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Perfectionism – the enemy of good?

Voltaire, the French writer and philosopher, observed that ‘Perfect is the enemy of the good.’ This might seem to be an odd observation. Surely, the idea of perfection is synonymous with a worthy outcome? Haven’t we all been castigated for our flaws, however minor, by key influencers in our lives – our parents, teachers, and employers? Don’t we all have a bit of a perfectionist within us?

Of course, the reality is we are all flawed and we all make mistakes. Perfection is an illusion and when we seek it, we are inevitably exposed to disappointment and self-criticism.

Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best.

In some people, perfection lurks in the recesses of our minds and manifests itself in those moments of insecurity, self-doubt, inadequacy, and shame. In others, perfectionism is more consciously active. This is when the drive for perfectionism results not in happiness and satisfaction but in unnecessary stress and anxiety. It is common to hear the claim that “healthy perfectionism” is a positive and healthy trait. This is not the case.

Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be the best one can be, the latter being a true expression of healthy behaviour. Instead, perfectionism needs to be recognized as a defensive mechanism employed to act as a shield to protect from painful experiences of blame, guilt, or shame.

Am I a perfectionist?

So, we know that we can fall into the desire for perfectionism from time to time in various areas of our lives. Equally, we might have realised its futility. Remember the time you had to hand in that homework when a tight deadline was looming? What did you say to yourself? If you accepted that you had done your best in the time available, then congratulations. You were prepared to accept your limitations.

Your homework may have had flaws in it, but you are prepared to learn from your mistakes and the overall experience of managing deadlines and homework schedules better in the future. Perfection is difficult to sustain when a tight deadline beckons. In contrast, the dedicated perfectionist will have chosen to burn the midnight oil and sacrifice valuable rest, to refine and repeatedly adjust their homework.

They become increasingly agitated and stressed by their pursuit of flawless results and experience increased exhaustion. The struggle for perfection drains their mental and physical resources and ironically leads to more errors being made. The homework is not handed in on time as it does not meet the exacting standards of the perfectionist. They feel guilt and shame which in turn affects their self-esteem. They castigate their failure and become increasingly miserable.

This is just one example of the countless ways perfectionism can have a negative impact on our lives. People who are full-time perfectionists may feel the need to achieve perfection constantly and over a wide range of situations in their lives. Some tasks may become impossible to undertake unless perfection can be guaranteed. It seems that the end result becomes the most important part of any activity undertaken. In the example of homework, the focus is less on the process of learning or completing the task to the best of the individual’s ability. Striving for the perfect result or ultimate standard robs the experience of its potential for positive personal growth as well as of the potential for joy and pleasure.

Perfectionists worry so much about tasks to such an extent that they become experts in procrastination – if you don’t start the task then you are shielded from any potential failure. An alternative to procrastination is to take an inordinate amount of time to complete something that other people would generally be able to achieve much sooner. For example, a perfectionist may take several minutes pondering the content of a simple SMS message, constantly revising the text, and over-thinking the content, right down to the choice of the most appropriate emoji! In short chronic perfectionism can become very debilitating in almost any situation.

Other examples of perfectionist traits include:

  • all or nothing thinking
  • being highly critical
  • unrealistic expectations
  • defensiveness
  • low self-esteem

High achievers are happier than perfectionists.

High achievers share many similarities with perfectionists but their relationship to achieving their goals is much healthier. High achievers can be satisfied with doing an excellent job even if their extremely high standards are not met. They do not suffer the all-or-nothing attitudes of the perfectionist who is unwilling to accept nothing less than perfection. Equally, a high achiever can be proud of their own achievements, and the successes of others while perfectionists are much more likely to focus on mistakes and imperfections. This makes them much more likely to be judgmental of themselves and others. The point here is that high achievers are drawn toward their goals and the ambition to achieve them. In contrast, perfectionists are driven toward goals by the fear of not reaching those goals.

Whilst a high achiever can be motivated by striving for achievement, they are also able to enjoy the challenge and accept that not all their aims and objectives may be met exactly as they had expected. They will be able to bounce back from setbacks. The perfectionist in contrast would be highly self-critical and become immersed in their sense of failure. This lowers the perfectionist’s mood and is likely to feed a spiral of self-criticism which gradually reduces the range of tasks a perfectionist is willing to undertake as the risk of failure is too unbearable.

How can I overcome perfectionism?

The first task in overcoming perfectionism is to become increasingly aware of any tendency towards perfectionist thinking and behaviours. This requires some self-reflection. This may be something that a person can undertake by themselves. One method may be to start a record of thought patterns by writing them down as they become apparent. Once there is some recognition of the ways in which perfectionism has taken a hold on behaviour it is much more likely that helpful processes of positive self-talk can begin. Another possibility is to seek some counselling. Talking therapies are especially useful in helping to identify perfectionist thinking and behaviour, and working with a therapist will help to discover strategies to bring about positive change to mitigate against the negative impact of debilitating aspects of perfectionism.

Additionally, there is a rich supply of self-help literature and online resources which have information and advice related to the topic of perfectionism.

Realising that wanting perfection inevitably means that we will tend to fixate on the negative aspects of who we are and what we do in life prevents us from looking at what is good about ourselves. For all the negatives that come readily to the perfectionist, attention should also be given to alternative thinking which allows for some focus on positive appreciation of ourselves and what we do. Implicit in this change of attitude it is important for the perfectionist to admit that making mistakes is not a catastrophe but an opportunity to learn and to grow.

One way to achieve this may be to take some new interest or hobby, particularly one that is likely to be outside personal comfort zones. Choosing something new and challenging invites the likelihood that new activity will be difficult to master at first. This is therapeutic for the perfectionist as it supplies the opportunity to enjoy an activity and experience it as paced improvement rather than trying to create “perfection” at it from the outset. The perfectionist will discover that mistakes are positive and necessary components of achieving realistic goals without the impossibly high standards.

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