Progress, Not Perfection: How to Quit Second-Guessing Your Own Work

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Most people feel self-doubt in the workplace, but our professional culture emphasizes positivity and confidence. Simply telling someone to be more confident is rarely the solution they need to hear.

When crippling self-doubt takes over, people miss opportunities to grow. They resist applying for a promotion, they decide against trying a different strategy, or they fail to speak up in meetings. These small setbacks can have long-term consequences.

Here’s how self-doubt manifests itself in the workplace and how you can overcome it.

Identifying Imposter Syndrome

The technical term for excessive second-guessing and self-doubt is imposter syndrome. Jordan Rosenfeld has a succinct explanation for why so many employees struggle to believe in themselves.

“Some of the most capable, intelligent, hardworking people you know might be suffering from a debilitating phenomenon — a distortion of thinking that makes them believe they're actually incompetent, unintelligent, and lazy,” she writes. “They're convinced they're faking their way through their accomplishments, and one day, they'll be found out — exposed as the frauds they believe themselves to be.”

Essentially, people suffering from imposter syndrome believe they’re not capable of doing what they’re doing, but have fooled everyone else into thinking they are.

Imposter syndrome manifests itself in many different ways. Randle Browning provides a few concrete examples that you might find yourself guilty of without even realizing it:

  • Do you ignore social proof of success (like recommendations or testimonials) because they don’t convince you that you’re doing a good job?

  • Do you deflect compliments and praises, insisting you had help or didn’t do that much?

  • Developers: When someone asks to see your code, do you have a sinking feeling like they will realize you’re not actually good at programming?

While these instances might seem like simple humility, they can actually be symptoms of deep-rooted insecurities and doubt in your self-worth.

Perfectionism as a Side-Effect of Imposter Syndrome

While perfectionism is often valued as a trait within companies, it’s actually a manifestation of imposter syndrome. The syndrome itself makes us doubt ourselves, and giving into perfectionism is how we try to counter that feeling.

“Perfectionists are driven by their fear of failure, and it’s this drive that motivates them to achieve what others can’t,” Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic writes at Fast Company. “Because you think you aren’t as good as you actually are, you invest a great deal of energy and time into getting better.”

Like most things in life, perfectionism is good in moderation, but it’s possible to take perfectionist tendencies to the extreme. Jessica Stillman explains how to differentiate between good and bad perfectionism.

“The difference between the two comes down to whether a perfectionists' standards for herself are just high or impossibly high,” she writes. “If you're setting yourself up for continual failure by setting the bar so high no human could ever really clear it, then that amounts to the wrong kind of perfectionism.” 

Perfectionism can have serious drawbacks in the workplace, especially when your insecurities and drive affect your co-workers. For example, Dr. Elizabeth Lombardo says the wrong kind of perfectionist tendencies can make you:

  • feel as though you are never done with your work and are always discontent with the results,

  • averse to taking risks,

  • stifle your own creativity,

  • criticize others when you should be delegating to them.

Over time, this behavior creates an environment that frustrates co-workers, who feel like you don’t trust them to do a good job.

How to Focus on Progress, Not Perfectionism

Perfectionism limits what we can accomplish and prevents us from moving outside of what we are comfortable with. By stepping back from perfectionism and focusing on progress, you can start to build confidence in your abilities.

Here are four ways to do that:

1. Know That Mistakes Are a Part of Life

“Mistakes often form a critical part of learning, developing and improving, both personally and professionally,” Kevin Jarvis writes. “Understanding the value of learning from mistakes for the betterment of future work can easily be forgotten if you are solely focused on being a perfectionist.”

Many parents don’t want their kids to fail, but failure teaches kids (and the rest of us) how to get back up and start going again.

2. Create Action Items When You Fail

Nathalie Thompson encourages people to identify one or two ways they can improve themselves when they feel the urge to wallow in self-doubt.

“Subjecting yourself to constant negative self-talk isn’t going to improve your abilities and will just make you feel bad,” she writes. “Do something useful instead and ask yourself what one thing you can improve on for your next performance. Focus on taking positive, constructive action to work on that one thing.”

This might include taking a public-speaking class to improve your presentation skills or investing in software tools to create better data that you can use to win an argument. These proactive steps will give you something to focus on and will benefit you in the long run.

