High Achievers Can Build Stronger Relationships by Doing Less and Embracing Imperfection


High Achievers Can Build Stronger Relationships by Doing Less and Embracing Imperfection


Here in Silicon Valley, we’re surrounded by high achievers. It seems like everyone’s just launched a start-up company, bought a new Tesla, or their kid got into an Ivy League college. All this achieving is great – it drives innovation, solves problems, and fuels our economy – but it can also take a toll on individuals and their relationships.

I encounter people every day who are over-stressed, always busy, and pushing themselves to constantly do more and achieve more. There’s a lot of pressure to be “successful” and in a technology-centered world, it’s easy to get caught up in perfectionism and achievement-based self-worth.

In addition to the stress, fatigue, and toll this takes on our physical bodies, it robs us of some of life’s pleasures. Personal relationships often get neglected when we try to do everything and be good at everything.

I find that when we’re driven, goal-oriented, and trying to keep everyone happy, we sometimes neglect the people who actually mean the most to us. We know that relationships give people the most satisfaction in life and we also know that we can’t set them and forget them. Relationships need nurturing; they need our time and our energy.

Boundaries build strong relationships

Boundaries help us prioritize what’s important. None of us can do everything. We can’t volunteer for every project and we can’t accept every new client or business opportunity. We can’t attend every party or solve other people’s problems.  We all have to make choices about how to spend our time and energy and we should prioritize the people and activities that mean the most to us, rather than saying “yes” to every request or invitation.

I find that people shy away from setting boundaries because they don’t want to be “mean” or feel guilty. It helps to remember that saying “no” to one thing means you can say “yes” to time with your partner or family (or with yourself since a strong relationship with yourself builds strong relationships with others). This is a loving act, not a selfish or mean thing to do.

It’s OK to let people know that you can’t take on anything more. This isn’t a failing or a shortcoming.  It’s wise to know what your priorities are and where your limits are. It’s wise to know how to take care of yourself so you can do things from a place of health and desire rather than out of obligation and distress.

How can we do less and embrace imperfection?

I worked with a man who described his wife as a Type-A, perfectionist, over-achiever. His wife was always busy; she got tons done and was very successful, but she was never satisfied. She couldn’t leave anything undone or done imperfectly, so she spent her evenings cleaning the house (or re-cleaning it because he hadn’t done a good enough job) and writing reports and reading work emails. All this man wanted was to snuggle up with his wife and watch TV without her pulling out her phone or jumping up to do “one last thing”. He felt rejected because it seemed she always chose work over him. Sometimes our partners just need us to be fully present and giving our full attention as a demonstration of love.

Perfection is overrated

Not everything has to be done perfectly. This may be hard to accept if you’re a perfectionist. Ask yourself if creating the perfect agenda for tomorrow’s meeting is more important than quality time with your family? Is a spotless house more important than playing a game with your kids?

You can learn to let things be imperfect with a strong intention and lots of practice. It will feel uncomfortable and often a therapist can help you deal with the underlying anxiety. I find it helpful to frame the discomfort as both temporary (it will pass and you’ll learn to tolerate it) and as a choice. You are actively choosing to leave the report or housekeeping imperfect in favor of doing something that you’ve decided is more important.

High Achievers and Perfectionists often put their energy into work and neglect their relationships.If we value relationships, why do we put our energy elsewhere?

Work is often a quick way to feel validated and needed, especially if your relationships are difficult or unsatisfying. It’s natural to gravitate toward things you feel good at. If your home and family are sources of conflict and stress, it may be easier to turn to your job, hobbies, or even your kids’ activities as sources of validation and to give your self-esteem a boost.

If you’re a high achiever whose self-worth is based on your job, it’s challenging to say “no” to work commitments or opportunities. Once again, it helps to turn to your values to inform your choices. Instead of choosing what feels satisfying (in this case, work), prioritize time with your spouse even if initially it doesn’t give you the self-esteem boost that you’re looking for. Remember that it’s still worth doing and that your partner isn’t always going to make you feel good. Realistic expectations such as this help avoid disappointment.

Showing imperfections helps build connection

If you want to connect more deeply with your partner (or anyone else), try sharing your “messy” imperfect self (otherwise known as your authentic self). Deep connections tend to form when we share our struggles and imperfections. Most people actually prefer “real” people to “perfect” people. It’s hard for me to relate to “perfect” people because I feel so imperfect and full of struggle. I’m drawn to people who will understand my challenges and accept my imperfections because they, too, have screwed up and are willing to be honest about their mistakes or flaws.

It can be hard to admit that you don’t have it all together. Life is hard and even when you work hard, you mess up. I invite you to think about what your life would be like if you allowed yourself to be imperfect? How would your relationships be different if you shared more of your doubts or shortcomings? How would you spend your time if you set different boundaries? What else could you do if you let some of your tasks or projects be imperfect? It’s possible that you can build happier, more satisfying relationships when you embrace imperfection – yours and everyone else’s.

If you’d like to learn more about how to strengthen your relationships, I just added a Tip Sheet to my resource library especially for high-achievers wanting to build intimacy and let go of perfectionism. You can access all 30+ free resources by signing up below.



©2017 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved.
Originally published on Psych Central.
Photos courtesy of Unsplash.com.

Sharon Martin, a licensed counselor and psychotherapist in Northern California, specializes in helping adult children of alcoholics and others who struggle with anxiety, perfectionism, and self-criticism. She has a private psychotherapy practice in CA where she is available for online counseling. Sharon is also the author of The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism and write the blog Conquering Codependency for Psychology Today.

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