Aiming for perfection can be damaging.
Have you ever been labeled a "perfectionist"? Or do you consider yourself to be one?
While we all need to do high quality work, excessive perfectionism can do more harm than good.
For instance, it can be damaging to your self-esteem and to that of the people you work with. It can put a strain on your relationships, and, in some cases, it can lead to health issues.
In this article, we'll look at why excessive perfectionism is unhealthy, and we'll think about what you can do to overcome it.
Perfectionism is a set of self-defeating thought patterns that push you to try to achieve unrealistically high goals.
In his book, "The Pursuit of Perfect," Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar explains that there are two types of perfectionism: adaptive and maladaptive perfectionism. (You can listen to our interview with Dr. Ben-Shahar here.)
Adaptive perfectionists work on developing their skills. Their standards are always rising, and they approach work with optimism, pleasure, and a desire to improve. This is clearly a healthy type of perfectionism.
Maladaptive perfectionists, however, are never satisfied with what they achieve. If something isn't perfect, they dismiss it. They may experience fear of failure, doubt, unhappiness, and other painful emotions.
It's important to understand the difference between maladaptive perfectionism and a healthy quest for success. Maladaptive perfectionists see mistakes as unacceptable, as they think that these lead others to see them as incompetent.
By contrast, people striving for excellence in a healthy way see mistakes as an opportunity to grow; they understand that mistakes are part of the learning process, and they accept them.
In this article, we'll focus on dealing with maladaptive perfectionism.
But Shouldn't Things Be Perfect?
Clearly, you need to work hard and deliver the best results possible.
This is particularly the case when lives are at stake, or when the consequences of failure are significant. Here, a casual approach to quality can be catastrophic. However, even with situations like these, you need to do your very best, test and check your work thoroughly, and then deliver.
When the consequences of imperfection are small, then it can be wasteful to seek perfection. Here, "good enough" genuinely is good enough.
You are also being wasteful if you keep on tweaking your work once you have successfully completed a thorough, disciplined, well-thought-through test plan.
When it gets out of hand, perfectionism (in the form of maladaptive perfectionism) can hold you back, both personally and professionally.
We'll look at some of its consequences below:
According to an analysis published in the Journal of Counseling and Development, perfectionism has been linked to health issues such as eating disorders, depression, migraines, anxiety, and personality disorders. The quest for perfection can also result in decreased productivity, stress, and troubled relationships.
Perfectionism has a negative impact on self-esteem. Perfectionists see their own self-worth tied in to what they achieve, and they believe that others judge them on this as well. Because they're never satisfied with their achievements, they can never live up to the standards they set for themselves. This can lead to a downward spiral of self-criticism and blame.
Perfectionism is closely linked to procrastination.
For instance, a perfectionist might not start a new project until he's found the perfect way to approach the problem. Because of this procrastination, perfectionists often fall behind on their work. This can affect their reputation and their work relationships.
One of the consequences of perfectionism is that it has an inhibiting nature: perfectionism keeps us from taking risks, and it constrains our playfulness and our desire to dream. This, in turn, reduces our ability to innovate and to be creative.
It can be quite easy to recognize maladaptive perfectionism in yourself, if this is a problem. Look for some of these traits in your own actions and behavior:
Do you recognize any of these traits in yourself? If you do, don't be too concerned – we'll look at how you can manage these behaviors next.
The following steps, which are adapted from an approach developed by the Perth Center for Clinical Interventions, will help you challenge perfectionist behaviors and beliefs:
Start by listing everything you do that must be "perfect" – at work, in your home life, in your hobbies, and in your personal relationships.
For example, perhaps you check your work multiple times, or turn it in late because you worry you didn't do it correctly. Perhaps you arrive at appointments very early, because you're afraid of being late. Or you might spend an inordinate amount of time tidying up your desk; time that you could spend relaxing or working on other projects.
Also, examine things that you don't do, because of perfectionism.
Next to each behavior, write down why you believe this action must be perfect.
For instance, imagine that you never delegate tasks to your assistant, even though this is why you hired him. You often stay late at work to finish tasks that he could have done. You don't delegate tasks, because you believe he'll do them incorrectly, and you'll look bad.
Once you've done this, come up with one specific step to overcome each behavior.
For instance, you could try delegating one non-urgent task to your assistant. Once it's complete, review it once to make sure that he completed it correctly.
Or, if you check your work endlessly because you believe you may have made a mistake, resolve to read it over twice: once after you finish it, and once at the end of the day.
