The Perils of Perfectionism

29 08 2011

I ‘ve been a perfectionist all my life. My mother is Chinese and yes, some of the stereotypes about ‘Tiger Mothers’ are true. I had my first piano lesson at 3. If I brought a straight A report card home, my mom would just say “Ok, do it again next time.” I’ve been conditioned since birth to grow up to be a virtuoso pianist who moonlights as a surgeon and does pro bono charity work as a lawyer for the disenfranchised in my spare time. In a word, to be perfect.

Perfectionism can be a positive force. It motivates people to work hard and keep high standards. After all, being the ‘best you can be’ is what self improvement is all about. However, we’re here today to talk about the negatives of perfectionism, and how the need to go beyond excellent and be perfect can actually keep us from progressing in our goals.

We are all familiar with the idea that perfectionists are over-achieving workaholics but here are some other warning signs of perfectionism.

Perfectionists don’t try new things

Perfectionists avoid being anything less than perfect at all cost. Usually this means working to the bone to achieve perfection but sometimes this means inaction. Often, when a perfectionist tries something new and they aren’t immediately good at it, they give up (see my post last week about my 2 week stint on the bass guitar). When the new activity is already perceived to be difficult, many perfectionists don’t even bother trying at all.

Perfectionists don’t get things started

Even when perfectionists do decide that they are going to take on a difficult new task, they are slow to get the ball rolling. If there is any worry that they might perform poorly, perfectionists will procrastinate and attempt to delay that poor performance as long as possible. It’s funny that perfectionists often come off as slackers.

Perfectionists think “I won’t start this project until I know the right way to do it.” Perfectionists have an ‘all or nothing’ attitude. Either something has to be done impeccably, or not at all.

Perfectionists don’t get things done

In addition to not being able to start projects, perfectionists often have trouble finishing them too. It’s not that perfectionists aren’t productive, they’re usually workaholics. What stops them from actually finishing projects, though, is getting too hung up on small details. They waste time on perfecting individual components and lose sight of the bigger picture.

No matter how much work they do get done, perfectionists will never feel finished. They will forever be chasing perfection when it doesn’t exist. Perfectionists run at full speed but never get anywhere. It’s stressful, exhausting and debilitating.

How to Overcome Perfectionism

Perfectionism is a tough habit to break because it’s so closely tied to feelings of worth. In order to improve, we must learn to separate healthy goals from harmful obsession. The key to this is to re-examine our motivations.

Perfectionism is often fueled by external, rather than internal causes. Perfectionists want to be perceived as excellent by others. They feel they have an image to maintain, an image to present to everyone else.

The irony is that perfectionism, though it does not necessarily stem from the self, is self-imposed. We must, however, remember that it is only us that holds us to these standards. If at any point we choose to change those standards or those goals, we can.

So what should our goals be?

Perfectionists often strive for things: a promotion, a raise, a title or recognition. It’s better, however, to work toward values and actions: doing things with integrity, being a supportive team member, working hard or being enthusiastic. It is a far more admirable thing to accomplish something with a positive spirit and to grow and learn in the process, than it is to accomplish it perfectly.

So even though we all want to be MVP, to be perfect and to get those gold stars, being ‘Most Improved’ is just as worthy a pursuit.

Can you relate to these traits of perfectionists? What are your stories of struggling with, and overcoming, the need to be perfect?