Updated: Sep 8
Gratefully, it has been over three and a half years since I started coaching, enough time to see patterns. Different things emerge in career and life coaching, however, I found three recurring characteristics that largely contribute to both work and life dissatisfaction. Interestingly enough, some –if not all- I struggled with at one point. In no particular order, I present the three traits that may be keeping you from living a more joyful life and ways to work through it.
I remember struggling with this the most. I recall not doing some work for art class in high school because I wanted it to be perfect. I had an idea of how it should look like or be done but I felt overwhelmed by my unrelenting high standards and would do nothing. Sometimes I would get it in after the due date, feeling the pressure of the deadline but satisfied with my work. It was either all or nothing for me, 0 or 100%, no in between. Writing too. This obviously manifested in other areas in my life and either sabotaged or debilitated me.
Do you relate to the extremes or high standards that are hard, if not impossible, to achieve? If so, you may be a perfectionist and - like me at one point - suffer from procrastination or perfection paralysis, either a long delay or just too overwhelmed to start.
Apparently, the latest findings of procrastination are that it has to do with stress rather than being unambitious. Makes sense with all the internal pressure. One client put so much pressure on herself trying to be the perfect mom that she was often irritable, non-present and a little too indulgent with adult beverages; the opposite of what she intended. Another client had a hard time accepting her manager’s faults, let alone hers, and did not realize how her perfectionism and high expectations were contributing to the ill dynamic until a few sessions in.
You can also identify perfectionism by wanting the right or perfect time, conditions, place, person, etc. before you start or say yes to something. Often times there is no right or perfect [fill in the blanks], however, it is often used as an excuse to act or start. “I don’t have [this], so I can do [that].” Perhaps the perfectionist brain can be satisfied that some particular task would turn out great if you did it but you didn't because of some noble excuse.
As a recovering perfectionist, I know this line of thinking all too well. What I find interesting is when prospective clients feel they need to get things organized or in order before the y start coaching. I guess their perfectionism or ‘ruled by rules’ thinking prevents them from seeing coaching helps with just that and more. Or is something else going on?
This is another recurring pattern I find when coaching. It could be that those prospective clients want to clean up their perceived mess before engaging in a coaching relationship to not burden me. Who knows?
People pleasing can be complex and highly nuanced. I do not identify with it as much; however, I did partake in it when I was younger. I was more afraid of missing out and would say yes to a lot of things because of this fear. This said, there were instances and periods where I sought value and approval by continuously putting other people’s needs before my own. Some people are more susceptible to people pleasing than others.
Historically, women have been socialized to prioritize other people’s needs. It is so embedded with some that they feel “guilty” taking time off, pampering or investing in themselves. Men can be big people pleasers too, depending on how they were raised. One former client was bullied as a kid and people pleasing and making people laugh was her way of feeling she belonged. Another client admitted he felt “emotionally distant” and uncomfortable if he could not please everybody.
Pleasing people can have its payoffs. Just like my clients, it can help with belonging, feeling close or that you are a ‘good person’ and want people to see you as such (self-image). However, often it tends to show up as feeling “spread thin:” undervalued and overcommitted or overscheduled. Which leads me to the next characteristic.
Overachieving is just that: overachieving. It’s the constant doing with hardly any stops. It’s the continuous internal pressure to perform, accomplish and exceed; I definitely overachieved in my life. I would do it in school, when I taught and in other areas.
Overachieving is what inspired my talk: Living from the Inside Out: Three Ways to Go From Over to Inner Achiever in Your Career and Life. In it, I talk about how I had no work/life balance as a teacher, how I was dissatisfied and burnt out, and how I overcame it. I provide the three steps I took to get in touch with my essential self and turn my life around so others can too.
Essentially, the drive to overachieve is that it is never enough or never good enough (similar to perfectionism, perhaps people pleasing as well). A lot of overachievers I met are overworked and overwhelmed. Their sense of accomplishment is fleeting if ever attained.
Take a client of mine, he was disappointed he was not tracking his time as he intended but did not realize his procrastination was due to an inner revolt against adding another thing on his plate. He was already productive and “on the ball” in so many areas and wanted to do more. I also believe he hadn’t realized how much he has achieved lately. This happiness gap widens (the insatiable mentality that you will be happy “one day” if you achieve [blank]) if unchecked.
Overachievers tend to overachieve or function in relationships too and wonder why the other person, be it parent, partner or child, does not “pull their weight.” One client overfunctioned[i] at work. He carried the workload of two executive roles and still took on more with everybody coming to him about everything. It took some time but we got him to function less so he could function better in the areas that were important to him, all the while allowing others to “rise to the occasion.” Creating healthy boundaries was a big part of it.
Healthy boundaries are something all three categories can develop since there is so much overlap with them, but before we can get into that let’s explore a little about what I believe causes these personality types.
I think most of my clients, and even myself, had a highly critical parent or parents. What we did was never enough or never good enough, or that is how we interpreted it. We then get approval from pleasing them and others and their approval gave us love or value. We had value if we did things right, attended to the needs of them or others and made them proud.
Thankfully, I broke that spell a long time ago and what I do now is please myself. I also find there is also a lack of trust, or control issues, with all three. Perhaps they could not trust or were out of control in the past and now make sure they do not feel that pain again. It’s complicated when they truly are kind people, like to be of service to others, do things with standards and integrity and are ambitious. Where does the dysfunction end and the authentic self start? That’s what I help with.
Speaking of help, here are some tips to help with perfectionism, people pleasing and overachieving but of course there are more:
· try to be mindful of negative self-talk and replace with positive self-talk or Loving Kindness phrases such as “May I be at ease and happy," etc.
· try to be compassionate to yourself and others
· try to be more vulnerable (a good read on this is Brené Brown’s Gifts of Imperfections)
· try to do an activity where it is not about performance or perfection, enjoy yourself
· let go and surrender more
· remember the oxygen mask in the airplane goes on you first so you can help others (if you are depleted then you have no energy for others)
· you don’t always have to say yes to others needs (it’s a choice)
plan for you (book time to meet your own needs and ·honour the commitment like you would any other)
· work on your worth through coaching or other means
· let go and receive more
· try to close the happiness gap by seeking internal sources of satisfaction
· create a daily success and/or a gratitude journal/log (try to do at least three a day)
· create more being time (what can you do that does not require you to perform?)
· ask yourself what you are trying to avoid or who you are trying to get approval from by constantly doing and achieving?
· let go and be more (note: I did not say do more)
Whether you identify with one or more of these, there is hope. You might not resonate with some of the strategies but maybe another will work. Try and see, play and experiment (especially for the perfectionists). “There is no growth in your comfort zone” however comfy it is.
What is one thing you can you can do or be to start? Remember, it’s about “progress over perfection.”
[i] Dr. Harriet Lerner extensively describes the over and underfunctioner imbalance in her book The Dance of Intimacy