3. Don’t Hide or Cover Up Your Failures

Dr. Isaiah Hankel found himself struggling to convey a perfect image professionally, which led to increased stress and self-doubt. This actually inhibited his ability to learn, he says.

Hankel believes the best way to break out of your need for a perfect image is to publicize your mistakes. This will make you uncomfortable, but it will help others identify how you can grow. Instead of trying to hide your mistakes and weaknesses (which can further enable imposter syndrome), admitting them will help you overcome those mistakes and weaknesses the next time.

4. Admit That Everyone Thinks Differently

“When everything you do is perfect, it's easy to fall into the trap of expecting others to execute at that same level,” Matthew Jones writes at Inc.

As a manager, you could be creating a toxic work environment by requiring everyone who reports to you to meet your impossible expectations. As an employee, you could be isolating your peers from wanting to work with you.

Once you admit that you’re not perfect, make sure you create space for others to fail, as well.

Build Confidence in Your Quality of Work

Instead of trying to cover up your mistakes or fighting off self-doubt with perfectionist habits, focus on building self-confidence in your work instead. Confidence will give you the courage to believe in yourself and take more risks to grow.  

Celebrate Success Instead of Deflecting It

“You must be willing to celebrate those little victories no matter how small,” Elizabeth Laiza King writes. “These little celebrations will help you appreciate yourself and hard work. ... By doing this consistently, you’ll build momentum for more accomplishments, be more grateful and also create an avenue for more victories in your life.”

The next time you nail a presentation or meet a tight deadline, find a way to celebrate. This might mean getting drinks after work with friends or taking an afternoon off to recharge.

Say Yes to More Challenges

Look for opportunities to try new things at work and accept different challenges. By letting self-doubt control your day, you could miss out on chances to grow and succeed.

“I used to disregard job postings if one task in the position description was something I hadn’t done before,” Elli Thompson Purtell writes. “Although you need to be qualified for the job you’re applying for, give yourself a little credit that you have the smarts to figure out something that isn’t listed verbatim on your resume.”

This doesn’t mean lying about your skills or recklessly taking on responsibilities you cannot meet. This just means pushing yourself a little, which will force you to rely on your skills and smarts to overcome a new challenge.  

Stop Comparing Yourself to Others

Everyone is on a different career path and has his or her own background, knowledge and career path. The more you compare yourself to your co-workers and wish you had what they have, the less time you have to focus on improving yourself.

“Perhaps the biggest dream-killer of all is comparing yourself to others,” Jonathan writes at Paid to Exist. “You don’t have to be Jimi Hendrix to call yourself a musician. You don’t have to be a black belt in Karate to call yourself a martial artist.”  

Find a Confidence Mentor

Finding someone in the workplace who also struggles with doubt and perfectionism can create an opportunity for growth. Consider co-mentoring each other to help overcome confidence issues. Anka Wittenberg has a few steps you can follow to successfully form an accountability mentorship:

  • Choose someone who works closely with you.

  • Provide positive feedback to each other on the strengths you have displayed.

  • Help each other erase blind spots about talent and instead come up with productive ways to overcome weaknesses.

Replacing your perfectionism with confidence isn’t an overnight process, but time and experience are two important factors to build your self-worth.

Some Self-Doubt Is Healthy

Not all self-doubt needs to be banished from your office life. Questioning your abilities in healthy doses is part of life and a useful survival tactic.

Second-guessing your choices are actually part of your brain’s survival instincts, and how it copes with uncertainty, Steve Errey says. “Accept that the unknown is part of making career judgments, recognize that you don’t need and can’t have all of the answers, and reassure yourself that whatever you decide, you’ll be OK,” Errey writes. “Because you will.”

The difference between healthy doubt and unhealthy doubt is the ability to take risks or make decisions based on the information — instead of letting it cripple you.

Dr. Jeremy Sherman writes that self-doubt can be good when it comes in the form of self-awareness and introspection. The opposite of the self-doubters are the self-certain, who are constantly convinced they are right and their ideas are the best. Sherman admits that it’s often easier to help the self-doubters instead of the self-certain — in the same way that it’s easier to work with a nervous co-worker than a know-it-all.

You will likely never dispel all of the doubts and nerves that hold you back, but by identifying doubt and controlling how much it affects your actions, you can make progress within your career and feel confident in your work.