By Lillie Brown
Allow me to begin this article with a confession. As I, a hard-line perfectionist, sat down to pen these words, I felt paralysed. The great irony of a perfectionist writing an article about perfectionism! Here is a list of the things I did to avoid writing this article: I paced up and down my hallway for nearly an hour under the guise of ‘brainstorming’, made approximately 7 chai lattes, sent and filed some non-urgent emails, stuffed half a bag of corn chips in my gob, and tidied my desk.
Perfectionism is everyone’s favourite flaw. It used to be my go-to rebuttal to the dreaded job interview question “what is your weakness?”. “Oh, definitely my perfectionism”, I’d respond in a coy tone. We hold up perfectionism as an insignia of worth, something to strive towards akin to the Badge of Busy, where some people perceive their busyness and overwork as a sign of importance. It stems from marrying our identity and worth as an individual with our professional accomplishments. When you take a look at our society more broadly, it’s not difficult to see where this originates from — competition is embedded in schools and universities through standardised testing and high-pressure exams. It bleeds into our professional lives as we try to produce the best work, align ourselves with the best clients, and be the best. Often, the first question we ask when we meet someone is “what do you do?” (Sidenote — let’s park that snooze-worthy question indefinitely. Ask about their greatest joy this week or the best meal they’ve eaten recently instead.)
At its core, perfectionism is a tendency to demand an extremely high or flawless level of performance, in excess of what is truly required by the situation. This often manifests as fixating on perceived imperfections, trying to control situations, overworking, and being highly critical of the self. It’s a nasty disposition and the by-products of perfectionism include deep frustration and at worse, shame. On the surface, the drawback of perfectionism is that it holds you back from being your idealised self—successful, uber-productive, and impressive to your peers—but the reality is far more sinister. Perfectionistic tendencies have been linked to a host of clinical issues including depression and anxiety, chronic headaches and fatigue, eating disorders, burnout and more. It’s a horrifying reality. Even more frightening, is that perfectionism is on the rise, particularly among young people. However, this doesn’t mean each generation is becoming more accomplished. It means we’re getting sicker, sadder, and undermining our own potential and capacity for fulfilment and pleasure.
Working hard, being committed to your practice, and having strong attention to detail are of course desirable attributes, but this is not what perfectionism is. Andrew Hill writes “perfectionism isn’t about high standards. It’s about unrealistic standards”. Even if you do meet these achingly high standards that you’ve set for yourself, it’s unlikely that you’ll take the time to luxuriate in your accomplishments—you’ll probably assume you set the bar too low and crank it up next time. Perfection is a thief of joy and satisfaction. It is the antithesis of authenticity. It’s also unsustainable—it uses an immense amount of psychological battery. From one recovering perfectionist to another, here are some ideas to help you bid farewell to these tendencies that are no longer serving you.
Do something that you enjoy for the sake of it. Perfectionism is a roadblock that prevents us from trying new things that we might not immediately be good at—quelle horreur! Bust out the paints and do your best Bob Ross, bake up a storm or take that dance class. Enjoy the process. If it feels clunky, good! It means you’re learning.
Get clear on what it is that you truly want. You could always benefit from acquiring more money, status, education, and so forth—all of these desires are deeply entrenched in our conditioning from childhood, reinforced by the media and traditional education system. What is it that you truly want, in your heart of hearts? What brings you long term, sustained pleasure and joy and contentment? Grab the butcher’s paper and map it out, then make time for it in your daily life.
Reflect on the anti-perfectionist progress you’ve made this week. At the end of each week, take a few minutes to reflect on where you made a conscious effort to quash those perfectionistic tendencies and where they got the better of you. Be gentle with yourself here. Did you avoid something out of fear of making a mistake? Were there any instances where your perfectionism was not worth it? Were there times this week where you took action, even when you felt uncertain, and ended up making headway?
Practice self-compassion. This is the antidote to perfectionism—being kind, patient, and encouraging towards yourself heeds better professional results and improved wellbeing. This is a practice that originated in Buddhism but has been popularised in psychology by Kristin Neff—and it’s a great way to alter your perfectionist mindset. Treat yourself how you would treat a close friend.
Embrace “good enough”. It’s fine to set relatively high standards for yourself, but expecting absolute perfection is problematic and can lead to avoiding tasks out of fear you won’t get them right the first time. Good enough is good enough.
Research by Thomas Curran, a social psychologist from the London School of Economics and Political Science, outlines the toxicity of perfectionism in his fantastic TED Talk. “In my time studying perfectionism, I’ve seen limited evidence that perfectionists are more successful. Quite the contrary. They feel discontented and dissatisfied amid a lingering sense that they’re never quite perfect enough.” Perfectionism does not do you any favours. It isn’t contributing anything of value to your life, nor is it making your life more joyful or fulfilled. It doesn’t make you better at your job. It doesn’t make you more successful. Quit falling for the perfectionist’s trap. Approach your work with curiosity and beautiful things will unfold. And remember: finished is better than perfect.