Pursuing perfection can do more harm than good
Have you ever noticed one negative word in an otherwise positive report and spent the rest of the day obsessing over it?
Does it typically take you 20 minutes to write and rewrite an email? (No? Just me?)
If so, you might be a perfectionist.
Despite our culture’s praise for perfectionist tendencies (cue the proverbial interview humblebrag), perfectionism is far from a positive characteristic. On the contrary, it is actually quite harmful.
“The best is the enemy of the good,” as Voltaire wrote.
It’s hard to live with perfectionism. Pursuing perfection often leads to anxiety, stress, and depression, and affects both professional and personal relationships.
Fortunately, these tendencies can be overcome. In this guide, we’ll help you understand perfectionism, how it manifests in real life, and how you can finally let go for good.
What Is Perfectionism?
Perfectionism is characterized by the desire to be or appear perfect. To gain acceptance from others, perfectionists strive to be flawless in everything they do. Their expectations are usually unrealistic, and they desire exceptional results regardless of what is required.
A study conducted by the American Psychological Association has found that the desire to be perfect in body, mind, and career is on the rise. Perfectionism among today’s college students has increased by 33% over the past few decades.
But author and expert Brene Brown asserts that perfectionism is not the same as aiming for excellence. She explains,
“Healthy striving is self-focused — How can I improve? Perfectionism is other-focused — What will they think?“
Advantages of Perfectionism
Today’s society often views perfectionism as a positive quality. After all, it’s easy to mistake these tendencies for positive qualities. For example, perfectionists tend to have:
- Enhanced performance. Perfectionists often set strict goals for themselves and do everything in their power to achieve them.
- More motivation. Perfectionists often work harder since they have clearly defined short- and long-term goals.
- Higher levels of conscientiousness. Those with high levels of conscientiousness (one of the Big Five) strive to perform tasks well and take their responsibilities seriously.
Disadvantages of Perfectionism
Although some behaviors can appear beneficial, perfection isn’t a successful strategy for success. Research shows that perfectionism can cause:
- Lower levels of achievement. As a result of procrastination and spending excessive time getting a task just right, less work gets completed.
- Psychological distress. Perfectionists are prone to negative emotions, including stress, anxiety, depression, and feelings of self-loathing.
- Burnout. A perfectionist’s unrealistic expectations can’t be met, so they work excessively to achieve them, creating a vicious cycle that results in burnout.
Why Do We Strive for Perfection?
We live in a society where unattainable expectations are the norm. From unrealistic bodies in magazines to picture-perfect families on social media, we are constantly conditioned to believe that we don’t measure up.
Perfectionism is a defense mechanism that helps us feel in control when things are unpredictable and could potentially hurt us.
According to Brown, perfectionism is often an attempt to shield ourselves from the pain of judgment and shame. Living with perfectionism means constantly seeking approval from others and trying to prove ourselves. Instead of being authentic, we strive to be “enough” — pretty enough, successful enough, smart enough, whatever we fear is lacking.
Considering that we’re all under the same amount of pressure, what makes some of us more inclined to struggle with perfectionism than others?
Perfectionism is a complex personality trait that can be influenced by many factors:
- Anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
- Insecurity and low self-esteem
- Traumatic experiences or childhood abuse
- An insecure early attachment
- Parental pressure and overprotection
Although the tendency toward perfectionism can be inherited, it is often a learned behavior. Someone who grew up in an environment where mistakes weren’t accepted or were punished may strive to be perfect as an adult because, deep down, they still long for their parent’s approval.
Types of Perfectionists
Although we may be familiar with the concept of perfection, there are more dimensions to it than we may have realized. Developed by Dr. Paul Hewitt and Dr. Gordon Flett, the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale (MPS) breaks perfectionism into three types. Each type of perfectionism has its own motivations and behaviors, and some are more healthy than others.
- Socially prescribed. The socially prescribed perfectionist feels constant pressure to be the best, and fears rejection if they aren’t. Their perception of external standards from sources like family or society leads them to be very self-critical, anxious, and insecure.
- Other-oriented. Other-oriented perfectionists hold others to unreachable high standards. Demanding and judgmental tendencies hurt their relationships and hinder their success.
- Self-oriented. These perfectionists set very high standards for themselves. They are highly organized, conscientious, and motivated. These perfectionists have very high expectations of themselves. They are highly organized, conscientious, and motivated. These flexible qualities make them the most likely to recover from perfectionism.
Some people fall into only one subtype, while others possess traits from all subtypes. Knowing the type of perfectionism you have is an essential first step to understanding and combating its harmful behaviors.
Perfectionism and Procrastination
One behavior that tends to be particularly challenging for most perfectionists is procrastination.
We all occasionally put off or avoid tasks, even when we know the consequences. But chronic procrastination is different. Roughly 20% of the population are habitual procrastinators — and most of them are perfectionists.
You’d expect someone with a drive for perfection to never miss a deadline. In reality, this isn’t the case. Perfectionists may delay starting a task until they’re sure they can complete it perfectly. They might even ignore a job entirely rather than risk doing it poorly. This is called perfectionism paralysis, a form of analysis paralysis, and it is a significant factor in procrastination.
