How fast, how much, how high? From an early age we are measured by our achievements. From first words as a baby and sporting accomplishments as an adolescent and teen, to top grades in high school and college and how high the salary at the coveted job – we are measured, judged and evaluated. Messages from social media, management, self-improvement books, and prominent business people or publications encourage raising the bar, achieving your greatest potential, and place ‘best in class’ on a pedestal.
Goal setting and accomplishments are important, but we need to balance and evaluate the toll they take on our personal life and health. Letting ‘how many’ or ‘how high’ define and rule our lives can lead to significant, and sometimes life-altering burnout. When we feel over-worked, stressed out or trapped, it’s time to see what we can let go, and take steps toward self-care. Over the years, I’ve discovered three behaviors that pose the greatest risk to self-care for my clients; 1) being prone to perfectionism, 2) taking on too much and 3) have difficulty relinquishing control (lest someone else doesn’t do it as well, or worse, does it better!) This is nothing new for humans, nor is it unique to women. Let’s explore a lesson in history to learn how detrimental these behaviors can be when taken to the extreme.
It took four years for Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Although completed centuries ago, he exhibited the same self-sabotaging behaviors enumerated above in his approach. They are fairly easy to identify.
Michelangelo was commissioned by Pope Julius II to paint a fresco on the Sistine Chapel ceiling in 1508; a vaulted structure almost half the length of a football field and 15 feet wide. Michelangelo had never painted anything in his life; sculpture was his primary art form. After reluctantly agreeing the task, and reviewing the ceiling, he sketched a composition that was to include 300 figures in the finished fresco. Never working with this medium, he recruited other accomplished fresco artists to demonstrate the technique on the ceiling, but not liking their procedure, he sent them away and decided to do it his own way. He constructed a scaffolding of his own after not liking the one provided, and painted in a standing position with his head continually bent backwards. He worked hard, and slept little.
After completing the first section, he took the scaffolding down and reviewed it from below. Upon finding it was too small, he reproduced the entire work. Although he did take a significant break in 1510, he over scrutinized his completed work during that time. (Note: the break was due to a disagreement with the Pope, not for relaxation or self-care). Finding numerous areas to improve upon, he set about finishing his work to correct any perceived imperfections in the first section. Even after finishing the masterpiece, he never considered himself a painter. Michelangelo developed significant health issues as a result of painting the massive fresco, which included a goiter, going half blind, significant back issues, and arthritis.
In this extreme example, it is very easy to identify Michelangelo’s perfectionist tendencies; building his own scaffolding, not using proven fresco techniques or the help of accomplished artists, complete reproduction of a finished work and nitpicking his own skills. Let’s compare his behavior with some common modern world example in the workplace:
- Creating a new work procedure without input from others, which equates to the “I know best” syndrome.
- Scrapping our work and effort or that of a co-worker because it’s not ‘good enough’ and going back to a blank canvas.
- Going through every detail with a scrutinizing mentality to find fault.
- Dismissing anyone who doesn’t measure up or meet your standards.
Perfectionism is one of the most detrimental and common roadblocks not only to self-care, but ironically to success as well. Perfectionist tendencies not only deplete our own energy; they are exhausting for the people around us because they take up a considerable amount of time and effort. A manager with perfectionist tendencies has the potential to breed a culture of fear in an organization, create a ‘watch-your-back’ mentality, and completely demotivate a team; none of which lead to success. In addition to physical fatigue, it can be mentally draining as well. Consumed with getting it right or presenting flawless work detracts from things that bring joy, the mental capacity to focus on things we like, and true accomplishment.
It’s plain to see that Michelangelo took on too much, the second most common factor contributing to burn out and not taking care of ourselves. Can you imagine saying ‘sure I’ll paint a 5,00 square feet vaulted ceiling’? While we don’t sabotage ourselves to that degree, our own ‘taking-on-too-much’ tendencies show up in over-scheduling our families and ourselves at work and in our personal lives. Going from one thing to the next makes us feel like a mouse in a maze, and sorry is the poor soul that gets in our way. We can begin to think we should be able to do everything well, and paint others into a box when we expect the same of them, or get angry when they are inefficient or not quick enough.
The problem with taking on too much is that we are so focused on what and when we have things to do, that we can’t see beyond our calendars and to-do lists. It’s all too easy to see how taking on too much impacted Michelangelo. He slept little, suffered much discomfort during the process, and ended up with horrible physical ailments as a result of his work. In modern-day society, our over committing creates a continuous sense of urgency and stress for ourselves, our families and co-workers; and health hazards which can include physical reactions to stress like numbness, stroke, or a heart attack.
Lastly, not relinquishing control can be the final brush stroke of self-sabotage. During the initial work, Michelangelo hired assistants to help him paint, but became frustrated with their efforts and fired them all for not meeting his standards. To his credit, he did keep some of them on to mix paints and plaster. Perhaps he could have taken a month or two to mentor one of them, and ultimately cut his worktime down significantly. Instead, he took all work upon himself and encountered intense disagreements with the Pope Julius II about the finish date; suffered the setback of recreating a huge portion of the mold-damaged work (alone); and put other projects on hold.
When we refuse to ask for help, delegate tasks, and keep everything under our direct government, we will eventually run out of creativity, patience and sanity. Our rationales for not delegating are similar to the plague of perfectionism; we think we are the only one capable of the work, and of doing it just right. While it can be hard to let go of control at work and home, in the end, delegating contributes to working strategically and intelligently. We also provide the opportunity for others to grow and shine.
Delegating, letting go of perfectionism, and not taking on too much requires us to slow down a bit. It necessitates taking stock of the people in our professional and personal lives, and appreciating the palettes of qualities and skills they bring to the big picture. Further, when we delegate it not only reduces stress, it builds relationships and allows us to show our true colors to people; to be real with them. When we are our true selves, and allow people to bring their abilities to the forefront it is easier to let go of perfectionism. When we delegate, we appreciate. Taking things off our plate allows us margin for taking care of ourselves, and the opportunity to be thankful for the gifts and efforts of others.
After doing the hard work of letting go in some areas, you will also have more time to rest and rejuvenate. Read Kay’s Corner to discover three ways you can begin positive habits of self-care.