Is Perfectionism Holding You Back? It's an Imperfect, Perfect World
On the surface, perfectionism often sounds good.
I mean, who doesn't want to produce the best work that they can? Who doesn’t want to avoid making mistakes, right?
Right, if only that was how it worked out.
For most of us, including me, perfectionism is a hopeless quest that often dramatically decreases my productivity, to say nothing of the quality of my writing and other work. This can be a problem, and luckily one that you can learn to manage.
So what is perfectionism?
It took me a long time to realize that what I was experiencing was not just a desire to do my best. But what borders on an obsession with being perfect. Something which I think we can all agree is impossible.
You can broadly define it as the need to be or appear perfect. It could be directed toward yourself, others, or the world around you.
Generally, there seems to be a load of misconceptions floating out there about perfectionism. The experts themselves seem to disagree about the nature of this elusive trait.
“Good enough is good enough. Perfect will make you a big fat mess every time.” ― Rebecca Wells
Some psychologists like Kenneth Rice, Ph.D., believe that there are two types of perfectionism: adaptive and maladaptive. The first being a useful trait that high achievers like star athletes have to drive them to perform better.
And the second is an unhelpful one that can lead to lowered self-esteem, depression, anxiety, and procrastination.
But others like Paul Hewett, Ph.D., and Gordon Flett, Ph.D., agree that there are different types but that all have their problems. Instead, they argue that we confuse the desire to excel with the desire for perfection, which is problematic.
So what does this mean for you and me?
In short, this means that what we see as perfectionism isn’t always that “bad.” It’s all about the degree. Most of us probably have times where we can use perfectionism to benefit us like the time I spend those extra few days on my paper to improve my mark.
And other times, it doesn’t, for example, that short story I’ve wanted to write for months but haven’t yet because I don’t feel satisfied with my ideas for the plot.
You know what that devil on your shoulder often says: you'll never make a mistake if you never make anything at all.
How is it stopping you from thriving?
Here are a few questions you can ask yourself to figure out whether your search for perfection is harming or helping you, do you:
Struggle asking others for help because you feel “if you want something done right, you should do it yourself”?
Set unrealistically high standards or expectations for yourself and others?
Double-check and review your work repeatedly?
Put off starting or stopping with a project until everything is flawless?
Criticize yourself and feel like a failure because you or your work isn’t perfect?
If you answered yes to one or more of these questions, you might have a problem with perfectionism.
Research suggests that there is a link between this trait and mental health issues like depression and anxiety. We can’t be sure whether it's one potential cause of these problems. Or whether it’s instead a case that it simply makes you more vulnerable. Either way, it’s not a good thing.
On top of this, people who identify as perfectionists tend to work too hard. It’s easy to burnout when you feel your work is never truly done. In the end, this can drain you of your drive and your lust for life.
Like me, your search for perfection could cause you to be too hard on yourself. You don’t cut yourself any slack when things aren’t just right. This can contribute to a horrible cycle where you begin to lose confidence in yourself and feel less comfortable with tackling tasks you care about.
The longer this continues, the harder it is to snap out of.
Above all else, the focus on being flawless can eclipse other more essential goals in life. Because of this, you can lose sight of being true to yourself, warts, and all.
Top strategies for managing your perfectionism:
That’s when we should all realize that it’s time to reassess our approach to life. For most people, this will probably be a gradual process of winning back your freedom, not an instant transformation. But these strategies can help you begin to reset this destructive thought habit:
Watch your self talk
Becoming more aware of our thoughts, feelings, and behavior can be a tough one. We are so used to our own ways of doing things. Therefore, we often don’t even notice what we are getting up to. I’ve found that this is especially true with our self-talk.
Try to avoid being overly critical and negative towards yourself. The world can be hard enough as it is without us by breaking down our self-esteem.
Instead, replace every mean thing you say about yourself with a positive affirmation or thought.
For example, if you catch yourself thinking, “I am so useless, I can’t do anything,” stop and say something like, “if there is something I cannot do, I can learn to do it.”
At first, this might not seem very effective. You need to stick with it. After a week or so, the initial negative thoughts will become less frequent.
Prioritise self care
Ask yourself, why are you working so hard? What is it all for?
More likely than not, one of the key reasons is that you want to make life better for yourself and others. And that’s the thing. You aren’t serving anybody if you can’t experience some measure of joy and comfort yourself.
Practicing self- care is an essential step to keeping yourself healthy and thriving. The topic has come under fire recently because many people seem to interpret this as a call to indulge in all kinds of things that make you temporarily happy, like your favorite sweet.
Although there’s nothing wrong with that, on occasion, in this case, I am talking about doing things that will bring value to your life.
What this means will be different for everyone. But often it means the following:
- Scheduling in time for breaks to recharge and relax
- Start exercising
- Hanging out with your loved ones
- Get enough sleep
- Eat healthy food regularly
- Organize and freshen up your home
Don’t measure yourself by your achievements.
This next strategy goes hand-in-hand with the previous one.
Our culture glorifies achievement and success. So it’s no wonder we devote much of our time to reach these often arbitrary and unattainable goals. And while excelling in something can be a beautiful thing, it is by no means the end-all and be all.
You cannot be defined solely by what you have done in life. And even more significantly, not by what others see as being praiseworthy. This is not what gives you value. Value is inherent in each and every living creature and doesn’t rely on external marks and signs.
We are all complex beings with our own lives and biographies.
You are so much more than that certificate, promotion, or award.
This might sound like shock therapy. But trust me, it can work.
It doesn’t mean that you should do anything intentionally harmful or damaging. Rather experiment in a way that would be safe and harmless.
A great way to practice this is by creating something without any strict intentions in mind. If you enjoy painting, get out your brushes and jump into a new piece without thought or hesitation. Don’t worry about using the “wrong” color or skewed proportions. Try to appreciate the process itself.
Otherwise, if you’re a writer, one brilliant tool is "stream of consciousness" writing. Some authors have transformed this into an art form onto itself. But for this purpose, it simply means writing down everything as it pops into your head. The results can be rather intriguing.
You can do the same with almost any hobby or art like cooking, pottery, and woodcarving.
See the forest
For me, this is an essential one. Do you know that saying you can’t see the forest for the trees?
It’s time to change that. There is a time to focus on details, like when you’re editing your work. But you always have to take a step back and admire the bigger picture. Perspective can be a genuinely calming and reassuring force.
At this moment, it probably feels super important that you bake the perfect cake, or that your profile pic is flawless, or your kitchen spotless.
However, in the long run, does it make such a difference?
Changing any thought pattern or habit can be pretty intimidating. However, the relief you experience will be worth it. Above all, I hope that we can all learn to celebrate our imperfections. All of us have legitimate things we want to change about ourselves, but trying to be perfect shouldn’t be one of our goals.
So don’t be too hard on yourself. You deserve to live joyfully and peacefully.
Which of these strategies have you tried?
Flett, G.L., & Hewitt, P.L., Eds. (2002). Perfectionism: Theory, research, and treatment. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Sherry, S.B., Hewitt, P.L., Flett, G.L., & Harvey, M. (2003). Perfectionism dimensions, perfectionistic attitudes, dependent attitudes, and depression in psychiatric patients and university students. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 50(3).
© 2020 Anrie James