Hello, my name is Elaine, and I am a reformed perfectionist.
You might think that sounds weird. Why would you give up perfectionism? Surely wanting things to be perfect is a good thing?
Well, as any hardcore perfectionist will likely tell you — it really isn’t.
Perfectionism is an incredibly pervasive state of mind. It has its good sides, but when it’s taken too far, it can actually be detrimental to our sense of self. It was hitting a critical point in my life that forced me to realize just how much being a perfectionist was holding me back.
First Things First: What is Perfectionism?
Perfectionism is more than just wanting things to be good, or even great. It’s the intense need for everything you do, say, produce, or take part in to be absolutely perfect. This expands outwards and includes wanting others to meet unrealistic expectations for how they will behave and interact with you.
In modern psychological contexts, perfectionism is a personality trait characterized by an individual striving for flawlessness in life. It often involves setting impossibly high-performance standards, being intensely self-critical, and overly concerned with how others will view and evaluate you.
For me, perfectionism was preventing me from achieving my goals because I would create a very detailed plan or idea for how I wanted something to go, or how I wanted to behave or deliver. I tried to ruthlessly make this ultimately unrealistic vision I had a reality, with no concern for the other variables. When (of course) my vision couldn’t come to fruition exactly as I wanted it to, the result was chaos. I continually felt like a failure or that things weren’t worth doing.
In fact, I would repeatedly receive great feedback and praise, and everyone else involved thought things went well (apart from my freak outs and demanding assertions that things weren’t how they were supposed to go).
I knew I had to make a change.
Perfectionism Versus Productivity
It’s easy to see how perfectionism can get in the way of being your best and productive self. This can be especially true for creatives, where the fear of failure and impostor syndrome are all too happy to sneak in and tell us we’re not good enough.
Externally, perfectionists make it look like they have it all together (they wouldn’t be a perfectionist if they didn’t). They tend to have a lot on their plate and to the outsider looking in, they’re extremely successful and productive.
The truth is, many perfectionists struggle with productivity because the need to have everything exactly right often prevents them from achieving their goals. A study from 2010 backs this up. After studying a large sample of psychology professors, the researchers found that those who self-reported high perfectionist tendencies actually published fewer papers, fewer first-author publications, and were cited less in other journals than their peers.
Despite the commonly held idea that perfectionism is an unambiguously positive character trait, lead researcher, Dr. Simon Sherry advises:
“Perfectionism is excessive — the person has a compulsive need to be perfect, however in reality this rarely translates into high performance.”
Letting Go of Perfectionist Tendencies
It can be really difficult to switch out of an ingrained mindset such as perfectionism, but with a little effort, it can be done!
Here are a few things that helped me on my way:
- Check Your Self-Talk
Self-talk refers to your internal chatter — it’s essentially that inner voice we’re always exercising but rarely pay too much attention to. Perfectionists tend to sway towards negative self-talk, often telling themselves the ‘worst-case scenario’ if they don’t get something absolutely perfect.
Spend a little time really listening to how you talk to yourself. You might be surprised by some of the phrases you find yourself using. When you start hearing it, you actually create a new space to replace the negative chatter with something more positive.
One that kept coming up for me was ‘You’re not good enough for this’. Once I knew I didn’t want to think like this anymore I worked on changing it to ‘All I can do is try my best and my best is always good enough.’
And it really is.
2. Think About Your Remit of Control
Essentially, you can only control the things you can control — you can’t control how other people will behave, respond, judge or what they think of you.
Part of perfectionism stifling productivity is the fear of what other people will think if you stuff it up or make a mistake — but can you really control what people think by being perfect?
No. You absolutely cannot. So why let that control you?
3. It’s a Process — Enjoy It!
Perfectionists often get so wrapped up in focusing on the outcome and end product, they miss out on all the fun that comes from the process.
When I was so focused on something being exactly as I planned it in my head, I didn’t allow for other ideas that came up along the way or new avenues that might have actually made the end outcome better than I initially thought.
Yes, the outcome is important, but a lot of magic happens in the process. Keep that as your core focus and enjoy it!
4. Failure is a GOOD Thing
Do you know what else I’ve learned as a reformed perfectionist?
Being perfect all the time is crazy BORING.
When we allow ourselves to be a little messy, make mistakes and humbly accept that failure is a golden egg opportunity to learn and grow, life becomes a lot more exciting.
I’ve learned it’s not so much being wrong or making a mistake that’s an issue, but more how I handle the situation when it arises. Being able to have a little chuckle at myself, admit I got it wrong and jump into a discussion about how we can fix things positively and proactively is WAY better than throwing a hissy fit, beating myself up about it or not attempting to try something new at all.
Conscientiousness versus Perfectionism
Just one final note on the topic: the difference between being conscientious and being a perfectionist.
Conscientiousness is defined by self-discipline, goal orientation and a focus on achieving positive results. It’s easy to confuse this with perfectionism, which is characterized by a more rigid and relentless striving for unrealistic goals and outcomes.
Knowing the difference is crucial for knowing when to be good and when to be good enough. Sometimes getting things done is more important than getting things perfect.
Being adaptable between the two will see you achieving far more productive success in the long run.
“Know when it is adaptive to pursue extremely high goals and when it is okay to just be good enough.”
-Dr. Simon Sherry