How Entrepreneurs Can Overcome Perfectionism: Interview with Dr. Anne Welsh

How entrepreneurs can overcome perfectionism: with Dr. Anne Welsh

Many entrepreneurs struggle with high-stress levels or experience burnout. Of course, there are several different reasons for this, but an underlying struggle with perfectionism can be a contributing factor.

In this interview, Dr. Anne Welsh shares details about the ways perfectionism can impact entrepreneurs and some practical tips and advice for those who struggle with these tendencies.

👇 Key Takeaways

  • Perfectionism is never satisfied, so you never REALLY end up getting any positive emotions
  • Perfectionism isn’t sustainable because, inevitably, you will fail at something
  • Perfectionism can prevent you from taking risks and can actually prevent career and personal growth
  • Perfectionism leads to burnout because we can’t ever stop


Business Name: Dr. Anne Welsh
Website URL:
Founder: Anne Welsh
Business Location: Cambridge, MA, and online everywhere
Year Started: 2011

Tell us about yourself and your business. 

I am a clinical psychologist, executive coach, and consultant, and in all of those roles, I support high-achieving women and working parents. In my research career, I looked at women’s health issues and the transition to motherhood, and also at career development. So when I went into practice, I had this extensive understanding of how careers develop over time and how people navigate wellness in that space, as well as the unique challenges faced by women and mothers at work.

In doing both executive coaching and therapy, I often walk with people through the overlap of career and self, and love working in the in-between. I also do consulting around those issues and provide more multifaceted support from many angles. 

Personally, my career has taken some unexpected pivots. I started out thinking I would have a career in research but fell in love with clinical work. Then, I ended up leaving what I thought would be my dream job at Harvard to go out on my own. I have grown that small therapy practice into a boutique agency serving people as a therapist, coach, and consultant. It has been a really fulfilling journey.

What was your inspiration for starting the business?

My original inspiration for starting my own business was my own life and a desire to find flexibility that I wasn’t finding as an employee, but the inspiration for the ways in which it grew have been all about my clients.

For many years, I did one-on-one therapy with two places of focus: perinatal mental health (helping women as they became parents or grew their families) and anxiety in high-performing women.

However, I found that there were so many consistent themes that came up and that a lot of my high-performing women clients were struggling with the same things. I ended up expanding into coaching and consulting as I found that so much of the anxiety and stress I saw in my clinical work was not coming out of individual concerns but was because of systemic issues. My business has grown in response to client needs and a desire to have a bigger impact.

Perfectionism is often overshadowed by other mental health issues that may seem more severe. Can you explain why perfectionism can be so harmful to entrepreneurs?

The biggest risks with perfectionism are anxiety and burnout, especially when you’re a high achiever. The funny thing about perfectionism is that it’s SO rewarded in our culture. I mean, we get praise for getting that A+, but it doesn’t actually feel good to the perfectionist, or it feels good for a millisecond and then they’re on to the next thing. Perfectionism is never satisfied, so you never REALLY end up getting any positive emotions. 

Many of us can keep this up for a surprisingly long time. I mean, I got all the way into a medical school acceptance before I started wondering what all that accomplishment was actually doing for ME. The problem is that no matter how long you do it, it is not sustainable in the end. Eventually, you inevitably fail at something and it can be completely derailing. I see a lot of this in my therapy practice. Folks who have to deal with their first major failure as an adult and descend into depression and anxiety or find their confidence entirely gone. Even if you don’t fail, you wake up completely burnt out and miserable without a clear understanding of why. 

The other problem with perfectionism is that it can keep you small. It keeps you from taking risks and can actually prevent career and personal growth. This is a uniquely challenging phenomenon for entrepreneurs. Taking risks is part of the game, and you often have to fail many times before you succeed. If you feel the need for everything to be perfect, you might end up missing opportunities or avoiding risk to avoid failure. Tolerating the imperfect is actually vital to being an entrepreneur. This was a big place of growth for me as I moved into my own business. 

