Let’s start with perfectionism. Perfectionism is defined by the oxford dictionary as “refusal to accept any standard short of perfection.” This definition encapsulates the meaning but doesn’t emphasize some of the challenging parts of perfectionism. Other descriptions of perfectionism include the idea of the need to “appear” perfect to others often to avoid uncomfortable feelings like shame or disappointment. I don’t know about anyone else, but that is definitely how my perfectionism shows up, trying to avoid feeling or looking incompetent. Overcoming/recovering from perfectionism is one of the most challenging things I have done and continue to work through.
In many ways, perfectionist behaviours are similar to those of any addiction, and they hold us back in similar ways to other addictive behaviours. Take smoking; we know that it is addictive. We know that it is the nicotine in the cigarettes that make them so addictive. We also know that it is hard to quit. There are so many different programs available to quit smoking because it isn’t good for people’s health. Well, I would argue that perfectionism isn’t good for many people’s mental health, and we should probably have more programs geared to helping people quit perfectionism.
Like smoking, “being perfect” is addicting. It feels so good to do something “perfectly,” and it feels so good when people trust you to do things “perfectly.” However, when perfectionism starts to get dangerous happens when we believe if we aren’t “perfect,” or we don’t do everything (or in some cases, some things) “perfectly” we will fail, disappoint others, or feel bad about ourselves. We start doing everything we can to avoid people seeing us do anything that isn’t perfect, or we avoid doing things altogether because they won’t be perfect. Avoidance, paralyzation, and projection are three outcomes I have witnessed people experience and experienced myself because of perfectionism.
Avoidance isn’t a complicated concept. When perfectionism strikes or if there is a situation where someone can’t be perfect, they will avoid the situation altogether. Don’t participate, don’t put their name forward, don’t step out of their comfort zone.
The second outcome is paralyzation. I’ve seen this a lot in coaching, and we talk about it in research a lot. People get stuck in the analysis paralysis cycle. They aren’t avoiding it, but they keep coming back to whatever the task is and playing it over and over again. Analyzing it over and over again but are unable to move forward with it. I’ve experienced this when writing academic papers. You question yourself repeatedly to the point that you convince yourself if it’s not perfect, it’s not good enough.
Projection is when we take our negative traits and put them on other people. We blame other people for being perfectionists (e.x. “we aren’t moving forward because this person is such a perfectionist”) or for not being good enough perfectionists. If they were better perfectionists, the work would be better (e.x. “this project wasn’t good enough because this person didn’t care enough or they didn’t try hard enough or, they don’t work hard enough”). This blame shows up in teamwork; it is toxic and unproductive.
So what can we do about it? The first step is admitting that perfectionism might be holding you back in some way. It might be getting in the way of you enjoying life, actually being productive (keep in mind lots of perfectionists are busy, but they aren’t always getting things done), and worst of all, stopping you from trying new things and learning. The second step is working on reframing your thoughts around areas that you feel need to be perfect.
Questions you can ask yourself:
- What would good look like?
- What will it take to finish this?
- How am I getting in my way here?
- What story am I telling myself about this? Is this a true story?
- Would I expect this out of other people? Is it fair if I do expect this from others?
The third step is remembering that reframing takes time and giving yourself a good dose of self-compassion. I have been working on this for at least three years. I still catch myself holding onto things waiting for them to be “perfect” or telling myself I’ll share when it’s “perfect” or not even starting something that I know I’ll enjoy because I know I’m probably going to fail a few times before I figure it out.
We can NEVER be perfect even when we think we are. What is perfect to me might not be perfect to you. You are bound to come across people who will criticize and not like something you have done because no one can be liked and appreciated by everyone. One of the best reminders someone ever said to me, and I have to say it to myself regularly (my perfectionism often shows up in people-pleasing ways): You don’t like everyone, so you can’t expect everyone to like you. The second quote that I play over in my head is “Perfect is the enemy of good” by Voltaire. This quote reminds me that sometimes (often) good is good enough.
Coaching can help with the challenges of perfectionism. I recommend finding a coach who you are comfortable with them calling out or pointing out when perfectionism is showing up in your life and when it might be holding you back.