How To Get Over Your Perfectionism Complex And Ask For Help At Work

We've all been there: It's your first week, month, or year on the job, and you're struggling to complete an assigned task. Asking for help from your boss or coworkers feels daunting, right? And yet, you're still stuck with no answers. If you're a woman, femme-identifying, or gender non-conforming person, the idea of asking for can seem daunting. If you are any of these and are also a person of color, there's an added layer of complexity when it comes to power dynamics in the workplace.


In a recent study comprised of cisgender women, 64% of Black women in the United States said they aim to fill a top position in their field, while 83% of Asian women, 80% of Black women, and 76% of Latinx women voiced their desire to be promoted. When the drive to be outstanding runs high, so does the desire to be perfect. Perfectionism, and how it correlates to ambition, conditions women to believe making mistakes can cost them their ambition, running through an endless list of what-ifs if they dare to ask for help. What if the answer is obvious and it costs me my job? What if people think I'm not capable of learning? What does asking for help say about my professionalism? As a woman, how can I do this without feeling inadequate? 


If you pride yourself on being a perfectionist, it may be even harder to admit that you need help. It's a lot easier said than done, and to recognize the ways perfectionism can hold you back is a win in itself. Still, there are ways to move past perfectionism, such as asking for help while maintaining your goal-oriented identity

Learn to separate your self-identity from your work-identity

Before you email your boss or coworkers, it's important to recognize who you are outside of your job. While it's common to associate perfectionism with your professional work, perfectionism leaves little room for improvement and learning opportunities — two essential components of any job. "It's about rechanneling a strength of yours rather than aiming for a lower goal," says clinical psychologist Alice Boyce in an interview with Harvard Business Review. "If you genuinely want to be a high achiever, you're bound to do some things imperfectly."


It's also something you can communicate in the process of asking for help. "I'm really invested in this project, but I'm really struggling with A, B, or C," for example. If you've been at your place of work for a while now, it's likely your boss notices and admires your perfectionist qualities. Asking for help can showcase your humility and earnesty, while showing off your incredible grasping power. 

Find a warm and friendly coworker to ask

It may be helpful to reach out to someone who will meet you with compassion, especially in a potentially male-dominated workplace. Before you ask for help, decide who you will reach out to, how you will reach out to them, and what you'll reach out to say. Be careful, though — deciding who to ask and what to say might bring you back to your perfectionist ways, trying to perfectly manicure your question. Instead, approach the task of asking for help with the same ease and warmth you expect to be met with by a coworker. Ask yourself: How would I formally ask a friend for help? If someone asked me for help, how would I want them to approach me? More importantly, would I judge them with the same harshness I judge myself? 


If you're not working in a male-dominant space, it may be easier to ask a female coworker for help with less added worry that you'll appear inferior or inadequate to them — often referred to as female solidarity. Finding someone who shares another identity with you could also provide the same ease. While this may not always be the case, don't be afraid to lean into these relationships when seeking out help. It may be more helpful to ask a coworker for feedback, rather than hearing it from a boss. While it's always good to establish boundaries between your personal and professional life, don't forget that your workplace is full of people willing to help you. 

After receiving help, express gratitude and briefly explain what you've learned

Once your problem is solved, make sure to sincerely thank the coworker who helped you (and CC your boss!). In a brief email, establish the former issue, acknowledge who helped you, and explain what you've learned. For example, "Thank you so much for your help today, ___. I was really struggling with ___, but you made it easier for me by explaining how it works. I now know that ___ is ___, and I couldn't have done it without your help." It will make your coworker feel better about their ability to help other team members and apply the skills they've learned. In addition, you've left your perfectionist comfort zone and now know you can rely on someone in your workplace. 


"Explain it, take responsibility for it, work to fix it, and you will likely be okay," says the Cut's workplace-advice columnist Alison Green. "The more you can reframe this in your head as 'yes, I let things slip during a time of great stress and need to fix it now, but people mess up, and I am human,' the better." Although perfectionism is real and valid, we aren't superhumans. Making mistakes, being unsure, and asking for help are all universal human experiences. Don't forget that you're human, too.