There are two sides to perfectionism. One side is seeking to make sure that something gets done or is done flawlessly. On the other hand, perfectionism can stifle us, blind us and stop us in our tracks.
What is perfectionism
Perfectionism isn’t OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder). OCD is when someone does the same thing again and again out of the need for that compulsion, like washing their hands or brushing their teeth a certain amount of times – it is like a ritual that someone performs and feels compelled to do it. OCD is a mental medical condition.
Perfectionism is when we aim to be perfect in everything we do. It is a mental state because it stems from our own beliefs but it is not a medical condition. Perfectionism is a character trait.
OCD cannot be changed willingly. Perfectionism can. If we choose to.
It’s making sure that the tape around the window before we begin painting the wall, is “perfectly” aligned, “properly” stuck down and follows the window line “correctly”. And if it doesn’t, we pull that part of the tape off and re-align it.
It’s writing that post or article (!) and then reading it again and again until it is “perfect” before we release it to the world.
I remember hearing the story of Steven King’s first published book, “Carrie”. He began writing it and threw it in the bin, only to be pulled out by his wife, who then encouraged him to continue. We now know how successful that book became, but at the time Steven King felt that he was writing a flop. It didn’t meet his standards of what he believed made a successful novel. His idea of success was higher than his writing.
And that is what perfectionism really is. It’s holding yourself to a higher level than others and, to our detriment, ourselves.
Perfectionism does have it’s benefits and we’ll cover those later, but for now, let’s look at what it can cause. A harsh word to use, cause, but it’s appropriate here.
Going back to the example of the tape around the window. Ask yourself – does the tape have to be perfectly aligned around the window frame?
If you said “Yes” and meant it then there is a perfectionist inside of you. You will say that it’s so the paint doesn’t go anywhere it shouldn’t, that it will save on cleaning up later, that it will look better. All are reasonable, but excuses.
The tape is to cover the main part of the window. The paint that goes where it shouldn’t on the frame, can be wiped up later. Getting the tape perfect on the window takes longer than it would to just paint around the window and then using a rag, carefully, to wipe off the straying bits.
Perfectionism is time-consuming. In fact, you may even end up not doing it at all because you can’t make it perfect. Or you give up on it because it’s not “the way you want it”. Getting things how we want them is one thing, getting them to our ideal of perfection is another.
In business and personal plans, this can lead to not meeting deadlines, procrastinating, delaying releasing a book or a website. It stops you in your tracks.
There is only one upside to perfection and that is getting things done the right way the first time around. But there is a caveat – it doesn’t have to be perfect. It just needs to be right for the job and done professionally.
In “The magic of Thinking Big”, David Schwartz speaks of going, first class. For example, rather than buying three pairs of shoes, buy one that costs more but is of better quality. The same with suits, cars and getting things done, like the mechanic, the builder, the plumber and so on.
A close friend never buys off the rack suits. He saves and buys one made to measure, tailored suit, a year. He still has the one he bought ten years ago. The quality of the suit has shown through and it looks the same as the day he bought it.
Perfection is based on quality, the quality we produce and deliver. But it has the added stress because that’s what it is, of our need to deliver something above and beyond the normal. That’s fine when it comes to giving more and better service, but not to the detriment of others or ourselves.
The balance lies in providing quality without the added stress.
This is actually quite easy if you are willing to answer the following question truthfully:
What will happen if it’s not perfect?
It’s the fear of criticism and the fear of failure. No-one wants to be ridiculed. It makes us feel worthless (if we let it that is). We want to succeed in what we do so we can feel better about ourselves. Those are normal human emotions. Accept them.
But, you don’t have to allow other peoples opinions affect you. If you do something and it doesn’t work out the first time around, it doesn’t matter. What matters is what you learn from it and how you use that experience. Listening to constructive criticism is always a benefit. And all criticism is constructive – it’s a choice of perception.
When you procrastinate you are moving away from the fear and confronting it. That diminishes your own self-confidence, which in turn causes you to feel that you need to be more perfect. Do you see how this can escalate to a spiral, to more stress and can lead to depression?
Ton another point with perfection is that if we are perfectionists we expect it from others. This “attribute” of perfectionism can lead to conflict, including in relationships. If you are a perfectionist, think about tidying things up and cleaning surfaces, especially in those hard-to-reach corners.
Going back to the window, it’s also about getting things done right, when fear is not involved. That is personal and stems from our own experiences that have affected us in the past. We get things right so we don’t make the mistake. We hold ourselves to higher standards. Again, this is a benefit, but don’t let those standards stonewall you from moving forward and getting something done to a good level and standard.
As with any change that is deeply embedded it will take effort, want and time. You have to want to make the change.
The thing with perfectionism is the fear that if we stop being perfect then we will stop producing quality. That’s not true. It means that we are deciding that we are willing to let go of the ideal of perfectionism to produce something of quality at a good level. Being good is the A and A+ grades, it’s the distinction level diploma, it’s the first in a degree, the postgraduate.
Nothing is perfect. It cannot be. If it was then we wouldn’t need progress. Nothing new would need to be created. But every day new products enter the market to better the previews version, new ideas are developed to battle environmental issues, new concepts for how the universe works. It’s never-ending because nothing is perfect.
What we do miss out on is the conclusion of what we started. What if Steven King never finished “Carrie”? What if Einstein gave up on his theory of relativity because something didn’t seem perfect? Can you imagine Michelangelo giving up on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel because the hand wasn’t perfect?
Imperfection is what makes something what it is. Conduct your due diligence, do your research, but don’t stall. It’s not worth the loss.
Perfectionism spells paralysis.
Understanding the difference between healthy striving and perfectionism is critical to laying down the shield and picking up your life. Research shows that perfectionism hampers success. In fact, it’s often the path to depression, anxiety, addiction, and life paralysis.