Perfectionism: A Lethal Habit Stunting Your Progress

Updated July 7, 2021 by Iulian Ionescu | Read Time min.
perfectionism puzzle

There’s a side of perfectionism that we all perceive as a positive. That’s because we are all conditioned to think of the word ” perfect” as meaning something good. It appears in our language all the time. “I baked a cake. It came out perfectly.” Sorry, it didn’t. Trust me. That is the problem with perfectionism—it sneaks under your skin like a disease with no symptoms, and before you can do anything about it, it has taken over your entire body, your mind, even your whole life. Soon, nothing is good enough. Not until it’s perfect. Well, it turns out that letting that kind of mindset fester and grow is a recipe for disaster.

What Is Perfectionism?

What do Steve Jobs, Martha Stewart, and Serena Williams have in common, besides tremendous personal success? They all are self-labeled notorious perfectionists.

But, wait a minute, you might say. If perfectionism is a common trait of these very different yet highly successful people, how can it be a bad thing? It’s a reasonable question. After all, I’d like to be able to emulate Steve Jobs any day of the week.

The truth is, though, that perfectionism has delayed even these people’s progress in their early lives. Perfectionism has stood as a hurdle along the way, and only after realizing it and figuring out ways to overcome it had they become successful.

They succeeded not because of perfectionism but despite it.

At its core, being a perfectionist means that you have incredibly high standards. So high that nothing you do seems good enough. On the surface, this sounds like it could be a way to motivate yourself to do more, better, faster, but the reality is that kind of motivation is short-lived.

Because perfectionism is a vicious circle, it will very quickly become a trap. You’ll think, “This is not good enough—I’ll try more.” Later, “This is not good enough either—I’ll try even more.”

Although the concept of always trying your best and aspiring to be better is an excellent way of life, the motivation, in this case, is flawed and will not lead to long-term results. Instead, it will lead to short-term burn-out, anxiety, and depression.

Here is what Serena Williams had to say about her becoming self-aware of her problem with perfectionism:

serena williams perfectionism I think it’s really important to realize that no day is going to be perfect. For me, that’s really hard because I strive for perfection, and I feel like everything I do has to be great and has to be perfect because I am a true perfectionist. But that’s impossible. That’s not reasonable. Then I realize that, OK, I had a rough day today; let’s do something to make it better tomorrow. I think it’s important to expect to have some really rough times when you’re going through something, but always know that you can overcome it.

“The seed of your next artwork lies embedded in the imperfections of your current piece.”David Bayles

Why Is Perfectionism Bad?

Let’s dive deeper into why perfectionism is bad and why you must understand if you are a perfectionist. Here are some of the first-hand effects of perfectionism and why they are not good for you.

1. Impossible Standards. Having goals that are challenging and push you outside of your comfort zone is a requirement for your growth and achievement. Having a vision is also a way of defining things outside of reach and using them as a motivator or guide for your life. There’s a massive difference between that kind of overarching life-vision and setting impossible standards for minute daily tasks. You may desire a fantastic home, but the twenty emails you write today don’t have to win a Pulitzer prize for you to get your job done.

2. Uber Critical. A characteristic of self-driven people is that they can stop, take a step back, and reflect. Reflection helps your self-awareness, and your self-awareness is needed for you to identify your mistakes and adjust. Self-reflection will result in changes when it enables you to identify things that you did wrong and act upon them. But that’s the place where you need to stop and move on. Instead, a perfectionist will continue to self-flagellate him or herself for the rest of their time on earth for that one mistake. That will not only eat up all your energy, but, in time, it will shatter your self-confidence, and soon enough, you will no longer love yourself.

3. All or Nothing. There’s a saying that you can’t have it all, and it’s true. But understand that not having it all doesn’t mean you have nothing. Perfectionism adds these blinders over your eyes, and everything becomes either Yes or No, with no nuances in between. Striving to be number one or having something that is number one is not a bad thing. But doing that for everything in life is prone to make you lose your mind. Depression and anxiety are one step away.

4. Outcome Oriented. You know how people say that it’s not all in the destination, but in the journey to get there? It’s true for a road-trip, and it’s true for many things in life. But as a perfectionist, you tend to stick your eye to the telescope lens and focus your gaze on the result. That causes you to lose the enjoyment of what you do. Imagine you have a fantastic vacation, but the one thing you went there to see—that cave or museum—is closed. Now you write off the entire vacation. Sounds crazy, right? Not so if you are a perfectionist, and your goal was to see that venue.

