Perfectionism Isn't Worth ItSep 12, 2022
You know that classic job interview question, "What's your biggest weakness?" Conventional wisdom says to give an answer that's really a strength masquerading as a weakness. The perfect answer? "I'm a bit of a perfectionist."
But is that really a sneaky way of showcasing your strengths, or is perfectionism actually a weakness?
There's absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to do well or being a high achiever, but as a (mostly recovered) perfectionist myself, I'd argue that crossing into perfectionism territory is not a good thing and that it may actually cause you more harm than you realize.
High Standards for Self or Others
High standards are the quintessential calling card of perfectionism. It sets an impossibly high bar that, even if you manage to reach it, just raises again, staying always a little out of reach. This can show up in the pursuit of straight A's in school or perfect evaluations at work. It can show up as unrealistic expectations about never making a mistake, being overly concerned with always saying or doing the right thing, or simply a driving need to be your best or THE best possible at whatever it is you're doing.
Sometimes these unrealistic expectations take the form of unyielding expectations or demands for how things should be. Rather than being driven to be the best, it's a rigid adherence to the ideas you have in mind. This is how it should be. This is what should happen. This is is how things should be done...and others should willingly follow along. These shoulds hold reality hostage leaving you feeling angry or upset or out of control when your expectations are not met.
Just Right Perfectionism
Just right perfectionism is another flavor in which high levels of distress arise when things aren't "right." This may mean when things don't look right (e.g., being really bothered by a crooked frame on the wall) or feel right (e.g., like when you have to do something over again until it feels just right). The issue is that things seldom stay "just right" forever, and you're left being agitated when they aren't.
Perfectionism can show up socially, urging you to present yourself in a particular way, trying to match up to some idealized version of what you think others want or expect. You carefully craft a public persona, perhaps through your appearance (not a hair out of place), your online profiles, or the way you interact with others personally or professionally. Social perfectionism can keep you from being real, authentic, or honest for fear of being shunned, judged, or rejected or for fear of being the cause of others' distress.
Another surprising way that perfectionism comes out is indecisiveness. People who struggle to make decisions are typically anxious about making the wrong decision or not making the best decision possible.
The Promises of Perfectionism
Underneath the fear that drives perfectionism is a promise. Like the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, perfectionism promises that it is the path to some coveted treasure like success, comfort, control, or confidence, and that, ultimately, you will be happy when you reach it.
If you get good enough grades, you'll get into a good college. Keep up the perfect work, and you'll get a good job. Work hard there so you can get promotions and higher salaries so you can what? Be happy!
Perfectionism in other areas works the same way. Be the best, and good things are guaranteed to happen. You'll be confident and feel unshakably good about yourself. Be perfect socially, avoid judgment or reaction, gain acceptance, and you'll be happy. If things don't look or feel right, you'll be bothered forever. Fix them, and you'll be comfortable and happy. If things go exactly according to your plan, you'll feel in control and be happy. Check off all the boxes when it comes to your career, your partner, and your life, you'll be happy.
Happiness is the grand prize at the end of the perfectionism promise, but does it actually deliver?
The Costs of Perfectionism
You could argue the whole "shoot for the moon. If you miss you'll land among the stars" thing, staking that aiming for perfection and falling short will pay off. I'd argue against it, though. Perfectionism comes with some costs.
Does the pursuit of perfection really make you happy? Think about your actual experience here, not some imagined future. Do you enjoy the process of striving for perfect, or do you feel ick - stressed, frustrated, anxious, angry, or full of doubt? Sure, that moment of reaching that high bar may be glorious...for a second. But, how long does it actually last? Doesn't the target just move again, and the pressure to perform at that highest level just returns? Whatever happiness, comfort, or control you get vanishes pretty quickly.
Shrinking Acceptability Zone
The more you give into perfectionism, the more it demands...and the range of acceptable outcomes shrinks, making you more rigid and inflexible, which actually diminishes your resilience. If you must get all A's, for example, it won't be long before an A is no longer enough. Now it has to be an A+. Eventually the target will be a 100%. Anything less is unacceptable. The acceptability zone went from 10% (an A in a lot of US schools is 90% or higher, so 90-100% is good enough), to only one outcome is ok (100%). Similarly, the more you try to control everything that happens, the more you will be thrown off when things don't go according to plan. And let's be real, when does life ever go according to plan?
