A framework for battling perfectionism and overcoming self-doubt

  • battling perfectionism

You might have a personal goal of battling perfectionism. But you feel stuck. At some level, you also think your perfectionistic tendencies are a good thing. You convince yourself that it’s a virtuous character trait, a set personal strivings that make you a better person: working harder, achieving more, learning faster … succeeding in everything you do.

This is wrong on many levels.

And nowhere is perfectionism more patently false than at the level of your mind and brain. At this exposure, we can see just how perfectionism takes you further away from success. Ironically, it hinders your effectiveness and limits your personal growth.

It does so because of a series of mental associations, which make battling perfectionism a tricky thing:

Perfectionism = reduced valued experiences = lack of personal meaning = increased self-doubt and worry = uncertainty of behaviors/decisions = lack of productivity = perceived failure.

In short, your perfectionism is making you less successful, not more. The solution?

Applying the value buckets framework (VBF) – a system of techniques and tactics that work by rejigging the associations in the beginning of the equation, with a focus on uncovering sustainable personal value and meaning.

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First we’ll explain how and why meaning is represented in the brain like buckets of value, and why the buckets of perfectionists are empty.

We’ll then walk through the exact details of the framework so that you can finally battle your perfectionistic tendencies, which means experiencing greater meaning, conquering self-doubt, and achieving lasting personal success.

As always, our team of psychology and neuroscience PhDs have combed through the scientific papers and research so that you can have the utmost confidence in all our recommendations.


How to interpret your meaning and personal success

Remember the first part of our mental association equation?

Perfectionism = reduced valued experiences = lack of personal meaning …

It essentially says that your perfectionism is leading you to have fewer experiences that are of “sufficient perceived value.” This, in turn, frames everything that you do – your actions/beliefs/decisions/emotions – as having less meaning. Simply put, perfectionism breeds meaninglessness.

This, is the hidden culprit responsible for all the negative downstream consequences of perfectionism like worry, self-doubt, and failure. To stop worrying is to be less of a perfectionist.

“Don’t aim at success — the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself.”

Victor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning

It comes down to how meaning gets processed in the brain. Allow us to explain.

Meaning has always been important for us humans. The earliest philosophers, theologians, and thinkers put it front and centre of the human condition. But here’s the thing: For centuries we didn’t know what we meant by meaning. An abstract and incoherent construct coming from “in the head”, meaning has been regarded to be inherently unintelligible.

But no longer.

Thankfully, neuroscience has begun to uncover some of these mysteries. With advanced technologies that allow us to peer inside the inner workings of the brain, we can now dissect the inherent complexities of meaning-based experiences. We now know what we mean when talking about meaning.

‘Meaning’, for our purposes, can be thought of as the following: the accumulation of computed ‘value scores’ that result from the neural processing of incoming experiences.

To elaborate, the brain is equipped with a series of built-in valuation systems. Much like systems in basic economics, these neural circuitries work by assigning experiences (like commodities) a ‘value score’ based on its perceived utility or worth. These valuation systems store past experiences in order to guide future behaviors and derive meaning from them.

You can think of the brain’s stored meaning ‘scores’ like value buckets. These buckets collect and accumulate information and experiences, like slow drips of water into an empty pale that over time fill up.

Your experiences are processed in the brain like value drips. As the collection of these experiences fill your buckets over time, you develop more meaning. Your buckets become full – you act with a sense of purpose and confidence. This picture illustrates our point. That’s the bucket on the right.

perfectionist vs meaningful value bucket

This is, of course, an ideal scenario.


Filling empty buckets with more meaning

The problem is, not all of these value drip experiences enter into the bucket because each come equipped with various filters. Each person has their own set of filters on their value buckets. Some are porous and allow drips to easily pass through (the ideal on the right hand side).

But others, like those of you and your fellow perfectionists, are densely thick and block out most drips. This is the bucket system on the left. You set an unrealisitically high bar, placing filters on your value buckets that allow only the most perfect value experiences to pass through. But no such experiences actually exist in reality. The perfectionistic attitude leads to a reduced accumulation of valued experiences.