5. Procrastination. This behavior doesn’t sound like it belongs here, but trust me, it does. You see, perfectionists have a tremendous fear of failure. Because they are outcome-oriented, just the thought of not meeting that outcome is scary as hell. Lose twenty pounds? What if I can’t and know everyone will know? I failed… Okay, I might not do it then. Being results-oriented and leaning into the fear of what happens if you fail will stop you from taking risks. After all, if you don’t do something, there’s no chance that you won’t succeed and, therefore, present something imperfect.

“The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection.”George Orwell
candy perfectionism

Is Perfectionism Always Bad?

The short answer is no. The long answer requires entering a psychology wormhole, which I won’t do in this article. But to help you understand the difference between bad perfectionism and not-so-bad perfectionism, know that psychology splits this concept into two types:

Adaptive Perfectionism is a healthy and normal behavior that drives people to put extra effort into achieving their goals. In this case, we are talking about high but realistic standards with little to no self-criticism when falling short of the goal. You can see that behavior in children who continuously try to beat their high score at some game but never fall into deep self-pity when they don’t. You might see this kind of perfectionism in people with a high level of self-discipline.

Maladaptive Perfectionism is the bad kind of perfectionism, which tends to become an obstacle to living a happy life because the eye never moves off the target, and the target always moves, too. Because he never reaches the goal, the maladaptive perfectionist becomes his worse critic.

In general, perfectionists are people with a high internal locus of control, meaning that they believe that they are in control of their life, and all the outcomes are a direct result of their actions. That means that both victory and failure are on their shoulders one hundred percent.

What you do with failure is what separates the maladaptive perfectionist from both adaptive ones and non-perfectionists.

“We can choose to be perfect and admired or to be real and loved.”Glennon Doyle Melton

What Are the Signs of Perfectionism?

Below are six signs that you might be a perfectionist. Of course, perfectionism is not a typology but more of a continuum, and you can be closer or farther from one of its ends. These signs are not, therefore, absolute, and you should think of them as degrees.

Read through them and see if you have experienced a vast majority and, if so, to what extent. The more you have and the deeper you lean into their claws, the more likely you are to be a perfectionist at the core.

1) Always looking put together. There’s nothing inherently wrong with trying to look good and taking care of yourself in terms of grooming and clothing. But much like with other elements of perfectionism, looking good can flip to an unhealthy side. That unhealthiness could range from wasting a lot of time on getting yourself ready up to real psychological disorders such as anorexia or bulimia.

2) You never share your thoughts or ideas. Because perfectionists operate from a fear of failure mindset, the possibility of any action not being perfect is terrifying. More so, others realizing that fact is what adds another layer of anxiety. Therefore, the perfectionist won’t share any thoughts or ideas until they are 100 percent certain that it will be a good one. That causes perfectionists to appear closed off and often unauthentic. Sometimes, feeling like an impostor goes hand in hand with perfectionism.

3) Super organized and clean. This behavior, too, in and of itself, is not a bad thing, but it can also be an indicator of perfectionism. If you cannot do your work until your desk is in an immaculate condition, or if you struggle if your icons on your screen are not where they should be, you might be a perfectionist. Note that this doesn’t have to be OCD. Instead, it’s just an indicator that everything around you must be perfect for you to be able to operate.

4) Never relaxed. Perfectionists are also productivity freaks. I know that because I am one of them. To a perfectionist, not spending time appropriately toward a goal makes wasted time look that much worse. After all, there are so many other things I could be doing than relaxing. I’ll live while I’m alive and sleep when I’m dead, right? If you have a hard time unplugging and deliberately distancing yourself from work, projects, or hobbies, you might be a perfectionist.

5) It’s no decision or always the best decision. This one is a hard point to judge by yourself because it often requires a type of self-awareness and self-reflection that is hard to do. Perfectionists will often get stuck on small and big decisions out of fear of making the wrong one. That means that, more often than not, perfectionists will make no decision rather than live with the possibility of having made the wrong one.

