Perfectionism might seem – if you’ve spent a lot of time working in competitive schools, industries, and organizations – like a good thing. And this makes sense given the public values in those kinds of spaces. Our culture exalts achievement to the point of valuing work more than leisure, and even health and wellness. We are zealous in our devotion to productivity – yet this zealotry often harms our work itself.
Even if you don’t identify as a perfectionist, you may still, on some level, share the values of perfectionism. You might reflexively admire people who put in long hours or who meticulously refine work that’s already sufficient. You might presume that perfectionism is what it takes to get ahead. In this article, we’re going to flip that normal perspective on its head. We’ll look at some of the negative consequences of perfectionism, as well as solutions for how to avoid them.
What Is Perfectionism?
Overcoming perfectionism must start with the question: what is perfectionism? It’s hard to nail down a precise definition, since perfectionism is best understood in terms of its behaviors, its values, and more. But for a quick perfectionism definition, we can define it as the belief that it is possible and desirable to attain perfection or the appearance of perfection in one’s person, status, and/or activity.
Beyond Perfectionism Lies Maladaptive Perfectionism
That definition of perfectionism is relatively neutral. It might even sound positive at first glance. However, let’s consider maladaptive perfectionism. What does that mean? Maladaptive is a term borrowed from evolutionary biology that refers to evolved traits or behaviors that obstruct rather than enable a being or population to flourish. Many adaptive traits become maladaptive over time, as conditions change.
There may be truth to a quote frequently attributed to Voltaire. He suggested that “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” Consider that we all have limited resources (time, money, attention). We want to achieve objectives and deliver excellent results at work. Most of us also want to maintain relationships with coworkers, while having time left over after work to spend with our families or to exercise.
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Consider a manager on a consulting project who decides to not accept a work product as of 5PM that has already been worked on for several days. He requests that his team make various updates after dinner and send him back a new version by 10PM. The work product may get a little better – or it may not. Late-night errors could be made, among other costs involved as a byproduct of this decision. Is the cost worth it? Will the client even notice, or care, about this last-minute improvement? Was this a good decision? Likely not.
Perfectionism Can Be Harmful
Overcoming perfectionism and its destructive consequences begins with recognition of the ways perfectionism can be harmful. Maybe there were times in life when perfectionism seemed to help you – or someone around you – succeed or stand out. Or maybe you witnessed passion and misinterpreted that as perfectionism. Either way, it’s important to consider what perfectionism may be costing you.
Are you consistently short on time and energy? Are you often struggling with deadlines? Has the quality of your work been deteriorating in other areas besides the work you’ve been focusing on? Are you suffering from constant anxiety about flaws in yourself, your work, or your image? These are all signs that you may be suffering from maladaptive perfectionism.
Perfectionism and Anxiety: Are They Linked?
Perfectionism can seem like a strategy to overcome anxiety. But really perfectionism and anxiety are highly correlated.
You stress about the quality of your work, so you try to make your work more perfect so you won’t stress. This way of thinking mistakes the way the human psyche operates. In reality, there is no difference between the “perfectionism” you’re relying on as a strategy and the anxiety it’s designed to defeat. This is simply an anxiety loop that can be difficult to escape.
What perfectionism can do is it can create a habit of anxiety and dissatisfaction with the present moment. And so, even if you do manage to refine a flaw or deficiency with the thing you’re working on, you’ll still be left with the perfectionist habit of anxiety and dissatisfaction. You will soon find something else to stress about, and you’ll work to fix it. It’s like an eternal game of whack-a-mole. You’ll never actually reach the place of lasting satisfaction. That place of lasting satisfaction is not something that can be achieved in the future – it can only ever be realized by healing your relationship to the present moment.
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Overcoming perfectionism does not mean that you have to settle for mediocrity. It just means being present so you can recognize what a situation needs. This will enable you to do exactly what’s required. Not only is this a more harmonious way to live, it is likely to keep you from making many mistakes in the first place. In other words, perfectionism is not the best strategy for “perfection.”
How to Overcome Perfectionism
Overcoming perfectionism is possible, though you will have to approach it as a process rather than an achievement or conquest. The best strategy for how to overcome perfectionism begins with healing your relationship to the present moment. This is what the concept of mindfulness is fundamentally all about and why it’s considered an antidote to anxiety. Maladaptive perfectionism arises from a habitual dissatisfaction with the present and a correlated habit of seeking flaws to focus on. By getting hung up on the flaws you perceive, you get stuck and fail to move with the present moment. This causes dysfunction.
When you catch yourself feeling perfectionist anxiety, do what you can to be more present in the immediate moment. Instead of believing, identifying with, or fighting every thought or emotion, simply witness it. Be present for your sense perceptions, and for your breathing. It only takes a second to recenter yourself back to the present moment. You’ll be amazed at how much your anxiety can be healed in that short time.
From there, ask yourself: what does the situation really demand, and what are the incentives (behind perfectionism)? Have you already fulfilled the requirements of the task at hand? Will putting in more effort actually help achieve “excellence,” i.e., greater-than-expected outcomes? Or is it more like refining something already beautiful to the point that the original perfection is diminished? When we do this, we are not trying to achieve an excellent result for our team but for ourselves. We want to achieve more recognition, admiration, and/or prestige.
Competitive school and work environments condition many of us to signal our own personal excellence in our work. While signaling excellence may be a part of establishing yourself in a new organization, it can also be maladaptive. In many situations, a focus on individual excellence can be counterproductive to the goals of a team. And the person who works hard to signal excellence often achieves the opposite of their goals – they signal personal egotism and an inability to recognize what a group really needs.
This is closely related to a sense of personal insecurity. We are often motivated by our projections of what others might think of us. This can be especially true in a business environment, where hierarchies give people’s perceptions power. Overcoming perfectionism motivated by insecurity begins with trying to be more present in the moment, and identifying less with a perfect self-image.
Top Books on Perfectionism
If you want to go deeper in your study of overcoming perfectionism, there are many books on it that are worth your time. Here are two that complement each other well.
How to Be an Imperfectionist by Stephen Guise. This is a practical guide to radically flipping the normal perfectionist paradigm. Instead of trying to carefully walk the tightrope of modulating your level of perfection, this book can help you cultivate a positive, powerful, and productive embrace of imperfection.
I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t) by Brené Brown. Guise’s book is eminently practical in helping provide tips for flipping the perfectionist frame. Brown’s book, on the other hand, is a deeper probe into the psychological roots and the destructive consequences of perfectionism. Brown is particularly skilled at compassionately guiding you toward seeing the deeper feelings of inadequacy and inauthenticity that define much of our lives. She is also remarkably adept at helping people find the way out of judgments and limiting beliefs into more authentic expressions of themselves.
It should be clear by now that perfectionism is not helpful to anyone seeking to achieve a better personal or professional life. This is not to say that we should not strive for excellence. But the red herring of perfection only leads to personal and organizational dysfunction. Perfectionism leaves us overworked, anxious, and dissatisfied. Overcoming perfectionism will – paradoxically – empower us to do our best work yet.
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