And so with so few value drips making it into your buckets, you as a perfectionist are at greater risk of having empty value buckets. That is, your brain’s valuation systems fail to encode and process experiences that you perceive as having sufficient value. The result is a paltry supply of computed value, an utter lacking of personal meaning.


So, ironically, despite the wondrous and myriad accomplishments that come from your high striving personality, none of them get counted as being of any significant value or worth (for you). Your impervious filters block out the value drip experiences that really should be making their way into your buckets. That is, these experiences fail to be encoded and processed by the brain. You go around having experiences that get perceived (by the brain) as having little to no personal value. And as a result you feel greater self-doubt and a sense of personal failure in the long-run.

But you’re in luck. The brain’s valuation systems are malleable; they can be altered via top-down frame shifts. Your value buckets can be filled once more. Let’s see how.


Applying the value buckets framework (VBF) using the CALE method

Switching in and out of our analogy, it’s brain versus buckets:

At the level of the brain, the most effective way to resolve the dangers of your perfectionism is to reorient the brain’s valuation systems by initiating a set of top-down appraisal-based techniques in order to more readily compute and encode valued-based experiences.

Whoah. Confusing, right? Yea, let’s bring back our buckets.

At the level of buckets, it’s about changing up the three parts of the bucket system:

  1. The buckets themselves
  2. The filters on the buckets
  3. The value drip experiences entering into the buckets

perfectionist value bucket thick filter

Mapping on to these parts, the problem with you perfectionists is you:

  1. Have too few buckets, often only 1, which gets used for every drip experience
  2. Have one filter gradient on the densest setting (only ‘perfect’ drips allowed through)
  3. Have a limited set of experiences that fit the ‘perfect’ requirements

The tactics of the value buckets framework (VBF), deal with these 3 parts and their associated problems.

The VBF approach is best remembered by the acronym CALE:

Create more value buckets (solution to problem 1)

Adjust the value buckets (solution to problem 1)

Loosen the filters on the buckets (solution to problem 2)

Explore new value drips (solution to problem 3)

Let’s dive in to each one.


Create more value buckets

As a perfectionist, your default response is to bundle all of life’s experiences into a single domain (or bucket, in our case). This doesn’t work.

You need more buckets (with different filter settings) to account for the highly variable experiences that you encounter in your work and life. It’s similar to psychology’s “bottom up theory of happinesswhich says that a person’s overall well-being comes from not any one single life domain, but from the aggregate combination of several domains. In other words, when it comes to well-being and meaning, diversification is key.

So, what you need to do is create as many value buckets as you can think of. The best way to do this is to split out the buckets based on time. The brain represents features of time differently, so this is a natural way to categorize things in your life. For this, you want at least 3 buckets. For each one, write out the types of experiences that you would look for:

time based value buckets

  • Short-term buckets: These buckets will hold the experiences that you encounter on a moment-to-moment basis, on a timescale of, say, minutes to hours. These are your daily experiences that, at first glance seem trivial and mundane, but when added together become the “moments that matter” for our lives. Consider these examples:
    • An interesting conversation you had with a partner
    • A small recognition you received in media
    • A cup of coffee you enjoyed
    • A podcast episode that piqued your interest
  • Mid-term buckets: These buckets will hold the experiences that you encounter on a slightly longer timescale of, say, days to weeks. These are typically the milestones and scenarios that come to mind most easily when thinking about the work you do. Consider some of these examples:
    • A project deadline met by your team
    • A favorable response from your funders
    • A promising new hire
    • An obstacle in the next round of financing
  • Long-term buckets: These buckets will hold the experiences that you encounter on the longest time scale, usually lived out in several months or years. These are the big milestones that stand out the most. Consider some of these examples:
    • Hitting the six-figure recurring revenue mark
    • Securing a team of 100+ employees
    • Starting a new venture
    • Entering into a new international market

Two points about these time buckets.

