Perfectionism is a topic that rears its head time and again (when discussing personalities, for instance). Every personality type may be prone to it in its own unique way, but it’s an integral part of some, more than others.
So what’s wrong with striving for perfection?
I have learnt that to answer that question we have to distinguish between striving for perfection and striving for excellence, which are two different things. I’ve learnt, by looking at my own life, that with perfectionism, enough is never enough. Perfection is an elusive goal that none can ever reach. Trying to do so leads to a “hamster wheel existence” with a lot of criticism attached at the end. You never get to reach the perfect goal and, yet, you get to feel bad about it.
Contrast the above to seeking excellence, which just means you do the best you can. With excellence you put your all into the preparation, practice and execution of something, but do not insist on it being without a blemish. When reaching for excellence, there is a point where you can feel accomplished. Not so with perfectionism.
Failures = Opportunities
Governor of Maryland described George Washington as a “dangerous mixture of inexperience and impetuosity.” As horrible and humiliated as Washington felt, he did not give up on himself. He learned from these mistakes and eventually became a great general and the first President of the United States. While disappointed, Washington clearly viewed each mishap as presenting another thing to learn and as a stepping-stone toward a day of excellence.
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How does perfectionism actually work against you?
Never reaching the goal and feeling bad about it is just one way perfectionism can work against you. Here are five other ways perfectionism can break you:
1. Procrastination: Procrastination is often linked to the fear of not doing something perfectly. Since you feel you must do something perfectly, yet fear you can’t, you put off any attempt at the task to postpone the certain disappointment and pain. Rather than accomplishing “good enough”, you end up doing nothing.
2. Risks: Inherent in every risk is the chance that you might fail. That’s the way risks work. Successful people will tell you time and again how important it is to take risks occasionally. Sometimes, it’s a choice between taking a risk and doing nothing. If perfectionism is your guiding principle you might forgo taking a reasonable risk to guarantee a perfect outcome. In other words, you may end up doing a lot of nothing instead of reaching out and breaking new ground.
3. Inhibit others: If you are seeking perfection and others around you get caught up in your pursuit, they may fear criticism and rejection and, consequently, hesitate to act when they should. It would be easy to call this “being uncooperative”, but “fear” is the better word. Children are especially vulnerable to such expectations (parents, pay attention!)
4. Intolerance for ambiguity: Sometimes we have to deal with ambiguity before we make progress. Life is not always neatly packaged, but fuzzy ambiguity is not perfect, and there can be little tolerance for it among perfectionists. Perfectionists may stall in the presence of ambiguity.
5. Afraid to ask for help: If a perfectionist puts so much weight on being perfect or appearing perfect, they may be reluctant to ask for help when they need it. Asking for support might appear “weak” or “imperfect”.
Learn to let good enough be good enough
You may notice that in writing the list above I focused on the idea of perfectionism affecting productivity, but there are also plenty of health concerns attributed to perfectionism, as well as psychological and stress-related problems.
The problem of perfectionism was, for me, a very important lesson to learn, and learning it has brought me a lot of emotional and professional freedom. If you are prone to perfectionism, learning to let good enough be good enough may be a valuable lesson to learn. The sooner, the better!
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