6) You feel you are irreplaceable. Nobody can do what you do. Why? Because they don’t have the same high standards, and they are just not as good as you at it. Sounds familiar? If so, you probably have a hard time delegating anything to other people because you feel deep down that they’ll fuck it up. So, you do it instead. It’s safer that way, or at least it feels like it, doesn’t it? Being a maladaptive perfectionist in a leader’s position is a recipe for disaster.

“Perfectionism is a dream killer, because it’s just fear disguised as trying to do your best. It just is.”Mastin Kipp

sidewalk perfectionism ocd

How Can You Avoid Being a Perfectionist?

You can do some things to stop or reduce the level of perfectionism in your life. The good news is that they work because perfectionism is not real; it only lives in your thoughts. The bad news is that there’s no pill to take. It’s all personal hard work.

1. Acknowledge that you are a perfectionist.

Start there. Look at the signs I listed above and at the outcomes of perfectionism, and be honest with yourself. Do you see yourself doing those things? If you have a hard time accepting that you are, ask others around you who care about you. Acknowledgment is the first but critical step to understanding if you are a perfectionist.

2. Document your specific type of perfectionism.

Once you acknowledge that you suffer from this debilitating syndrome, you must then understand how it affects you in particular. So, start digging into your behavior and your feelings. What kind of perfectionist are you, and where does your perfectionism manifest the most? Identifying those areas of your life will give you the answer to where you must practice defeating it.

3. Understand the worst case.

Once you’ve identified what you do as a perfectionist, write down what is the absolute worst that could happen if you were to do them. For instance, I’m a perfectionist with this blog. Sometimes, I spend hours editing an article because I always feel it could be better. For me, the worst case would be someone reading the article and then telling everyone in the universe to never read my blog because of this lousy post.

Do you see how silly that sounds? Do the same exercise, and you will quickly realize that those worse case scenarios that your brain envisions are, in fact, most likely never going to happen.

4. Practice.

As I said, getting over perfectionism means a lifetime of experimentation. You need to practice being imperfect and slowly, over time, learn how not to be derailed by the feelings it creates. Understand that the feelings will always be there; what you need to do is callus your mind, as David Goggins says.

You need to experience those feelings over and over and over again until they won’t affect your behavior. That requires you to practice deliberately. Take the items you’ve identified in point 2, repeat the silliness of the worst-case scenario you envisioned, and then push yourself to be imperfect. Send an email without capitalizing. Forget all commas, make a typo, or even misspell your name.

Whatever is the scariest imperfect thing you could do, do just that, and let the sweat drip as you do it. That’s practice.

“And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.”John Steinbeck
person sunset arms open

Nobody’s Perfect.

Jack Lemmon’s character, Osgood, said it best in the last line of the Some Like It Hot movie: “Well, nobody’s perfect.”

It’s true. Not only that, but nobody expects anybody to be perfect either. As much as you imagine that your wife or husband expects perfection from you, they don’t. You might think that your boss will only appreciate you if you produce perfect results; they don’t.

But those mindsets are going to bubble as hurdles in your way, and soon enough, you will be stuck.

People expect you to be human, and humans are imperfect by nature. You need to expect the same from yourself, and once you do, that fixed mindset will dissolve, and you’ll finally be able to move forward.

I will close this post with a quote from Brené Brown’s book, “The Gifts of Imperfection.”

Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to do your best. Perfection is not about healthy achievement and growth. Perfectionism is not self-improvement or striving for excellence. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment, and shame. It’s a shield. Perfectionism is a twenty-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from taking flight.

Perfectionism is not self-improvement. Perfectionism is, at its core, about trying to earn approval and acceptance. Most perfectionists were raised being praised for achievement and performance (grades, manners, rule-following, people-pleasing, appearance, sports). Somewhere along the way, we adopted this dangerous and debilitating belief system: I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it. Please. Perform. Perfect. Healthy striving is self-focused—How can I improve? Perfectionism is other-focused-What will they think?”

Other Perfectionism Resources

Now, before you go, I have…

3 Questions For You

  1. Do you see yourself as a perfectionist? Why?
  2. What are some areas in your life where your perfectionism is very prominent?
  3. How do you practice not being a perfectionist in your day-to-day?

Please share your answers in the comments below. Sharing knowledge helps us all improve and get better!

iulian-ionescu


Tags

growth, mindset, self-awareness, self-discipline


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