  1. You should notice with yours (as with the examples here) that the experiences become more significant as you move from short-term to long-term. This is what you want. These time-dependent experiences will play out differently in your brain. Value gets assigned differently in the different buckets.
  2. As you begin to apply your different buckets, not all the experiences have to be positive. You will want to find value/meaning (uncover insights and lessons learned) from negative experiences as well. This should be part of the meaning narrative you construct for yourself, and you should allow for negative value drips to enter into your buckets.

By having multiple buckets (here based on time) you create more opportunities for you to register these different experiences and to have them “count” towards your personal meaning and value. The single bucket of the perfectionist won’t capture the range of value drip experiences, leaving you at greater risk of missing out on certain sources of meaning.

So as you move forward, remind yourself every so often about your different buckets. Maybe even pin them to the desktop of your computer. Then, after each experience you have, take a moment to assess which bucket this experience belongs in based on your set categories.

Expert bonus tip: You can also further categorize based on work/life domain. Each bucket will be an area of your business or life that stands alone as its own set of experiences. These could be things like ‘leading’, ‘marketing’, ‘personal growth’, ‘family’, ‘money’, ‘travel experiences’, etc.


Adjust the value buckets

Once you’ve created multiple buckets, the next step is to make sure that they aren’t overlapping and anti-correlated. Many people with maladaptive perfectionistic tendencies have buckets with this setup, such that a drip into Bucket A means a drip out of Bucket B (more of A = less of B). In other words, it means gaining value in one experience forces you to lose it somewhere else.

Instead of this, you should aim for your buckets to be mutually exclusive and separate from one another (as much as possible). Looking at the buckets you’ve created for yourself from the first step, assess their independence by taking the following steps and asking yourself some questions:

  1. Assign a percentage of overlap between your buckets. Focus on those that have a score greater than 50%.
  2. Ask yourself: If I gain value/meaning in one experience, will I lose it somewhere else? For example, “Reading fiction for leisure (value add, + meaning) is contingent on losing out on potentially missing out on reading non-fiction business books (value lost, – meaning).”
  3. Recognize that our time and energy is finite, and that there will always be some sort of trade-off involved. It’s okay to have some overlap between your buckets (<20%). But if it’s a 1-to-1 negative correlation in which gaining in one area necessarily means losing in another, every single time, then this is a good indicator that you should be shifting your priorities towards one and away from another. Ask yourself which one is more important for you and your business? Include this in your buckets. Drop the other one.


Loosen the filters on the buckets

This is the most important step. Remember, the main problem with your perfectionistic pattern of behavior is that the unrealistically high standards you set for yourself act like a restricted filter on your buckets, blocking most value drip experiences from entering. The brain’s valuation systems fail to compute any meaning, and you feel the pressure of failure and inadequacy.

The solution: loosen the filters to allow more drips to pass through. A win, no matter how small, should be computed by your brain as having sufficient value; so too should a seemingly trivial pleasure like the sharing of an interesting book or article with your team. Or whatever else you happen to do in your day-to-day.

After all, it’s the slow accumulation of drips that contribute to your personal meaning and sense of self. The following tactics will get you a more loose set of filters.

  • The “other” experience visualization: Take a set of recent accomplishments/experiences that happened to you, and now, imagine that they happened to someone close in your life – someone you respect, admire, love, etc. It could be a dear friend or a family member, for example.Would you “count” those experiences as adding to their bucket? Or framed the opposite, would you be willing to tell the person that those experiences (if they were to experience them) wouldn’t cut it?Chances are you would not be so critical. Notice how your default response is to relax the filters for other people in your life compared to your own? It is a completely rational approach to have the same setting for your filters as you would for those of others. That is, apply the same standards for yourself as you do others.
  • Gratitude expressions: This typically takes the form of journaling. You’ve probably read about it or heard from a friend who’s tried it, but never got past the New Agey feel to apply it to your own life. But the scientific backing is unequivocal: It is a highly effective technique. In one study, for instance, researchers found that students experienced less negative emotions and more meaningfulness after a brief gratitude journaling intervention exercise. And, moreover, that it was shown to be just as effective as other stress management techniques.
gratitude journaling

source – twitter.com

It works because it draws your attention to small things that would otherwise slip passed your stream of consciousness. When you bring these feelings of gratitude into consciousness, what you’re essentially doing is reminding yourself that certain experiences and events and accomplishments are in fact worthy of your consideration.

