It’s tempting to see perfectionism as a desirable or positive quality – it shows that we pay close attention to detail and get things right. But in fact, obsessive perfectionism can do more harm than good. It can damage self-esteem, put a strain on our relationships and may even lead to serious health problems. Three forms of perfectionism include:
- Self-oriented perfectionism. When someone demands perfection from themselves.
- Other-oriented perfectionism. When someone demands perfection from other people.
- Socially prescribed perfectionism. When someone feels pressure from others to be perfect.
These can be adaptive and maladaptive:
Adaptive perfectionists want to develop their skills continually. Their standards are always rising, and they approach work with optimism, pleasure and a desire to improve. This is the healthier type of perfectionism – but, as we’ll see later, it’s not without its problems.
Maladaptive perfectionists, however, are never satisfied with what they achieve and, if something isn’t perfect, they dismiss it. They may experience fear of failure, anxiety, unhappiness and other painful emotions. In general, maladaptive perfectionists tend to exhibit the following actions and behaviours:
- Have high, unrealistic goals.
- Give up on tasks if they feel that they can’t be the best or “win.”
- View mistakes as failures and conceal them from others.
- Spend an excessive amount of time planning or redoing work to make it “perfect.”
- Don’t like taking risks unless a successful outcome is guaranteed.
- Are overly concerned with what other people think about them and believe that, if their flaws are exposed, they will be rejected.
- Don’t handle criticism or feedback well.
- Apply unrealistic standards to colleagues and are over-critical of their work.
- If things don’t go to plan, they can feel stressed and anxious.
- They find it difficult to delegate tasks to others.
Is Perfectionism a Weakness or a Strength?
Perfectionism is often viewed as a strength that helps people to produce high-quality work. But, while conscientiousness and attention to detail are valuable attributes, they can also influence the way that you’re seen by others. You may, for instance, be viewed as over-critical, or as a procrastinator who spends too long on the detail rather than on the end result. Of course, there are times when getting everything right is essential. If lives are at risk or if failure has grave implications, it’s vital that you test and check your work thoroughly. When the consequences of imperfection are small, however, it can be wasteful or counterproductive to seek or expect perfection. Learning to recognize when “good enough” really is good enough can save time and energy for when they’re really needed.
Why Is Perfectionism a Problem?
When perfectionism gets out of control or becomes obsessive, it can harm you both professionally and personally. Let’s look at some of the most common problem areas you might experience if you are a maladaptive perfectionist:
Perfectionism is linked to health issues such as eating disorders, depression, migraines, anxiety, burnout and personality disorders. The quest for perfection can also result in decreased energy, increased stress and relationship problems.
Perfectionism can seriously impact your self-esteem. This is because self-worth is often tied to achievement. You believe that other people judge you on your achievements. But, because you’re rarely satisfied with what you do achieve due to your unrealistic high standards, you tend to believe that others think little of you and your ability. This can lead to a downward spiral of self-criticism.
Contrary to popular opinion, perfectionism can damage your productivity, as it often makes you more liable to procrastinate. If you’re a perfectionist, you may find that you avoid starting a new project until you’ve found the absolute best way to approach it. You might also get caught up in minor details or make others repeat tasks that have already been completed because they aren’t exactly right. Ultimately, however, this wastes time that could have been spent on other, more important tasks. It can also damage your relationships with others because of the knock-on effect that it has on team workflow.
Perfectionism can prevent you from leaving your comfort zone and taking risks. If you’re afraid to make mistakes, it’s difficult to generate new ideas and seize opportunities, and your creativity can suffer as a result.
Dealing With Perfectionism
The following seven strategies can help you to mitigate the negative effects of perfectionism:
1. Challenge Your Behaviour
If you think that you have a problem with perfectionism, start by challenging your behaviour and beliefs. List some of the things that you do that must be “perfect.” Perhaps you feel that you need to check your work multiple times before turning it in, or you like to create overly detailed plans before you start a new project. Next to each behaviour that you’ve listed, write down why you believe that this activity must be perfect. Perhaps you resist delegating tasks to a co-worker because you don’t trust their ability. Or you stay late at the office to check their work when you could be relaxing at home or spending time on other projects. Finally, think about how you might overcome these behaviours or beliefs. For example, could you delegate one task a day, then review it just once to make sure that it’s been done correctly?
2. Set Realistic Goals
Perfectionists often set their objectives so high that there’s little hope of ever achieving them. Instead, learn how to set realistic goals. Think about your most important life and career goals. Then, break them down into smaller monthly or yearly steps. Not only will this make it easier to reach your objectives, but you’ll also experience the thrill of achieving these smaller goals.
3. Listen to Your Emotions
If you’re feeling anxious or unhappy about a task, your instincts may be telling you that you’re trying to achieve the impossible. Listen to them and adjust your targets accordingly. Perfectionists are often prone to negative self-talk. If you catch yourself doing this, stop, otherwise your thoughts may become self-fulfilling prophecies. Remember, positive thinking is often associated with positive action and outcomes.
4. Don’t Fear Mistakes
Mistakes are part of life. They show that you’re not afraid to push yourself and try new things. In fact, they can provide rich learning experiences that teach you far more than a flawless performance. So, next time you make one, accept it, learn from it, and move on.
5. Readjust Your Personal Rules
Perfectionists often live by a rigid set of rules. Your rules might be to check every email at least three times before you send it, or to never leave a crumb on the kitchen counter. But, while it’s great to have high personal standards, they must be flexible and helpful, rather than unrelenting and unrealistic. Identify one rule that you live by that’s too rigid and reword it to be more forgiving. For example, maybe you could re-read only the most important emails before you send them.
6. Focus on the Bigger Picture
Perfectionism can cause “tunnel vision” – when you focus on one small part of something but ignore the rest. You might, for instance, obsess about getting a minor part of a presentation right, like the fonts or special effects, instead of concentrating on the substance and meaning that you are trying to convey. Remember to keep your focus on the bigger picture. Your failings will seem much less significant and you’ll reduce the urge to be perfect.
7. Relax – and Go with the Flow
The pursuit of perfection can make it extremely difficult to relax and be spontaneous. Instead, perfectionists prefer to maintain focus and to stick rigidly to their carefully laid plans. But relaxation and spontaneity aren’t just necessary for a healthy life. They can also improve your productivity and well-being. And you’ll be better at keeping perfectionism under control if you’re feeling rested, clear-headed and happy.