As a recovering perfectionist and people pleaser, I’ve acknowledged that my habits are significantly influenced by believing that anything less than 100% is “bad”.

When anything was below, for instance, what my parents or teachers wanted or expected, it was about not having given it “my best” or “100%”. They also sometimes buffered their expectations and disappointment with “Well, as long as you do/gave it your best, that’s okay.”

Unfortunately, believing that giving anything less than 100% is bad becomes tied to our identity. We think that the measure of our self-worth, of whether we’re a Good Person or a Hard Worker or even The Best, is down to giving 100% all the time.

There is also this sense that as long as we’re doing “our best”, we will and should be okay. Of course, this means when we’re not okay, or people or life don’t respond as we want or expect, we blame it on us not being or doing “enough”.

Believing that we have to give 100% to “everything” all of the time also creates a fear that we aren’t or fear of doing less.

Of course, this creates a vicious cycle. To ensure that we’re not in danger of realising our fears, we overgive, overthink and are over-responsible. We engage in perfectionism and people pleasing and believe that we have to give ourselves wholly and fully to whatever we’re doing. And, unfortunately, that’s where we learn to stop listening to ourselves.

We can’t know our limits and also give what we think is ‘100%’ all the time. The two don’t go together.

We also can’t say no or acknowledge and act upon our discomfort about being exploited when we’re in this giving 100% mentality. Why? Because we’ll assume that someone will construe our no or refusal to be exploited as “not giving 100%”. Side note: Some people’s idea of what your 100% “should” be is unfair and unreasonable. Yes, that includes you.

So here’s the craic: You are a human, not a machine.

No human is at their best 100% of the time–and we don’t have to be.

You have emotional, mental, physical and spiritual well-being and bandwidth, so how you live and work matters.

When you get hung up on “giving 100%”, you won’t do anything that contradicts this identity. This means that when you need, want to or should say no, you won’t if you don’t think it will fit your 100% effort identity.

For example, if you believe that you have to give 100% all the time, you have ideas about what this means. In a romantic relationship, that might mean tolerating the unacceptable. Even though you might desperately need or want to say no, you fear being a Bad Partner. What if this sends them elsewhere? Your ego tricks you into believing that how you’re going about things is “right”.

What I invite you to consider is this: Is your 100% really 100%? Or is it more like 150, 200, 500, and beyond?

Odds are, if your work and relationship habits, including your expectations of yourself, leave you exhausted, burnt out, overwhelmed, overcommitted, resentful, frustrated, anxious, low, helpless and powerless, you’ve topped out. You’re way beyond your bandwidth and boundaries.

Other signs that you’re overdoing it and that you have a distorted idea of giving 100% effort include:

  • Being unable to be yourself because you’re trying to fit other people’s expectations by playing roles.
  • Not having or knowing your limits, or ignoring them even when you do know them.
  • Using a lot of pushing energy, including pushy thinking and demanding a lot of yourself.
  • Only feeling happy with your efforts relative to whoever you’re comparing yourself to at that moment.
  • Moving on quickly from achievements and accomplishments.
  • Saying yes indiscriminately and then struggling with the impact.
  • Often dropping your priorities or sacrificing meeting your needs to respond to other people’s needs, wants and expectations.
  • Not resting or even when you do, feeling ashamed, self-critical and anxious about doing so.
  • Believing that saying no at work (or full stop) is a no-no.
  • Seeing the solution to anything that isn’t going the way you want or expect, including an unhealthy relationship, as “trying harder”.
  • Feeling as if you’re never doing all of the things you set out to do each day. You probably have a never-ending to-do list too!
  • Feeling as if nothing you ever do is good enough.
  • Going into overdrive with whatever you do. It’s knowing when to be ‘done’ or to leave things alone. So, for example, you could easily leave it at doing three things, but you try to do ten.

If any of these sound at all familiar, you’re giving far more than 100%. In fact, you’re selling your emotional, mental, physical and spiritual well-being.

Do you need to give 100% for every last thing you do? Um, no.

And that’s not an invitation to sack off everything and not give a hoot. Still, if you’re giving 100% effort no matter the task, project, situation or your bandwidth and boundaries, you need to check yourself.

Giving 100% to everything all of the time is not sustainable or necessary.

That fear of being, doing, or giving less than 100% means you’re in a near-constant state of distress. You’re not designed to be in fight-or-flight mode all the time. That’s near-constant stress, and it leads to illness. You will also have little, if anything, left to take care of yourself or have a life you enjoy.

What would happen if you dialled things back a bit?

Experiment. Find out what your so-called 70-80% is. Notice whether the sky falls down (it doesn’t). Notice whether it’s really only you that cares about it being at that level. Pay attention to how the demands on yourself affect your emotional, mental, physical and spiritual well-being. So, for instance, do your anxiety levels ratchet up?

What’s your idea of enough versus perfect? If there’s little or no difference, then you can see what’s at the root of these habits. Perfectionists and people pleasers often believe they’re just trying to be “good enough”, but they’re not. Instead, they’re trying to cover up underlying feelings of low self-worth with their efforting and gooding. Giving 100% is actually not about quality and attention to detail; it’s hiding.

Also, what does giving 100% mean and look like to you? Write it down and acknowledge where any of them are problematic.

Become more aware of your intentions and bandwidth.

Knowing your ‘why’ helps you to align with your values, needs and boundaries. When you don’t know your ‘why’, your ego and fear dictate your actions, mentality and choices. Next thing, you’re caught up in keeping up appearances instead of being yourself. Or you’re triggered into trying to be perfect because you feel like a little kid all over again.

You also need to be aware of and more realistic about your bandwidth. You don’t have an infinite amount of time, energy and effort, and how you use these affects your emotions. Part of this is knowing your priorities. And the other part is being respectful of yourself and not treating you like a machine.

It’s crucial to recognise that you were socialised and conditioned into this giving 100% mentality. Other people telling us what our 100% was meant we didn’t learn our limits for ourselves.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to make an effort or having attention to detail, but you also need to make sure that what drives your efforts is being and becoming more of yourself, not anxiety and fear.

The Joy of Saying No: A Simple Plan to Stop People Pleasing, Reclaim Boundaries, and Say Yes to the Life You Want (Harper Horizon/HarperCollins) is out now and available in bookshops on and offline. Listen to the first chapter.
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