In order for the brain’s valuation systems to encode that information, it first requires attentional focus to be brought to that incoming stimuli. Bringing such experiences into focus is effectively loosening the filters on your value buckets in order to allow for those drips to enter in. Being grateful for a past event will loosen the filters on your buckets so that any time you experience a similar event in future, that value drip experience doesn’t go unnoticed. It ends up where it should – at the bottom of your bucket.

Try the following prompts to get you started on your gratitude journaling path:

  • “The one food that I enjoy eating the most …”
  • “My favorite physical activity involves me doing …”
  • “I’m quite at ease when doing …”
  • “The environment that gets me feeling focused is …”
  • “A smell/taste that will never get old for me is …”
  • “A phrase that perfectly captures my mood is …”And if you’re thinking of expressing gratitude to, or for, another person, the most effective way to do this is through your own actions and behaviors. Rather than just writing out a gratitude expression in a journal, actually show them just how thankful you are. A small gesture goes a long way – both for another person and for yourself. Loosening these filters (on what could be called your “relationships” bucket – see first step above) will bring a great deal of meaning for the friendships and partnerships in your work and life.


Explore new value drips

As a perfectionist, you might be guilty of limiting yourself to only a set few number of experiences. Research shows that perfectionists tend to engage in self-handicapping – playing it safe and doing the things that they believe will ensure a perfect outcome (which, of course, never happens), while avoiding all other things for fear of failure.

But it only makes matters worse because those things that you’re avoiding are exactly what you need for battling perfectionism and uncovering more personal value. The focus of this last step is less on the buckets and filters, and more on the value drip experiences themselves. If we were making coffee with our buckets and filters, then here the focus would be on the beans. And what you want is a fine French roast.

Two things are most effective for exposing yourself to a new array of drip experiences: variety and novelty. Try implementing these tactics to get the most out of your drip experiences.

  • Strive for a new experience at least once a month. Discover, do research, talk to people – see what things you can experience that you haven’t already. It’s best if these value drips are outside your day-to-day business operations. Here’s a list, with accompanying apps to get you started:
    • Trying new foods and restaurants
    • Heading to a new party or event
    • Shopping for antiques

Exposing yourself to a variety of novel value drip experiences is a wise investment. It will make you a better, more creative entrepreneur by opening opportunities and enriching your lived experience. You’ll see your return in the way you act in your business – making better decisions, acting with greater confidence, leading more effectively, etc.


Recap on battling perfectionism and overcoming self-doubt

Applying the VBF properly will force you to challenge many of your perfectionistic assumptions. By altering the setup of your value buckets and aligning them to fit to your incoming (drip) experiences, you are capitalizing on the plasticity of the brain’s valuation systems. You are, in effect, ensuring that your experiences make it into your buckets, that the moments in your life are considered “good enough” and of sufficient value.

Once you’ve applied these changes, the key is to monitor your behaviors and the ongoing experiences you have throughout a day. Every now and then, remind yourself of your bucket setup and ask yourself whether your experiences are ending up in the properly created bucket(s).

Set up certain designated times, perhaps the end of the week or end of the month, and ask yourself: What was done? What experiences did I have? What did I succeed at? Are these drip experiences going to where they need to?

Most important, as you move forward, be sure you don’t fall back into your perfectionistic mind traps. Remember our equation at the top of the post. Keep that at the forefront of your mind. And know, first and foremost, that the key to battling perfectionism is getting the brain to notice the immense value that exists all around you, and to derive a sense of meaning from it.

Now go fill your buckets.