to pick at it. If it doesn’t happen during working hours, it’s not going to happen and I might have to look at a different area of my own personal development, like time-management.

You can also ask ‘For When?’

Deadlines are great for goalsetting and being productive, but if you’re filling your day with deadlines that are self-imposed, it’s time to rethink the schedule. Try and organize your deadlines and projects for the ones that are truly going to matter for where you want to be in five years. Unless you want to be crazed super-scheduling machine with no downtime, I suggest you move some things around.

It’s funny how we all know that perfection is impossible yet so many of us continue to chase it. If you feel like you’re running yourself ragged, don’t forget to look for the warning words and how your own perfectionism placebo might be running the show. If it is, schedule in some time to evaluate how much of yourself is being given to an imaginary expectation and if you really want that to continue into your future.

Happy August (enjoy the kids while you can!) and have a great week.

Please comment if you have a story or a comment about perfectionism and how you stay balanced. I’d love to hear it!

See more about me and my professional life coaching services for thirtysomethings at

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