Perfectionism and the Female Executive, a CogSci view…

The perils of perfectionism with the female executive.

Rising to the top of the corporate world is inarguably harder for women than men. Breaking through the layers of glass ceilings often means that just like Ginger Rodgers, you have to do everything that Fred Astaire does, but backwards and in heels. And you want it to look effortless. And you want to look good. And you want to be respected. And when you make it through the first layer you have to deliver again, and then again, and again. And of course you won’t have a wife to take care of household and family needs, so there’s that.

No wonder major studies report a rise in psychosocial stress disorders for female executives, especially the many executives who are perfectionists.

Do you have the bad thinking habit of perfectionism?

The Oxford dictionary defines perfectionism as a refusal to accept any standard short of perfection. In the cognitive behavioural therapy world we explain it as a form of unhealthy thinking habits – when a person develops demand thinking and rules for living: where they attempt to apply inflexible MUST and SHOULD and OUGHT rules to themselves and others and the world – and when the rules are not met (and trust me, most will not be met) ‘everything is awful’, and they will not stand for it, and they cannot cope with it.


This kind of thinking might appear rational and plausible and useful to the perfectionist, and it got them this far, didn’t it? But of course it is irrational, and becomes a vicious circle, and is a recipe for feeling bad and behaving badly. What is the point in getting to the top this way if you’re always unhappy and can’t get on well with people? There is nothing wrong with having standards, nothing wrong with having goals, nothing wrong with having moral codes: as long as they are realistic and flexible.


The way we think, the way we explain the world to ourselves (our ‘attributional style’) determines our coping and happiness levels. As Buddha says, ‘with our thoughts we make our world’ – and the perfectionist makes a needlessly upsetting and overwhelming and complicated world of micro control, and poor communication, and drama and anxiety for themselves. As if the actual reality of navigating the power struggles and office politics and cultures of the corporate world isn’t difficult enough.


Click to open a link to a youtube presentation by Shawn Achor on Happiness in the Workplace

Shawn Achor – click to watch his TedTalk.

Change how you think – think better and be happier.

Shawn Achor, Harvard rock star and a leader in the Positive Psychology movement, says: “Job success is 25% IQ, and 75% attitude…. 90% of your long term happiness is predicted not by your external world, but by how your brain processes your world – it is not necessarily reality that shapes us, but the lens through which your brain views the world that shapes your reality”.

Every human being is quite imperfect, and life and environments are random, and we cannot control events or how other people think and feel and behave – especially in the workplace, which at a high pressure level is very random indeed. Uncertainty and unpredictability and change and lack of control is part and parcel of todays workplace – yet ‘control’ is where the perfectionist lives. What to do? We cannot change the reality of our world, but we can change how we view our world.

Aiming to build awareness of their thinking style, and to replace demands with preferences instead, is proven to help perfectionists to reshape their default thinking habits, and to develop new healthier realistic ways of explaining the world to themselves.

Tip: use a journal. Catch and explore and challenge and dispute irrational thoughts and demands. Develop mantras that will allow you to pause and reframe:

  • “I’d prefer it if I were perfect and successful in all things, but I accept that nobody is perfect, I do my best and will make changes where I can, and I accept myself unconditionally…”
  • “I’d prefer it if everybody treated me with respect and fairness at all times, but I accept that sometimes they won’t – I don’t demand it, once I’m doing my best to be respectful and fair that’s enough, it will all work out…”
  • “I’d prefer it if people behaved as I think they should, but I accept that they’re governed by their own thinking and rules, and that people generally do the best they can do at the time…”
  • “I’d prefer it if the world was always comfortable and not frustrating in any way – but I accept the world is random, and it can be pretty wonderful for all that. It is what it is. I can cope, it’s okay, I’m okay…”

We can change distorted self talk. Step by step, day by day, over and over, until we literally rewire our brains with new rational thinking skills that help us to feel happier and to get better outcomes in our life experience, personal and professional.


Psychosocial stress is the biggest cause of illness in the workplace, and most people don’t know that they have it (or indeed what it is).

Elizabeth Scott, psychologist and stress expert, defines psychosocial stress as “the result of a cognitive appraisal of what is at stake and what can be done about it… psychosocial stress results when we look at a perceived threat in our lives (real or even imagined), and discern that it may require resources we don’t have. Examples include things like a threat to our social status, social esteem, respect, and/or acceptance within a group; threat to our self-worth; or a threat that we feel we have no control over. All of these threats can lead to a stress response in the body.”


The perfectionist is constantly on high alert for real or imagined threats to their status within the heirarchy of the workplace, and this normalises a heightened state of anxiety, with their body unhelpfully simmering in and out of the primal fight or flight stress response throughout the day. (We are all cavemen, if our tribe rejects us it is the end, and the stakes are high at the top.) So, managing our thinking is only one part of the puzzle – as with dismantling any stress disorder, we also need to understand and manage our body, to build awareness of how our body joins in the fun in an unhelpful way. Think of it this way – if it’s possible that the way we think can influence how we feel and behave, then it’s also possible that the way we physically feel can influence how we think and behave.



Click to open Fight or Flight post.

Quick practical tip to manage your body: though todays dangers are mostly psychological, fight or flight pumps up the body to physically cope with a threat as if it were a predator. It overloads you on adrenaline and cortisol and oxygen, and is guaranteed to form the habit of ‘emotional reasoning’ – “I feel bad, therefore it is bad!”. But feelings are not facts – when you feel shaky develop the habit of deep slow belly breathing techniques, and explain to yourself that feeling this way is just a nuisance, and not useful or indicative of actual danger. This can help you to stabalise your body, and to thought-stop and reframe the way you’re processing events, and to calm yourself and choose an appropriate response to the situation.

‘There is no tiger!’. Upskill in awareness and self management through ‘learning and doing’.


Science is magic that works, CBT is a science, believe it…

Click HERE to go to my downloads page for free guided self help worksheets and handouts.

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