Perfectionism Is Not as Good as It Sounds

Perfectionism Is Not as Good as It SoundsIt’s tempting to claim perfectionism as a badge of honor. It’s the kind of “weakness” you might admit in a job interview as you humblebrag about your high standards, strong work ethic and never feeling satisfied with “good enough.”

In reality, rather than being an effective strategy for getting more done and performing at high levels, trying to meet impossible expectations can actually keep you from achieving excellent results. When you have to be perfect, you stick with what you know rather than stretch yourself and risk a mistake. You might pretend you have everything under control and even avoid asking for help when it could spell the difference between success and failure.

Unattainable ideals

The term “perfectionism” dates back to the 1600s when it was first used to describe the unreachable goal of moral perfection, living a life free from sin. It was first applied in a more clinical context in the 20th century. In 1936, an Austrian psychotherapist wrote about patients who were, “Perpetually comparing themselves with the unattainable idea of perfection spurred on by a sense of inferiority.”

Perfectionism can lead to feelings of low self-worth, damaging levels of shame and, at times, even prompt more serious issues such as eating disorders and anxiety. Psychologists today see a strong interplay between the individual and a social context that is giving rise to growing perfectionist tendencies. The idea was first explained in a seminal 1991 paper that described three critical elements to perfectionism: internal pressure to be perfect, a sense that others expect you to be perfect, and a desire to hold others to the same unattainable expectations.

More readily available comparisons 

London School of Economics (LSE) Assistant Professor, Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science, Tom Curran, Ph.D., says the constant presence of social media combined with globalization are contributing to growing perfectionism today. We see unrealistic, curated images of other people’s lives on social media and are exposed to even more people around the world to whom we can feel inferior.

“In the past we were judged more on a local scale, but with the opening of economies what we are seeing is that people are being exposed to these additional global ideals of perfection,” Curran shared in an LSE publication. He emphasizes how contemporary culture contributes to more people feeling pressured to be perfect. “We are surrounded by these images and messages all the time, and have internalized unrealistic ideals and values,” he says.

In his research, Curran even sees increasing perfectionist tendencies among parents who hold their children to unrealistic expectations and withhold praise unless they excel at a specific task.

Can it be helpful?

There is vigorous debate today within the psychological community about whether perfectionism can have an upside. Some refer to “normal” versus “neurotic” forms of perfectionism; others to “adaptive” and “maladaptive” perfectionist behaviors.

At its most negative and destructive, perfectionism leads to doubting your own capabilities, fear of making mistakes, fear of the judgments of others and a sense of disparity between what is expected and how you will perform. In a more positive incarnation, a perfectionist can have high standards but can still set goals based on their actual strengths and weaknesses. They have the capacity to feel good about accomplishments and can be flexible enough to adapt to challenges that might require lowering standards and expectations.

How to tame it

Because perfectionism is often associated with other mental health challenges, including depression, anxiety and eating disorders, there is a strong call among mental health professionals for sufferers to seek counseling. Although not considered a disorder, perfectionism can make it hard to function to your fullest. It can exact a particularly heavy toll on people of color who often already feel strong pressure to exceed expectations while simultaneously being held to higher standards.

Curran and others suggest several ways to manage perfectionism:

  • Learn to distinguish a genuine desire to excel from unrealistic expectations and a fear of failure.
  • Measure the opportunity cost of trying to be perfect. Are you wasting time re-doing good work in an effort to make it perfect? Are you driving away colleagues who find you difficult to work with? Do you avoid challenging assignments for fear you cannot deliver a flawless result? Relentless striving can quickly lead to a point of diminishing returns and crowd out more valuable activities you might pursue.
  • Focus on process and improvement rather than outcomes alone. Especially when tackling something new, watch for signs that you are learning and making progress.
  • Embrace failure as useful information that will lead to future improvements.
  • Experiment with minor setbacks to intentionally build confidence in your ability to adapt. That can be as simple as trying out a new haircut, eating a food you’ve never had before or trusting a colleague to perform a portion of the project her way.
  • Create a rubric or checklist (perhaps in concert with a trusted mentor) to measure results against objective criteria for acceptable standards of quality.
  • Live in the present rather than focused on past mistakes or feeling anxious about what might happen tomorrow.
  • Don’t struggle alone. Seek counseling if perfectionist tendencies interrupt your ability to do your job or grow your skills. Well before that point, tap into trusted colleagues, friends and mentors to get a reality check on the quality of your work.

Research shows feelings of inadequacy are rising, but you can break the cycle. Recognize that curated social media images and success stories don’t reflect reality and focus on capturing your own moments of progress, not perfection.