Of course, there’s also the perfectionism-procrastination cycle. Oftentimes, we procrastinate because we’re afraid of failure or because we cannot stomach the idea of working ourselves to the bone to achieve “perfection,” so we avoid the task until a deadline hits.

Procrastination gives us an “out” on our perfectionism. We can attribute our poor performance to not having enough time. However, it never works out very well in the end. We end up either feeling bad about ourselves, not actually completing the task as well as we could have, or both!

Dr. Anne Welsh
Photo courtesy of Dr. Anne Welsh

How does perfectionism contribute to burnout and stress?

Great follow-up question. Perfectionism means that you will not stop working until something is perfect (or very close). It becomes very difficult to walk away from work or set any sort of boundaries.

Perfectionism also often increases anxiety—both around getting the final product right and when trying to enjoy a rest or a break. You end up in a perpetuating cycle of stress because, in the end, the imperfection of being human means you are never allowed to rest. 

How can entrepreneurs discern between a constructive drive for excellence and potentially harmful perfectionism?

Check in with yourself, your energy, and your mood. Perfectionists are often extremely self-critical. The drive comes from fear of failure or fear of mistakes. It can often feel like running away from something. It also often comes with an inability to rest because it’s in rest that the anxiety shows up.

Meanwhile, healthy striving feels good. It’s energetic and exciting. When you’re striving in a healthy way, it feels okay to rest because you know you’re taking care of yourself and fueling up for challenges. It’s not anxious, and it’s self-compassionate. It comes with an inherent understanding of the process of mistakes and learning. 

What are some common signs and symptoms of perfectionism?

There are some obvious ones that many can name: being a stickler for details or needing everything to be  100%. However, there are SO many people who fall just shy of that and who really should get categorized in this group because they still have very black-and-white thinking around success and failure. They might not have to be “perfect,” but they sure better be close!

What’s interesting about these people is that the tiny gap between where they are and where perfect would be feels like permission to keep doing it. I put myself in this category historically. I didn’t need to have all A’s, but a B was completely unacceptable for me. I didn’t have to be the perfect Pinterest mom, but I better not ever lose my cool with my kids. It’s that sense of “there is good or there is failure.”

Perfectionism can also show up as a fear of mistakes, a fear of risk, or just a fear of failure. If there is a lot of anxiety around outcomes, then you might be a perfectionist! 

Lastly, another sneaky way it can show up is by checking out and avoiding or not caring about things you aren’t amazing at. Feeling totally detached can be a defense against perfectionism. If you find yourself checked out a lot or if you dismiss things that are challenging or where you think you won’t excel, you might also be a perfectionist.

What are some strategies or techniques that entrepreneurs can implement to overcome perfectionism and its negative effects?

Big picture, it really helps to work on mindset. I know that mindset can feel like an overused term these days, especially a growth mindset. However, we’re so programmed to think of our abilities and capacity as finite when it does not have to be. When we can start to recognize the basic shift, that mistakes mean we’re learning and that failure can be an incredible tool for growth, then we can start to break free of perfectionism.

I often recommend that people start by trying to learn a new skill. You’ll inevitably be bad at it (which we’re not so practiced at as adults). In learning something small, new, and low-stakes, you might find that you’re more able to practice tolerating growth and the learning process. 

Another shift is to recognize your current imperfections but in a self-compassionate way. We’re human and, therefore, imperfect. If we can notice and sit with our imperfections in an accepting and loving way, just as we might with a loved one, we can become less self-critical. 

Relatedly, doing some work to address self-esteem can be very helpful. So often perfectionism comes out of a belief that we are not enough, that we must be perfect to be loved or to be of worth. When we can rebuild our sense of worth as not conditional but simply as a part of being human, then we no longer feel that unhealthy drive to prove our worth.

Working with a therapist or coach can be really helpful here, but as a starting point, check in with how you talk to yourself. Do you constantly berate yourself for every mistake while ignoring the positive steps you take?

