On weekends, after a busy week of work, one of my favourite things to do is slow down and spend some time in my garden at home, a thriving food forest packed with veggies, summer berries and fruit. Today, as I picked these mostly misshapen but completely delicious strawberries, I couldn’t help but think of so many coaching clients I have worked with over the years.

It suddenly hit me that these delightfully ugly and delicious berries, bursting with perfect sun-warmed sweetness would have been completely unacceptable to so many of them; the self-proclaimed “Perfectionists”.

They are all around, these perfectionists:

  • The young guns, keen to prove themselves in the world of work and bringing sky-high expectations to their first roles in Leadership, on the fast track to their first burnout.
  • The high-performing, mid-career achievers; deep in mid-life busy-ness with more senior roles, young families to take care of and a wild-eyed desperation to keep making everything in their world keep working perfectly, through sheer grit and unreasonably high standards that keep them constantly close to burnout.
  • The later-in-life leaders with a long legacy of being exceptionally tough on themselves and others, which has yielded positive results but at great cost.

I see these patterns constantly in my clients and in the world around me; no doubt because they were once part of my approach too, so I am familiar with the telltale signs. There seems to be a particular prevalence of this trait in the mid-career people I work with and Coach; holding on tightly to perfectionism as their driver to get the myriad of things done that they need to, in their being-a-great-parent, killing-it-in-my-career, let’s-not-forget-friends-family-fitness-and-hobbies lives.


Here’s the thing. Strategies like perfectionism (read: impossibly high standards for yourself that tend to leak in unpleasant ways out on to the people around you too) CAN be useful in the short term, or at certain moments of your day. Want to prepare for that upcoming big interview and land the job? Applying high standards to your preparations may help. Want to create a birthday party that your little person at home will remember for the rest of their lives? Tightly controlling the budget, invitations, food and games goes a long way. And having high expectations of yourself can lead to higher performance through more effort and attention to detail in your work. But the question I always ask is:


In truth, managing time – and life – is a never-ending exercise in practicing large and small trade offs. If you expect perfection from every piece of work you do, the trade off is long hours spent at work instead of with loved ones. Expect perfection from your team? The trade-off may be your like-ability, ability to influence and persuade, and ultimately your effectiveness as a leader. If you expect perfection from your home life too, then the trade off can be the peace of mind and wellbeing of your family members, rushing to keep up to your impossibly high standards.

The truth about perfectionism is that it can cause more harm than good, once there are other people in your circle to consider. And it can definitely cause more harm than good in yourself, in the long term. It is a recipe for burnout which very few escape.

In my 20’s, in the “climbing the ladder fast” phase of my career, people used to say to me, “You’re too hard on yourself, Catherine”. And I would laugh quietly to myself, because they didn’t see that perfectionism was my hidden super-power: the thing that drove my success. But I secretly knew it had a dark side: the extreme exhaustion of months of over-work on end; the unhelpful weekend coping behaviours that I needed to quiet the always-present inner critic; the bleeding out of these expectations onto others around me, making me a difficult person to work with who seemed to hold impossibly high standards for everyone (even though I never expressed these expectations to others). People pointed out to me that I was great at everything I did: my work, cooking, singing, other pastimes and pursuits, but little did they know my dirty secret: I only did the things that I KNEW I could do perfectly.

Eventually, little by little, I started to see the toll that my perfectionism was taking on me. I came to see that my close calls with burnout would continue and worsen if I didn’t change something. I started to feel trapped in by the prison of perfectionism that I had built. I changed jobs several times, searching for the place that would help me find the right balance to let go of my death-grip on perfection just a little: none of them did. And slowly I came to understand that the only thing I could change was me.

The process of letting go of perfectionism is different for everyone, and may require the help of a mental health professional. For me, it was the realisation that this thing that had served me was no longer helping but harming; and a slow stripping back of all the layers it contained. I started wondering what 80% effort would look like (instead of my usual “110%”) and secretly practiced it at times – no-one even noticed! I consciously listened to the voice of my harsh inner critic, so useful in pushing my performance in the past – and knew that I would NEVER speak to anyone else like that! I started practicing more gentle internal language and learned about the value of self-compassion, a skill to be learned and actively practiced. I started trying new hobbies, imperfectly, getting comfortable with being uncomfortably imperfect. My garden teaches me to accept the imperfections of the natural world every day (usually still delicious!).

And most important of all – I learned to take delight and pure joy in what was NOT perfect around me, and I laughed a HELL of a lot more.

These days, the shadow of that old perfectionism is my friend, not my enemy. I practice “PARTICULAR PERFECTIONISM” – I choose intentionally where, when and how I will apply my high standards, and when I will let them go. In doing a piece of work or study that matters to me, I will go for 100% (and be OK with 80 or 90 if that’s what happens). When creating a special event for someone I love, I will pull out all the stops and try to create something meaningful and beautiful. When trying a new hobby or pastime, I will give it my best shot and diligently work towards a high-level goal I have set for myself. But in all cases, I will put in my best effort – and then make peace with whatever results come my way. This allows me to grow and learn more often and I am free of the torturous need to control everything to the point of “perfection” (don’t even get me started on the forehead-slap moment when I realised that perfect doesn’t even exist!!).

It is trendy in Coaching circles to talk about how perfectionism is just a procrastination strategy; that “perfection is the enemy of good” and that it should be dropped like a hot potato as soon as it is identified. But I recommend a different approach. To all the wonderful people out there trying to achieve the best they can and navigate this difficult world with the tool of perfectionism I say: you don’t have to completely abandon high expectations of yourself, others or the world at large. I suspect that for most of you, that will be a task too large, a change too great to achieve. But what you CAN do, is learn to practice your perfectionism, more perfectly.

Apply it where it works, and use something else where it doesn’t. Recognise the benefits, but understand the costs of this approach. Be wary of the hidden toll on your health, your wellbeing, your relationships and the people around you.

And just be a little more Particular, with your Perfect. You just might find some more strawberries you can enjoy.

Image credit – Delicious, perfectly imperfect strawberries from my own garden on Wadawurrung Country.

Want to stay in the loop with new articles, courses and events?

Subscribe below!

100% NO SPAM guarantee. Unsubscribe anytime with 1 click.

What our clients have to say ...