3 traits that hold you back (and how you can use them to move you forward)

When you seek to work purposefully, create a life on your terms, and break through to the next level, there are three traits that often hold you back instead of propel you forward. Left unrestrained, they interfere with your progress, cause you to become hypercritical, and keep you in a rut.

Having a perfectionist attitude, a competitive streak, and an outcome orientation are three common traits among high achievers – especially those who suffer from chronic stress, perpetual dissatisfaction and a relentless pursuit of more.

Psychological conditioning, upbringing, and societal pressure make it hard to shed these characteristics or keep them in check. So use them instead to move you forward by honing in on just their healthy bits.

Perfectionist attitude

If you’re a perfectionist, you aim for more than excellence in the things you do and produce. You want no defects, even when “good enough” will do. Intense desire for perfection fuels so much fear of mistakes and failure that you avoid high-reward projects as well as new, enriching experiences where success is not guaranteed. You get defensive when there’s even a hint of criticism. You feel shame and guilt when you don’t live up to your high expectations.

Going for perfection, in and of itself, is not necessarily a bad trait. On the upside, it can drive you to reach your full potential and achieve your goals. And in that sense, apathy and complacency can be a lot worse.

With dedicated effort and innate strengths, it is possible to attain perfection in a particular task or to do to the perfect job. But as a human being, you will make mistakes, you will choose poorly, and you will have weaknesses. Once you drop the perfectionist label, you can start to view your shortcomings and missteps as nothing more than opportunities to learn, grow, develop expertise, and build skills to create and sustain a brilliant life.

A strong aversion to imperfection will keep you from starting projects and following through to completion. You will tend to wait for the ideal time and circumstances to initiate and make progress. Getting closer to your desired state, however, is only possible when you keep moving toward it and, at the same time, open yourself up to setbacks and adversity.

Give yourself permission to be less than perfect and refrain from punishing yourself when you fall short. Start with the easy areas if you must. Show up for your pottery class even though you have beginner’s skills and lack creative flair. Allow your office to get messy once in a while rather than be the neat freak who keeps it permanently clean. Shift to a 15-minute yoga practice every other day if daily yoga for one hour is hard to keep up.

Sit with the discomfort that comes with failing, learning from inadvertent mistakes and ill-fated choices, and beginning anew. Even the most talented individuals still have to show up, practice, and do the work; otherwise, they lose interest, become overly dependent on natural ability, and shy away from experiences that take more effort and fortitude.

Being fully present, in the moment, allows you to be real and vulnerable. By detaching from thoughts and feelings about the past or future, you can recognize that despite your flaws and foibles, you are already whole. And at your core, you have nothing to fix.

Shedding your perfectionist attitude takes tremendous change. If this feat doesn’t seem doable, at least reframe what perfection means to you. It can simply mean limiting your options so you excel in the choices you make, paying attention to your internal compass rather than conflicting, external signs, and embracing your imperfections as part of being the perfect you.

Competitive streak

Healthy competition can raise the bar, stave off indifference, and encourage you to up your game. Without peers and role models, you can end up doing a lot less than your capabilities allow. While coasting along has its place, it can eventually result in boredom and underutilization that hurt you in the long run.

A competitive market means there is high demand for your skills, strengths and services. Don’t shy away from competition. It’s never a good reason to back down and retreat.

But a competitive streak can be destructive and disruptive. It’s too intense when beating someone else is your strongest motivator.  Constant comparisons can sap away your energy, take up head space, cut productivity, and deplete your drive.

Competitiveness has side effects in many forms. Your interest in a lucrative field wanes because your progress doesn’t measure up to your peers’. You get derailed when you see your competitors making a stronger impact, drawing a bigger audience, and generating more buzz. You stop your journey short because you can’t imagine you’ll reach the summit like your role model did. You disregard ideal opportunities for cooperation and collaboration because you misconstrue them as threats instead.

There can be joy in comparison when it serves as a useful benchmark, challenges you to overcome obstacles, and inspires you to blaze your own trail. Nevertheless, when it begins to breed jealousy, mean-spiritedness and misery, it’s time to turn inward.

You have something meaningful to offer. It doesn’t have to be shiny and grand. Or make huge waves. Whether you are the lead soloist or the backup singer, no one has a voice exactly like yours. Big success comes from small wins.

If you must compete to make progress, it’s better to compete with yourself tham someone else. You don’t need to do outrun others to finish the marathon.

Outcome orientation

Visualizing desired outcomes are part of defining what you want to accomplish in life. Being result oriented helps you develop a roadmap, including the time and resources you need, to get where you want to be.

On the flip side, goal setting can blur your focus on the process and create blind spots to new opportunities and changing circumstances. It can also kill your appreciation for what you do have. Loved ones and important friendships get taken for granted. Ongoing projects and current clients get the short shrift because you’re busy moving on the next.

Design a roadmap that aligns with your vision, but be willing to take U-turns, detours, and side roads, as well as stop and enjoy wherever you are.

As you proceed on your journey, you might find that the destination you chose at the start is no longer where you want to end up.

There are many possible routes to get to one destination. And there are many destinations to be explored. Your goal setting is just one way, but it does not capture all the many paths to success.

There is no surefire way to guard against worst case scenarios. Not even the best Plan B can protect you completely from what brings out your biggest fears. There is no assurance you will have the best outcome. And it’s not the end of the world if you don’t.

Develop practices, habits and routines that allow you make steady efforts and take conscientious actions. Let go of things you cannot control. Stay true to your values and immerse yourself in the process to get desired results.


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Photo by: Pelle Sten