By Dr. NEETA PANT

“Perfectionism is not a quest for the best.  It is the pursuit of the worst in ourselves, the part that tells us that nothing we do will ever be good enough – that we should try harder”

~ Julio Cameron

‘What are your weaknesses and strengths?’ is the most common question asked in job interviews.  The most cliché answer to both is – ‘Perfectionism.’  While the candidate is projecting it as a weakness he/she is not only paying a coy compliment to self, is also subtly suggesting that “I’m detailed oriented and produce flaw-less work”.  And while projecting it as strength, the candidate is openly telling – ‘I produce work that is par excellence and above normal standards’.  ‘Perfectionism’ is perceived as a badge of honour with so much pride and superiority.

Traditionally, perfectionism is perceived as a positive trait and is flaunted like one.  A perfectionist is who has a personality that strives for flawlessness accomplished through fixating on imperfections, trying to control situations, over achieving, working hard, or being critical of the self or others.  But does it sound healthy?  It will be helpful to define perfectionism to understand this better.

What is perfectionism?

We often conflate perfectionism with higher-than-normal standards, attention to detail, commitment to excellence,  being over-competitive and having desire to win/control always.  But is it Perfectionism?  Can one not have high standards without being termed as “Perfectionist?”  “Perfectionism” term is overused and misunderstood completely. 

Perfectionism actually is a paralysing rigidity that is rooted in a fear of failure.  It’s about a need to be accepted by others, coupled with a fear of rejection & not loved/liked enough.  A perfectionist will remain rigidly adhering to a standard they’ve set for themselves, even if that standard has surpassed “aiming high” to reach “virtually impossible.”  True perfectionist struggles to appropriately adjust to the environment or situation.  

Signs of being a Perfectionist

People who are perfectionists may feel the need to achieve perfection constantly.  They might also exhibit the following-

  • They procrastinate and avoid chores because it is pointless to make an effort unless perfection can be achieved. 
  • Not see a task as finished until the result is perfect according to their standards.  They would keep on improvising.
  • Focus on the end product rather than the process of learning.
  • Take excessive amount of time to complete a task in comparison to others.
  • Anything short of ‘their’ standards is a sign of failure.
  • Comparing oneself unfavourably and unrealistically to others.
  • Avoid anything new for fear of being shown up as less than perfect.

Causes of PERFECTIONISM

Many factors can contribute to development of perfectionism. A few include –

  1. Frequent fear of disapproval from others –  feelings of inadequacy, insecurity or low self-esteem. 
  2. Perfectionist, rigid & critical parents – having a parent who exhibits perfectionistic behaviour or expresses disapproval when the child does not accomplish.   Many parents encourage their child to succeed in every area and appreciate their child only when they achieve or accomplish.
  3. Insecure early attachment –   People who had a troubled attachment with parents may experience trouble accepting a good outcome as good if it’s not perfect.
  4. Linking self-worth with achievements –  People with a history of high achievements feel overwhelming pressure to live up to their previous achievements.
  5. Cultural expectations –  Engulfed in a system that reinforces an exacting standard of worthiness and anything less is presumed as failure or sign of inherent unworthiness.

Is Perfectionism a problem?

Well, it might be, but whether or not it’s a problem seems to be both a matter of opinion and levels/degree of perfectionism.  There are two sides of this coin –

  • Upside –  A tendency towards high standards means that a person will produce quality work, regularly. 
  • Flipside – Expecting nothing short of perfection can have painful psychological effects. 

Perfectionism can also be a problem if

  1. You can’t accept criticism –  Perfectionists equate criticism with failure and  worthlessness. They often internalize their feelings by beating themselves up, or they might externalize them by becoming defensive and uptight about their critics.
  • Being critical of others –  You can’t accept criticism, but can dish it out well.  Impossible standards for self, unreasonable high expectations from others makes them demanding and critical. They fear only they can ‘get it right’ and hence avoid delegating tasks.
  • Procrastination –    You can’t get started because of the fear of failure which leads to procrastination.
  • Expectation to excel from the word go –  You tend to expect a high level of competency right off the bat.  When you struggle to learn a new skill, you prefer giving up to working harder.
  • Fear of failure  –  High achievers are driven by a desire to succeed whereas perfectionists push themselves because they fear they will be perceived as failure if they’re anything less than the best. Fear becomes the motivation than the desire to succeed.
  • It’s ‘my way’ or the ‘highway’ –  Perfectionists tend to like things a certain way—’their way’.  They’re the ones reorganizing small errors like the wrong font in a document or papers not stapled or dishes not stacked properly in sink.
  • Equating success with happiness –  Perfectionists can only be happy when they achieve perfection.  Perfection is rare and so is happiness for them.

