Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life.
“I’m such a perfectionist!”
People sometimes utter that phrase with pride, wearing the title as a badge of honor, but I’ve never understood why anyone would think perfectionism is something to be pleased about. I’ve cried myself to sleep over a mistake, and I remember my embarrassing gaffes for years after everyone else involved has forgotten them. I’ve left two novels languishing, each over halfway complete, because my own writing is never good enough to satisfy me and I’m sure no one else will find it readable, either.
I’ve always found Holly Hunter’s character, Jane, in the 1980s classic Broadcast News infinitely relatable. She’s hard-driving, smart, and an absolute perfectionist, which makes her life as a Washington bureau network news producer challenging. On one hand, she’s insanely talented. On the other, she’s stressed to her breaking point and a pain to work with. In my favorite scene, Jane battles her boss over which colleague should anchor a breaking news story. She insists her choice is the only viable option. When her boss snarks that it must be nice to be the one who always thinks she knows best, Jane whispers, “No. It’s awful.”
I can say this with authority: there’s a difference between striving for excellence and perfectionism. One is an asset, the other’s a handicap.
What is perfectionism?
We all know people with higher-than-normal standards, people who like to be right, people who are ultra-competitive and need to win. But are they all perfectionists? We tend to lump many different personality types and behaviors under the perfectionism label, but clinical perfectionism is a different beast. According to Merriam-Webster, the medical definition is:
A disposition to regard anything short of perfection as unacceptable; especially : the setting of unrealistically demanding goals accompanied by a disposition to regard failure to achieve them as unacceptable and a sign of personal worthlessness.
Perhaps the key words in that definition are “unrealistically demanding.” Having high standards is fine. Striving for quality is admirable. But expecting nothing short of a flawless performance or outcome every time is a recipe for unhappiness. When failure to meet one’s own impossibly high standards results in a feeling of “personal worthlessness,” it’s clear why being a true perfectionist is as awful as Jane said.
Are you a perfectionist?
You might be, but whether or not it’s a problem seems to be both a matter of opinion and degrees. Mental health professionals can’t quite seem to agree on terms. Some believe that perfectionistic traits can be motivational, helping a person reach for excellence. Others argue that any level of perfectionism is problematic. At best, a tendency toward high standards can mean that a person will regularly produce quality work. At worst, expecting nothing short of perfection from yourself can have painful psychological side effects. Perfectionism might be a problem if:
- You can’t take criticism. Perfectionists tend to react negatively to criticism because they equate criticism with failure and failure with worthlessness. They often internalize their feelings by beating themselves up, or they might externalize them by becoming defensive and lashing out at their critics, regardless of whether the criticism is real or perceived.
- You’re critical of others. Although perfectionists can’t take criticism, they can dish it out. They not only hold themselves to impossible standards, they often have unreasonably high expectations for others, which can make them demanding and critical. They may also avoid delegating tasks because they fear no one else is capable of getting it right.
- You procrastinate. Some people put off important tasks until the last minute because they’re distracted by more fun activities. But when you so desperately want a project to be perfect that you can’t make yourself get started (or keep going), you’re procrastinating perfectionist style.
- You expect yourself to be instantly good at things. Perfectionists tend to expect a high level of competency from themselves right off the bat. When they struggle to learn a new skill, they prefer giving up to working harder.
- You’re motivated by fear of failure rather than a desire for success. High achievers tend to reach toward their goals because they’re driven by a desire to succeed. Perfectionists push themselves because they fear how others will perceive them if they’re anything less than the best.
- It’s your way or the highway. Perfectionists tend to like things a certain way—their way. They’re the ones reorganizing the dishwasher after someone else has loaded it, or scolding a colleague for using the wrong font in a document.
- You equate success with happiness. Perfectionists believe they can only be happy when they achieve perfection. But, because they’re rarely perfect, they’re rarely happy. Their constant worries about failing to meet their own impossible standards can lead to health problems such as depression, eating disorders, and anxiety. There’s even some evidence to show that perfectionists can have shorter lifespans.
Try to impress yourself, not anyone else
Experts have identified two types of perfectionism, a good kind and a bad kind. Those who try their best and expect themselves and others to do well, but who treat failures as learning opportunities rather than indicators of inferiority, are the good kind of perfectionists—achievers with high standards of excellence.
There’s nothing wrong with aiming high, but shooting for perfection should cause you to feel inspired, not anxious. In fact, research suggests that people who are motivated by a desire to please or impress others perform worse than those who simply set ambitious goals for themselves. If you drive yourself hard mainly because you’re worried others will see you as less-than-perfect, consider discarding impossibly high expectations and working toward getting good enough. Your quirks, and even your little mistakes, infuse your work with personality, so leave perfect precision to machines and remember that to err is human.