If you don’t celebrate the wins, you teach your brain that they don’t matter, you feel worse and actually end up more likely to underperform. When you can invest in a validating, compassionate response, one that celebrates wins and one that takes lessons from losses with encouragement, you’re going to grow much faster. 

In addition, I encourage people to do some work around their values and wants. When we can get clear on what’s important to us, we’re better equipped to set boundaries and make aligned choices for ourselves, which means we can better tolerate imperfection in their pursuit!

Start by just noticing and naming what YOU want, whether that’s what you want for dinner or what you want for your company. No matter how small, that step of checking in with your wants/needs/goals is helpful in redefining success on your own terms. 

Lastly, it’s important that we learn to disappoint others. Oftentimes perfectionism comes from a desire to please others, to avoid criticism or upsetting others. “If I don’t make a mistake, they won’t be upset with me.”

However, just as mistakes are inevitable, so is disappointing others. We can build the muscle of tolerating disappointing others, taking responsibility for our choices and our limits, our boundaries, and our needs. Perfectionism leads to burnout because we can’t ever stop. If we learn that it is okay to say no, to slow down, to stop, then we are more able to take care of ourselves. 

Dr. Anne Welsh
Photo courtesy of Dr. Anne Welsh

How can entrepreneurs strike a balance between striving for excellence in their work and avoiding the pitfalls of perfectionism?

I think this connects to our earlier conversation about recognizing the difference between the two- and the emotions and energy behind them. To keep things in that zone of healthy striving, we need to cultivate rest, recovery, boundaries, and a growth mindset. Sometimes that means stepping away. For example, I weight train. If I don’t take a rest day, I’m more likely to get injured. I might even take a whole week to de-load and slow down. When I do, I am often MORE excited to get back to lifting and can sometimes go heavier after the time away.

If you feel chronically overwhelmed or anxious, or if you start to check out and not care at all about something that was previously really important to you, it might be time for a break and some restoration. 

In a culture that often glorifies hustle and perfectionism, how can entrepreneurs prioritize self-care and set healthy boundaries?

It can feel so revolutionary to prioritize rest when everyone and everything around us tells us not to. However, entrepreneurship is a marathon, not a sprint. So rest is actually incredibly important. And rest doesn’t have to be sleep, just something that truly feels restorative. A mindfulness practice is a great tool, but it could be knitting, or playing with your kids, or just something you do because you enjoy it. When we love our work, and it becomes the ONLY thing we do, we often lose the ability to recharge and use different parts of our brains. 

Another concept that can be helpful to consider with rest and boundaries is the Pareto Principle—the idea that around 80% of our consequences come from 20% of our effort. So ask yourself: What are my true priorities? What is just busy work? Where am I exhausting myself out of that pursuit for perfection, where good enough might actually be good enough? That is where we can use our values to guide where our effort goes and what needs those high expectations vs. what doesn’t right now. 

Of course, both of these tie into boundaries. Setting boundaries can feel next to impossible, but you need to be able to say “no.” You have to recognize where your mental health and wellness are and where you are going to have to set limits and say “no” in order to do your best work. When we say “yes” to something, we’re always saying “no” to something else. If that no is chronically to yourself and your mental health, you will burn out.

Related to boundaries is the ability to ask for help. So often, especially as entrepreneurs, we feel like we have to do it all alone. That we are the ONLY person that can take on most of the tasks. Yet, in connecting with others, delegating, and finding people who support our business and can actually help us, we end up growing faster!

What resources or support networks do you recommend for entrepreneurs who are struggling with perfectionism?

There are a million podcasts and leadership books on mindset and growth, which are all helpful. However, I have found the most value in coaching, both 1-on-1 and in a mastermind. Being in a group of others who are struggling with similar challenges can be so validating, rewarding and encouraging! I’m also happy to connect with folks looking for more specific resources or support. Shoot me an email and I’ll gladly reply!

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