Once you successfully challenge the behavior, look at what happened. Chances are, there weren't any negative consequences. What did you learn?
Then, practice this regularly with different behaviors.
You'll likely experience some anxiety while challenging your perfectionist behaviors. This is normal. However, you'll probably find that your anxiety decreases dramatically once you see the results.
Challenge just one behavior at a time: trying to change all of your behaviors at once may cause you too much anxiety.
As well as the steps above, you can use these strategies to deal with perfectionism:
Perfectionists often set goals so high that there's little hope of achieving them. Instead, learn how to set realistic goals. Come up with several lifetime goals and then break these down into yearly and monthly goals. It can feel great to achieve these smaller goals!
Perfectionists often put their wants and needs aside to live up to the real or imagined expectations of others. Focus on your own dreams!
Whenever you're feeling anxious, unhappy, or scared about a task, ask yourself whether you've set your goal too high. Your emotions may be telling you that you're trying to achieve an unrealistic goal.
If you catch yourself engaging in self-sabotage, such as telling yourself that you're not good enough, stop. Remember that your thoughts influence your mood and, often, your actions.
Instead, focus on using affirmations, which are positive statements about yourself and your abilities. Affirmations can raise your self-esteem and reprogram your thinking. Remember, you always have a choice in what you think and do.
Mistakes are part of life. They can even provide rich learning experiences, if you have the courage to examine them. Your mistakes can teach you far more about life and your abilities than your successes will.
Make a real effort to learn from each mistake that you make. You'll grow as a result.
Perfectionists often live by a rigid set of rules. These rules could range from "I must never make mistakes" to "There must never be a crumb on the kitchen countertop." Although it's healthy to have high personal standards, they need to be flexible and helpful, not unrelenting and unrealistic.
Identify one rule you live by that's rigid, unfair, or unhelpful. Then reword it to be more helpful, flexible, and forgiving.
For instance, imagine you never suggest new ideas during team brainstorming meetings, because there's never enough time to think them through. You fear suggesting an idea that might make you look bad, so you always keep quiet. Your personal rule is that you should never offer an idea until you've had plenty of time to perfect it.
You could readjust this rule by saying, "Ideas don't have to be perfect during brainstorming sessions. The team's purpose is to take rough ideas, talk them through, and determine whether they're sound. My team will appreciate my input." Then put your new rule into practice!
Perfectionists often exhibit "tunnel vision": they focus on one small part of something and ignore the rest. For instance, if you're on a diet, you might obsess about slipping up and eating dessert at lunch, while ignoring the fact that you've stuck to your diet for the past three weeks.
Challenge this by making an effort to look at what you've done right. Don't focus exclusively on the negative!
Whenever you tell yourself that you "must," "should," or "shouldn't" do something, pay attention to how this demand makes you feel: perfectionists often use these words when they're setting up personal rules. Some examples are "I must never make mistakes" or "I should have done that job instead of delegating it."
Be careful using these words in your thinking; they can often lead you to create unrealistic expectations.
Perfectionists often find it difficult to relax and be spontaneous. Relaxation and spontaneity are not only necessary for a healthy life, but they can also improve your productivity and well-being.
Take regular breaks when you're at work to stretch, walk around, or do deep breathing exercises. Add spontaneity to your life by stopping to watch the sunset, or by picking up a new hobby.
Perfectionism, in the form of "maladaptive perfectionism," can push you to set unrealistically high goals. It can also reduce productivity and creativity, and can lead to various health problems.
To overcome your perfectionist behaviors, start by listing everything you do (or don't do) because of your desire for perfection.
Next, identify why you believe that each task has to be perfect, and come up with an action that you can take to challenge this behavior. Focus on one behavior at a time – if you try to overcome several behaviors at once, it may leave you feeling stressed, which means that you're far more likely to quit.
Also, set realistic goals, listen to your emotions, and don't fear mistakes.
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Ashby, J.S. and Rice, K.G. (2002) 'Perfectionism, Dysfunctional Attitudes, and Self-Esteem: A structural Equations Analysis,' Journal of Counseling and Development, April 2002. (Available here.)
Psychology Today (2008) 'The Pitfalls of Perfectionism' [Online.] Available here. [Accessed 6 February 2012.]
Fursland, A, Raykos, B, and Steele, A. (2009) 'Perfectionism in Perspective.' Perth Centre for Clinical Interventions.
Ben-Shahar, T. (2009) 'The Pursuit of Perfection,' Columbus: McGraw-Hill.