Psychological research suggests two types of Perfectionism

  1. Healthy Perfectionism –  is characterised by having high standards, motivation and discipline – ALL REALISTIC.  It is also termed as adaptive perfectionism and helps you to strive better without any negative impacts on life.  Striving for quality and excellence are strengths here.
  2. Unhealthy Perfectionism – is characterised by when you are not meeting your own standards, when you feel you can’t live up to parental or self-expectations which leads to frustration.  This is also termed as maladaptive perfectionism.  Maladaptive perfectionists are excessively preoccupied with making mistakes and if they make a mistake they consider it devastating.

The point to consider here is whether a perfectionists’ standards for self are just high or impossibly high.  If you’re setting yourself up for failure by raising the bar so high that is not humanly achievable, then that amounts to the wrong kind of perfectionism.  If instead of perpetually fretting about the failures, you merely insist on giving your best, that’s nothing to worry about.

So how do you know if you are a maladaptive perfectionist, consider the following –

  1. Never done –  A project is never done because it does not meet the criteria for “perfect.”  You keep improvising till the last minute.
  2. Being ‘second best’ is a NO –  You are very competitive and cannot stand to lose at anything no matter how insignificant. You even avoid tasks where you know you cannot be the best.
  3. Stress and discontentment –  Nothing is ever good enough, and that mindset robs you of ever feeling satisfied from your work.
  4. No risks  –  Perfectionism is fuelled by an intense fear of failure. Eventually, you adopt a mindset – If I can’t do it perfectly, then I won’t even try.  Consequentially, fear of failure makes you fail.
  5. Creativity is throttled –  Imagination and creativity takes a back seat as you are constantly stressed about doing something perfectly and not failing. Success is hindered then.
  6. People pleasing –  As a perfectionist, you are wanting others to think highly of you.  You face lots of difficulty making decisions and avoiding important conversations, for fear that you’ll upset someone else.
  7. Being critical of others –  Being a perfectionist, you are also critical of others who don’t do things perfectly. 
  • Non-acceptance of constructive criticism –  You become defensive/dejected when any errors on your part are pointed out to you because you cannot accept being less than perfect.  Non-acceptance of constructive feedback can ultimately lead to real failure.
  • Delegation is an issue – With an all-or-nothing mentality, you believe that there is a right way to do something and that everything else is wrong.  Since other people don’t always have the same standards and understanding, you might not approve of their output and think – It’s just easier to do it myself.  
  • Risk for burnout –  You believe that you can rest only when the job is done.  And the job is never done because it’s never perfect enough which puts you at increased risk for burnout.
  • Obsession with achievement & excellence –  It takes a toll on your health both mentally and physically. This unhealthy preoccupation leads to anxiety, depression and paralyzing self-doubt.

Unsurprisingly, unhealthy perfectionism can wreak havoc with your health, relationships and life in general.  So how can you overcome maladaptive perfectionism?

Tips on Overcoming Maladaptive Perfectionism
✓ Set realistic goals –  Rather than being obsessed with perfection, strive for high standards and set realistic goals that focus on improvement, not the impossible. You will feel excited about the challenge then rather than being weighed down.

Abolish the ‘all or nothing mindset’ –  ‘All or nothing’ thinking is self-defeating. Nothing in life goes smoothly and without glitches. Accept that you will do some things imperfectly at times.  Focus on progress then perfection.

Awareness –   Be aware of your perfectionist patterns.  Examining these patterns will help you become aware of your tendencies and, in turn, be in a position to alter them.

Observe self-acceptance – Instead of berating yourself, recognize that you’ve done your best at the given moment. Look for what went right and then resolve to improve.

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Establish realistic goals –  The capabilities of an individual need a careful assessment, has to be more realistic, with sensible deadlines and feasible goals. Take small and incremental steps rather than setting unattainable goals.  By setting smaller, achievable goals, you can work up to a more successful outcome.

Appreciate the process  –   Learn to overcome the fear of failure, experience and appreciate your mistakes and constantly improve and learn during the process.

✓ Self-Reflection –  To perform effectively in the workplace, accepting and moving on from mistakes is critical.  Knowing where to start, change and adapt will help you move forward.  Analyse the situation, consider the options available, make a decision and step into action.

Culturally, Perfectionism is something that is viewed as a secret strength but it isn’t. True perfectionism can be agonising and incapacitating.  There are many drawbacks of perfectionism.  It can be crippling for the affected person, can hold people back, rather than seeing them achieve to their potential. There’s a big difference between upholding high standards and perfectionism. If one is prepared to strive for excellence while acknowledging that doing so can require some flexibility, does not bring any har.  But if one tends to be much more rigid in approach, that’s where perfectionism get complicated and painful too.

Instead of pursuing perfectionism, we should pursue progress.  We should leave perfect precision to machines and remember that to err is human.

“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people.

It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life”  ~ Anne Lamott

Dr Neeta pant
Dr Neeta Pant

                                                                        

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