The problem with being perfect
What is your greatest weakness?
A typical job interview catch-you-out question. I was told the trick is to turn it on its head. My answer was that Im a bit of a perfectionist, I like to get things right. You cant fault that, surely? Isnt that what we should all be aiming for, perfection? Shouldnt we envy those seemingly perfect people?
Perhaps not. In reality, does perfect even exist? We might feel we are doing something absolutely correctly, but if someone else comes along with a different set of criteria, our results may not measure up or not apply. Or there may just be multiple ways of doing something, none better than the others, so how can we be the best? If perfection is unachievable as a goal, it is not surprising chasing it will always leave us feeling dissatisfied.
What happens when we have trouble recognising that good enough can sometimes be good enough?
Perfectionism is rated on a sliding scale. We can all display certain tendencies towards it but there are also extremes. While setting challenging goals and having high standards for ourselves can be energising, motivating and lead to massive achievement, constantly striving for flawless perfection can have completely the opposite effect. Some perfectionists are happy to pursue excellence, exercising their preference for organisation. They are persistent and conscientious and maintain high self-esteem and low levels of criticism.
Psychologists use the term maladaptive to describe perfectionists who go beyond just being high achievers and set themselves unobtainable goals, judging and criticising themselves or others harshly and linking their sense of self-worth to their productivity and accomplishment. These perfectionists see mistakes as personal defects, and can suffer feelings of inadequacy, social stress and anxiety.
Perfectionism can come in the form of unrealistically high expectations of ourselves or of others or from thinking that others (particularly those we care about) have those expectations of us (eg the expectations that children might think their parents have of them).
Perfect is the enemy of good. This is the motto of one successful surgeon. It refers to what I call the paradox of perfection how trying to achieve only the best can sometimes be more of a hindrance and a burden to productivity and growth, than a benefit. To illustrate, consider the following:
Fear of failure: Coupled with seeking perfection is the fear of imperfection. If in their eyes, anything less than perfect can be seen as a failure, it stands to reason a perfectionist might be reluctant to try new things or take risks.
Procrastination: Ironically but not surprisingly, as above it is easy to see how not wanting to do something imperfectly can be immobilising, and it would be tempting to avoid it as long as possible.
Low productivity: Perfectionists can lose time by getting swept up in perfecting irrelevant details, not being able to let them go. Never content with their work they can then miss deadlines etc.
Defensiveness: If anything less than perfect is personally unacceptable, it can be hard to hear about it from others. Perfectionists may not take even constructive criticism well and miss out on the opportunity for improvement that feedback provides.
Critical eye: Perfectionists can cast severely critical judgment of their work, and possibly the work of others, which can reduce external confidence and be demoralising for teams. They may set unrealistic and ultimately unachievable standards.
Low self-esteem: Those who have attached self-worth to being perfect may feel that being the best/perfect (sometimes the best at everything) is the only way to gain approval or acceptance or love (even from themselves). So if perfection isnt achieved, they feel lacking.
Focus on results: Those only driven by making the end result perfect can miss out on enjoying the process of getting there.
Depressed by unmet goals: Linked to all of the above. Straining compulsively towards some elusive ideal (which does not exist) does not lead to contentment and happiness.
And what about you? Where do you fit on the perfectionism scale? Are there areas where you might benefit from not being so hard on yourself (or others)? Do you recognise that who you are isnt measured just by what you do? Could you do with letting go a little more, saying no to things and settling for good enough for the things which arent really top priorities for you? Or are there some healthy perfectionist traits that you would like to adopt? You can actually rate yourself on the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale. The BBC website offers an online quiz to see where you fit: www.bbc.co.uk/science/humanbody/mind/surveys/perfectionism/
Six helpful hints if you find yourself struggling with the downsides to being perfect:
1. Ask yourself is this way of thinking really serving me or are there greater costs to it? Then try making a list of how perfectionism may be hurting you.
2. Write down your perfectionist thoughts. Then question them and see if they have any real basis in reality. When you see them on paper, it may help you realise how irrational they really are and then present real evidence to refute them.
3. Set smaller goals when we have smaller, obtainable goals that in turn contribute towards our long-term goals, it is easier to make progress and recognise our accomplishments rather than strive after a vague notion of perfection.
4. Concentrate on the good focus on what is going well (not what isnt) and enjoy the journey.
5. Recognise the shades of grey there are often lots of right ways to do things.
6. Remind yourself there is no failure, only feedback and that criticism and mistakes are a great way to learn.
Julia Pitt is a trained success coach and certified NLP practitioner. For further information telephone 705-7488 or visit www.juliapittcoaching.com.
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