Science says true procrastination is a failure of self-regulation. When we can’t handle our feelings about something (say, a task we might fail or get judged for), we avoid it to regulate our mood.
Sadly, it doesn’t work. Instead of soothing our dysregulation, self-defeating behavior leads to guilt, shame, and anxiety.
5 Tips To Overcome Perfectionism
Although they know their flaws, perfectionists have a hard time changing their habits. They cling to their own version of perfection even when it’s counterproductive because they’re afraid of letting go.
The key to eliminating habits like procrastination and healthily managing perfectionist tendencies is to put in the work. These five strategies can help you begin overcoming perfectionism and establishing a more realistic, balanced vision of success.
Be Honest With Yourself
A healthy self-evaluation is a great place to start. Grab a journal, find a quiet spot to reflect, and think back on past experiences. (Or try an online quiz.) Focus on the feelings you had when you were experiencing certain behaviors. This will help you identify your perfectionism-triggering emotions.
After noting your tendencies, determine their cost. Are you sacrificing your health, family time, or sleep? Maybe your performance at work is suffering rather than soaring. Understanding what you’re trading makes it easier to see that having unrealistic expectations rarely pays off.
Identify Your Point of Diminishing Return
One of the reasons we can’t meet high expectations is because we all have a limited ability to produce. Acknowledging our limitations is critical to kicking the perfectionist habit.
Typically, productivity quickly grows at the start of a work session then reaches a point where it begins to wane. This is the point of diminishing returns. At this point, the output starts slowing and then declines, so continuing doesn’t make sense because the gains will be negligible.
For example, I’ve learned over the years that I can only write so much in a single session before my concentration slips, and my work begins to suffer. Continuing is a waste of time since I’d have to rewrite it later. My time is better spent doing something else and returning to the piece with fresh eyes later.
By determining your point of diminishing returns, you can focus your efforts where they matter most, reducing the tendency to continually strive for perfection.
Follow The 80/20 Rule
Another way to curb perfectionistic tendencies is to apply the 80/20 rule. This rule, also called the Pareto Principle, observes a universal imbalance in life where 80% of results come from 20% of actions. (Fun fact: It is also what the company that makes Freedom is named after!)
While the ratios may not always be exact, this unequal distribution is everywhere. For example, 20% of customers contribute 80% of profits in business. And admittedly, 80% of the time, I wear the t-shirts that make up 20% of my closet.
How does this relate to perfectionism? Simply put, perfectionists often spend way too much time obsessing over irrelevant details. Applying this rule to your tasks can help you concentrate on the 20% of actions that truly make a difference, which is far more beneficial than spending so much time on the 80% that don’t.
It can be powerful to pair this with the law of diminishing returns. The first 20% of your effort on a task will yield 80% of the results, so obsessing over details for hours is not the best use of your time.
To accomplish any task, perfectionists must confront procrastination first. The key to breaking the loop of perfectionism and procrastination is taking your attention off your fears. When we overthink our tasks, they become more overwhelming. Try these tricks to help make them more manageable:
- Practice emotional awareness. Identify what is making you anxious about the task at hand. I might discover I avoided writing an article because I feared no one would like it, for instance. Acknowledging these emotions is the first step to changing them.
- Play what-if. To help shift your thinking when a triggering feeling arises, ask yourself about the best, worst, and most likely scenarios. In this example, I might think:
“What will happen if I’m right and no one likes my work?”
(Nothing, because my self-worth isn’t reliant on my success. I’ll gain knowledge and experience and keep writing. Yay!)
“What will happen if everyone actually loves it?”
(I’ll achieve a goal and my writing might help someone. I’ll gain knowledge and experience and keep writing. Yay!)
“What is most likely to happen?”
(My article will be okay, some people will read it, and others won’t. I’ll gain knowledge and experience and keep writing. Yay!)
Did you notice the matching endings? Those are what matter.
- Block distractions. Cutting out the unnecessary can help reduce the overwhelming thoughts and feelings that contribute to procrastination. Shut your door, clear your space, and use an app to block distracting websites and notifications.
- Stick to a schedule. Manage your time by organizing tasks into smaller segments and dedicating controlled amounts of time to each. Set timers and use reminders to help you stay on track.
Forgive Yourself and Celebrate Your Success
This last tip may be the most significant. Perfectionists tend to beat themselves up over any perceived failure (and, as I’ve experienced, that can be just about anything). Research suggests that the best remedy for procrastination is actually to forgive yourself.
Compassion for ourselves is crucial. We will make mistakes, we will feel scared. It’s okay.
And don’t forget to celebrate your victories, no matter how small. Keeping a journal of the good things in your life can help you develop a more positive outlook, and reflecting on your strengths can help you see your value more clearly.
Find Freedom in Imperfection
Overcoming perfectionism can be challenging, but it is worth the work. Taking control of your perfectionistic tendencies can help you achieve your goals while minimizing the negative impacts on your relationships, health, and well-being. The right strategies and the willingness to grow can help you let go of perfectionism and find freedom.