Stuck in a Perfectionistic Loop? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

I am uber conscientious and a perfectionist—and I can’t seem to stop. I was promoted a year ago and have a very professional and trustworthy team, but I am addicted to reviewing everyone’s work and making small edits and changes. I am staying way too late at the office and my husband is getting really annoyed with me. I know I’m overworking—but maybe more critically, I’m focused on the wrong things. I’m not paying enough attention to the tasks that are going to advance me professionally.

I know intellectually that I can’t dot every I and cross every T, but I just don’t know how to change. I keep telling myself I’m going to do things differently, but I just continue these compulsive behaviors. I’ve never found myself in this kind of situation. I used to be much more adaptable.

What do you suggest?


Dear Stuck,

It sounds like you’re in a hard place where your behavior is causing you real suffering. The good news is that your self-awareness is breathtaking, so you have that going for you. One of two things is going on here: you are simply stuck in a big fat rut that you can succeed in blasting yourself out of, or you’re going to need some professional help to get back on an even keel.

There’s no shame in getting help. If your company has an employee assistance program, I’d highly recommend that you take advantage of it. Just a couple of sessions with a trained therapist might do you a lot of good. I’m not implying there is anything wrong with you—but you sound overwhelmed and unhappy. I don’t think it would hurt to talk things through and get some perspective.

On your own, you can do a few things immediately to shift your situation.

First, stop. Just stop. Your brain has gotten into the habit of being on an endless loop, and you have to interrupt it. Neuroscientists have a saying: “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” This means you have well-worn neural pathways that make it easy for your brain to simply default to your usual way of operating. So STOP. Change your routine, change the scene, change it all up. Take a couple of vacation days and go for walks. Look at a horizon. Spend some time in nature. These aren’t just nice-to-haves—they all have been proven to change brain chemistry.

Next, make a list of all the habits you have created (most of which have made you successful, by the way) that need to change. It feels counterintuitive, but it is critical. You have to stop doing things that don’t serve you, so you can start doing things that do serve you. This sounds shockingly obvious, right? And yet—not everything that is simple is easy. If you want to learn more about the way we create and undo habits, you can read up on it here.

As you look to undo habits that aren’t serving you, remember that you can’t change everything at once. Prioritize the one or two things you want to stop or start that will make the biggest impact on your work processes. Maybe it is simply making a commitment to stop checking your people’s work. For example, you could announce that you will no longer be checking certain kinds of work. You can tell your team that you realize you have been overdoing the control thing, and it’s time to stop. Make sure they all understand your standards for what a good job looks like. (Please note: I don’t mean this has to be the first thing you do; it is just an example.)

Be sure to enlist others. You’ll need some support to make the changes you want to make. Discuss the situation with your manager if you can. Ask for a coach if that is possible. Enlist the help of a good friend you trust who knows you. It can be hard, but you should ask for exactly what you want and need.

Remember your past success. You know you have changed and have been adaptable in the past—you might think about looking back on what has helped you before. Self-awareness is the first step and you have that. Don’t stop there. You can do this, Stuck. You have done it before, and you can do it again. Take a step back, take a deep breath, get some perspective, set your goals, decide what to change, enlist others, and get help where you can. Help is available to you, and help is good.

Love, Madeleine

About the author

Madeleine Blanchard Headshot 10-21-17

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response here next week!

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