Damage to Relationships
Perfectionism takes a toll on relationships in a number of ways. If you're adhering to those expectations you have in mind and forcing them onto others, they're going to feel like you're trying to control them. That can cause tension in relationships, and resentments can grow.
If you're wrapped up in social perfectionism and that's leading to inauthenticity, you're actually going to feel less connected. While others may accept you, there will be a nagging doubt in the back of your mind that whispers, "But if they knew the real you, they wouldn't." Vulnerable authenticity is the way to true connection.
Perhaps the one relationship that takes the biggest hit when it comes to perfectionism is the one you have with yourself. If that Inner Critic is loud, constantly pointing out the ways in which you fall short and pushing to you to do better, be better, it's kind of hard to actually feel good about yourself.
Procrastination is a complex habit, but it is often intricately linked to perfectionism. It's natural to want to avoid things that are hard or uncomfortable. If you're on the perfection path, then it's quite likely that tasks take a lot of effort and energy (more than they actually need). When you're faced with those demands, you may find yourself putting off getting started. The pressure to produce at a really high level can also be paralyzing. If you're afraid that it won't be good enough or are unsure about how to move forward (e.g, because it's hard to make a decision), you may find yourself stuck, at least until the deadline is looming large enough to push you forward.
Avoidance and Inaction
Sometimes it goes beyond procrastination to full on avoidance or inaction preventing you from taking a step forward or doing something that feels risky. In that case, perfectionism is actually limiting your success, not enhancing it. It's kind of twisted like that.
Breaking Free from Perfectionism
There are times when striving for perfect may absolutely be worthwhile, realistic, and important. Often, however, our minds oversell the importance of the task, demanding more than is actually necessary. Perfection should be the exception, not the rule. Learning to lower your standards and accept that good enough is good enough is the key to breaking free from perfectionism.
First, understand that lowering your standards is not the same as failure or even mediocrity. You can do good work, even great work, without succumbing to the drive for perfection. Being able to set perfectionism aside when it does not serve you is the goal here.
- Is perfection realistic or even possible in this particular case?
- Is it worth the extra time and energy it will take to pursue perfection?
- Will it actually make a meaningful difference if you/it is perfect or not? Are you 100% sure that it will?
- Are others who have the outcome you're shooting for also perfect?
If you truthfully answer these questions, you'll most likely have to acknowledge that perfection doesn't actually matter that much in this specific case. So, challenge yourself to do less. Shoot for good enough.
If perfectionism is a habit for you, chances are you'll struggle to accept good enough. You'll need to work a little more intentionally on breaking free from perfectionism. To do this, you'll need to practice good enough...a lot. Keep in mind that the more you do it, the easier it will get. Eventually, it will feel natural. When it does, you'll be in charge, not perfectionism, which means you'll be able to set your effort level based on what serves you in that moment. In other words, you'll still be able to aim high when you need to but will more easily be able to let it go and settle for good enough when that serves you better, freeing up your time and energy for the things that truly matter.
There are a ton of ways to practice good enough on purpose. Some to consider include:
- leave a typo in an email or text
- say something without scripting it out first
- mess your hair up or dress a little slouchier than normal
- post an unfiltered or not quite so flattering picture
- leave something "wrong" (e.g., make the bed "wrong," leave dishes in the sink, let a picture be crooked) - challenge yourself to see how long you can go without fixing it.
- Make a snap decision without overthinking it
- Let someone else be in charge of planning and practice going with the flow
- Look for opportunities to fail (I love the story of how Sara Blakely, founder of Spanx, a wildly successful company, shared that her dad used to ask her everyday as a child, "How did you fail today?" If she didn't have an answer, he'd be disappointed. This approach all but guarantees that fear of failure will never be an obstacle.)
I'm sure another hour would make this email more polished, better in some way. BUT, I'm going to call it good enough and go enjoy lunch with some friends.
"Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good."
Written by Dr. Ashley Smith
Peak Mind Co-founder
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