The Ugly Truth About Perfectionism

Brian Johnson
Mar 6, 2019 · 5 min read

I’ve known for a long time that I’m a staunch card-carrying member of the Perfectionist “Party.” I’ve carried it like a badge of honor and I’ve had the swagger to back it up. That is, of course, until I realized just how toxic Perfectionism truly is.

A little context…

I’ve devoted a lot of time over the years training leadership teams and engaging in leadership development activities with supervisors, managers, and direct reports and one topic always humbles me when we discuss it in our group settings: Perfectionism.

To be honest, what humbles me most is how many people I’ve worked with who suffer from perfectionism. It also amazes me just how many forms it manifests itself in our lives.

I can’t say this with any certainty but it seems to me that everyone deals with perfectionism at some level or another.

One of the best ways that I’ve managed to discuss this issue, in the professional context of work and productivity, is to discuss my own particular version of perfectionism and how I’ve worked to get past the perfectionist belief structure and the thinking and behaviors that reinforce it.

Like many people, I spent an inordinate amount of time (more than I’d care to admit) with the idea in my head that being a perfectionist was kind of a good thing.

Yes, there were some annoying little side effects I’d hesitatingly admit to, but in the end, these were small personality glitches, not glaring character defects so no big deal. Life was all good and being a perfectionist was all worth it as far as I was concerned.

At the time, it seemed that being a perfectionist gave me some special edge over my fellow mortals who weren’t as “into” perfection as I was. I thought of perfectionism as a skill set that I could tap into to get the energy and strength I needed to get the job done.

Viewed through this perspective, perfectionism was like spinach and I was like Popeye. I could always count on my perfectionism to save the day when the chips were down.

I recall in college how friends and I would laughingly call ourselves perfectionists and how our unique insight into the world was a result of our perfectionism.

Perfectionism, therefore, became this virtuous burden and only the strongest of personalities and the most talented and intelligent of people could shoulder the responsibility.

Yes, I know… you have to have pretty low self-esteem to think in such grandiose terms about your abilities, and that was definitely true for me at the time.

I recall a job interview, early in my career, in which I was asked to describe a weakness of mine and I confidently rattled off; “I’m a perfectionist!”

Yeah, I was that guy. Clearly trying to pass off a supposed weakness as something that I actually consider a strength without ever actually addressing the question as it was intended. Did you know that pretending that weaknesses are strengths is actually a sign of perfectionism? I clearly didn’t.

Well, as is often the case, the frivolity of youth persisted until experience and consequences started to rear its ugly head.

What I learned:

Perfectionism is really, really toxic! …And, perfectionism can affect different people in different ways.

Perfectionism has a lot of nuances and can be expressed in many ways, but what was most significant for me to understand is that I suffered three distinct reactions to the toxicity of perfectionism as a belief system.

1. I didn’t allow myself any mistakes

Mistakes were always criticized by my inner voice as an inadequacy of some sort, usually a lack of intelligence or ability. I never looked at mistakes as an opportunity to learn.

I was always very unforgiving of my mistakes and I would be especially disturbed by not being able to predict an outcome that wasn’t ‘perfect.’

2. I could never celebrate my success

No matter how good or how big the win, I could only focus on the shortcomings or flaws in a project or goal. Even though the outcome would be exactly what I wanted or was expected I couldn’t see the beauty for the blemish.

3. No matter what, I never felt perfect

This is due primarily to the negative belief that perfection, to the degree that I interpreted it, actually exists and can somehow be achieved.

Yeah, all super toxic emotions and thoughts.

My Solution:

What I came to understand was that I had a huge perception problem. Not only did I have a problem with how I perceived myself, but I also had a problem with how I perceived others.

I thought that everyone was in a race for perfection and that the world wanted perfection as much as I did. Not true.

Most of us who have this particular flavor of perfectionism often compare ourselves against perfection, rather than to our progress.

This is a prescription for failure because when we don’t achieve ‘perfection’, then we tend to get down on ourselves and focus only on what we didn’t do and the entire process becomes a cycle of beating ourselves up.

When, on the other hand, we choose to measure ourselves against our progress, then we can actually see how we’re getting better. We can start to see how we’re growing and we can also see how progress is a process and not a single event.

When I train and mentor my management and leadership teams on productivity and perfectionism I use my own experience as to how I get caught in the perfection trap and, most importantly, how I get myself out.

Some items that are always helpful to remember when projects or goals don’t quite work out as planned:

  • You can’t change the past, so take responsibility for your actions and move on. Guilt and shame serve no valuable purpose. There is another opportunity to try again.
  • Take time to celebrate even the smallest of victories. Three steps forward and two steps back is still forward.
  • Evaluate why things didn’t work out as planned. Is there something different you can try the next time you commit?

As far as I’m concerned, perfection is relative and an expectation that somebody made up. A ‘perfect’ body or a ‘perfect’ handstand is just somebody’s opinion.

Also, if we were to reach perfection, then what? Do we just stop because we reached perfection? In this light, perfection sounds boring.

The joy is in the journey, the progress, and the growth. There really is no final destination, and if there is, then what?

Brian Johnson

Written by

Technology Innovation Strategist & Change Manager: Influencing and helping others to reach their full potential through intentional improvement.

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