Perfectionism is like a double-edged sword-it cuts both ways. Perfectionists often don't realize that they are hurting themselves by their own actions. Perfectionism is a duel with oneself, the ultimate "no-win" situation.
Perfectionists tell themselves that their determination to be perfect will win success, acceptance, love and fulfillment, yet the opposite more often occurs. Even when perfectionists do achieve, the methods they use can deprive them of the very love and acceptance they want so badly to gain.
Perfectionism is not a healthy pursuit of excellence.
Perfectionism is not a healthy pursuit of excellence. There are big differences between perfectionists and healthy achievers. Perfectionists believe that mistakes must never be made and that the highest standards of performance must always be achieved.
Those who strive for excellence in a healthy way take genuine pleasure in trying to meet high standards. Perfectionists in the other hand are full of self-doubts and fears of disapproval, ridicule and rejection. The healthy striver has drive, while the perfectionist is driven.
Perfectionism takes a great toll. Perfectionists are likely to experience decreased productivity, impaired health, troubled interpersonal relationships, and low self-esteem. Perfectionists are vulnerable to:
Sometimes it's hard to distinguish motivation for healthy achievement from unhealthy perfectionism, and sometimes we make the distinction even harder by holding on to myths about perfectionism. This makes life a good deal more difficult than need be. Below are common myths about perfectionism.
There is no evidence that perfectionists are more successful than their non-perfectionist counterparts. There is evidence that given similar levels of talent, skill or intellect, perfectionists perform less successfully than non-perfectionists do.
Psychologists find that perfectionists tend to be "all-or-nothing thinkers. They see events and experiences as good or bad, perfect or imperfect, with nothing in between. Such thinking often leads to procrastination, because a requirement of flawless perfection, even in the smallest of tasks, can become fearfully overwhelming. The perfectionist believes that the flawless product or superb performance must be produced every time. Perfectionists believe if it can't be done perfectly, it's not worth doing.
Such beliefs often lead to undesired results. A perfectionist student may turn in a paper weeks late (or not at all), rather than turn it in on time with less-than-perfect sentences. A perfectionist worker may spend so much time agonizing over some non-critical detail that a critical project misses its deadline.
These internal blocks to productivity, achievement, and success result from the perfectionist's focus on end products. Instead of concentrating on the process of accomplishing a task, perfectionists focus exclusively on the outcome of their efforts. Far from an asset, this relentless pursuit of the ultimate goal becomes the perfectionist's greatest liability; the resultant sense of overwhelming anxiety often sabotages the perfectionist's efforts.
Perfectionists are driven by low self-esteem, so their own needs ultimately blind them to the needs and wishes of others. Indeed, their compulsiveness may lead others to beg for a change that the perfectionist cannot or will not make. Perfectionism is more likely to complicate than enhance one's relationship.
The "perfect human" is as appealing and mythical a concept as the unicorn. Many of our greatest endeavors are indeed accomplished while striving to perfect ourselves. Great achievers, like perfectionists, want to be and do better; unlike perfectionists, they are willing to make mistakes and risk failure. Great achievers recognize mistakes, failure, and general imperfection as part of the reality of being human.
Overcoming perfectionism requires courage, for it means accepting our imperfections and humanness. Here are several strategies that will help replace perfectionistic habits with healthier, more satisfying behavior patterns.
When you make your own list of costs and benefits, you may find that the costs are too great. You may discover that problems with relationships, excessive workaholism, eating and substance abuse problems, and other compulsive behaviors (plus the accompanying anxiety, nervousness, feelings of inadequacy, self- criticism, and so on) actually out weigh whatever advantages perfectionism holds for you.
Learn to substitute more realistic, reasonable thoughts for your habitually critical ones. When you find yourself berating a less-than-perfect performance, whether your own or someone else's, force yourself to look at and acknowledge the good parts of that performance. Then ask yourself questions like these: Is it really as bad as I feel it is? How do other people see it? Is it a reasonably good performance for the person(s) and circumstances involved?
By setting more realistic goals, you will gradually realize that "imperfect" results do not lead to the punitive consequences you expect and fear. Suppose you swim laps every day, not as athletic training, but for relaxation and exercise. You set yourself the goal of 20 laps, and you can barely swim 15. If you are perfectionistic, you soon feel disappointed at your poor performance, and anxious about improving it. You may even give up swimming because you're not "good enough."
Suppose instead you tell yourself 15 laps is good enough for now. You accept the possibility that you may never be able to swim 20 laps easily, if at all. So you continue swimming without anxiety. You don't necessarily stop trying to improve, but you swim for fun and exercise and relaxation for however many laps you can. Perfectionists often miss out on fun, relaxation and satisfaction.
This technique reduces the procrastination that typically results from perfectionism. Suppose you must find references for a term paper and also study for an exam. Set time limits. For example: Decide that you will spend only 3 hours looking up references, then only three more hours studying for the test. If you stick to your time limits, you won't spend the entire day searching for elusive references, nor try to study late at night when you are too tired to be effective.
Perfectionists often view criticism as a personal attack, responding to it defensively. Concentrate on being more objective about the criticism and about yourself. If someone criticizes you for making a mistake, acknowledge the mistake and assert your right to make mistakes.
Remind that person and yourself that if you stop making mistakes, you also stop learning and growing. Once you no longer buy into the fallacy that humans must be perfect to be worthwhile, you won't feel so angry or defensive when you make a mistake. Criticism will then seem like a natural thing from which to learn, rather than something to be avoided at all cost.
One of the characteristics of perfectionists is their "value rigidity." They refuse to let go of particular ideas, even in the face of obvious evidence to the contrary. Here is a fable illustrating the pitfalls of value rigidity, adapted from Robert Pirsig's well-known work, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
The "South Indian Monkey Trap" was developed by villagers to catch the ever present and numerous small monkeys in that part of the world. It involves a hollowed-out coconut chained to a stake. The coconut has some rice inside which can be seen through a small hole. The hole is just big enough so that the monkey can put his hand in, but too small for his fist to come out after he has grabbed the rice.
Tempted by the rice, the monkey reaches in and is suddenly trapped. He is not able to see that it is his own wrist that traps him, his own desire for the rice. He rigidly holds on to the rice, because he values it. He cannot let go and by doing so retain his freedom. So the trap works and the villagers capture him.
Perfectionists need to rethink their own values and decide whether they are going to continue to be trapped by these values or free themselves.
If you are in doubt about where to turn for assistance, please feel free to call the Counseling Center at 661-654-3366
This information was prepared by the Counseling and Mental Health Center at the University of Texas at Austin to assist students with academic stress management. Information contained herein was gleaned from on-line publications.