To begin, I think it’s important to define perfectionism, and to distinguish it from what I’m going to call “pursuit of excellence.”
Pursuit of excellence is an attitude whereby we continually strive to achieve more, reach higher, and do better at whatever it is we’re doing. It goes hand-in-hand with personal and professional growth, and it is born from hope.
Perfectionism is an attitude whereby we hold ourselves to impossibly high standards, and remain unsatisfied with anything we have done that does not conform to an unattainable ideal.
It cannot create growth, because it minimizes or nullifies any achievement that does not meet its abjectly impossible expectations; it is born from shame, because its basic premise is that we are unworthy unless we achieve perfection. Research has consistently shown a close relationship between perfectionism and mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression.
I think these two concepts are often confused with one another, because on the outside, they look the same. Both perfectionists and pursuers of excellence are exacting, detail-oriented, and driven; they both demand a great deal of themselves, and they both achieve impressive results.
Upon closer examination, though, you will start to notice subtle differences.
For one thing, pursuers of excellence shrug off mistakes as part of the growth process. Making mistakes doesn’t faze them or slow them down. Perfectionists, on the other hand, get very hung up on mistakes. Every little mistake they’ve made comes back to haunt them and makes them toss and turn in the middle of the night. On a deeper level, this is because performance is tied deeply a perfectionist’s self-worth, so if they did something badly, that means they are bad.
Pursuers of excellence are unafraid to be vulnerable and are resilient against criticism. Criticism always hurts at first, but a pursuer of excellence is quick to recover and eager to discover what they can learn from the criticism. A perfectionist, on the other hand, uses perfectionism as a shield against criticism, so often, they will preempt any criticism by being their own most vicious critic. When they do somehow pull it together enough to be vulnerable and let someone else critique their work, they probably don’t take criticism well. They may keep a poker face and pretend everything’s fine, but later, they either fall apart or channel their anger at themselves in other, possibly more destructive ways.
The clearest symptom of perfectionism is that no matter what, the perfectionist is never truly satisfied with the results of their work. Rather than celebrating their achievements, they lament their failures. Rather than seeing what they did right, they are hyper-focused on what they did wrong.
In other words, they are me. 😛
Before I go on, I want to make clear that this isn’t a dichotomy; pursuing excellence and perfectionism are not mutually exclusive. Also, there’s a spectrum of perfectionist tendencies. You may be more of a perfectionist in some ways, and less of one in others.
Why Perfectionism Is Harmful
In my personal experience, life as a perfectionist sucks.
You never feel you’re enough, and that insecurity bleeds into all areas of life, including your relationships. You are your own worst enemy; you are stuck 24/7 with a tyrannical voice in your head that is constantly criticizing you and picking apart everything you’ve said and done. It’s exhausting, and worst of all, it often actually prevents you (or at least hinders you) from pursuing excellence.
The most obvious example of an area in which perfectionism has impaired me significantly is in learning languages. I have a knack for languages; I have a sharp memory for vocabulary, a musical ear that makes me good at imitating accents, and what a friend recently called a “twisted love of grammar.” But perfectionism is my Achilles’ heel, because the only way to learn to speak a language is to start speaking it and making mistakes. This is a completely unavoidable part of the process of learning a language. The irony of it is that I find grammatical mistakes endearing, not only in children (my favorite of my kids’ malapropisms: “My heart is beeping”), but also in non-native-speaking adults.
And yet somehow, when I imagine myself on the other side, I am seized with the terror of making the same kinds of mistakes. I know that it isn’t the native speakers who will judge me–and even if they do, who cares? It’s the tyrant in my head I’m really scared of.
The thing about language, though, is that speaking correctly or incorrectly is a (mostly) objective thing. There are rules, and either you’re following them or breaking them. You may be more or less eloquent, but when it comes to the actual mechanics of the language, you are mostly either right or wrong.
The arts are a different story.
Perfectionists love rules and standards, because they give us clear parameters for achievement. But in the arts, beyond whatever basic technical or mechanical aspects may be required in the field, there is no right or wrong. As I’ve elaborated in the past, there is only what resonates and what doesn’t resonate–and whether something resonates depends entirely on the audience.
So how is a perfectionist to deal with such a situation?
We strive to please no less than absolutely everyone.
Which is, of course, impossible.
But it’s not only that it’s impossible. It gets in the way of the creative process. When you get in front of the page/easel/computer/piano/camera/mirror, you might find yourself asking, “What will X say about this?” and “What criticism will Y have when he sees this?” and “Will Z like this?” If X or Y or Z happen to be your teachers, mentors, critique partners, or members of your “core fan club” whose opinions matter to you, it’s perfectly fine to be wondering what they might think during the creative process. The key question is, when these voices speak in your head, what is their tone of voice, what are they saying, and most importantly, how does it make you feel when you hear them? Does it motivate you to try harder, sharpen your technique, and try new things? Or does it discourage you and make you want to close up shop and go home? Is the subtext “You can do this,” or “You’re not good enough”?
For a perfectionist, it’s far more likely to be the latter.
Your Best Is Good Enough
Brené Brown, author of The Gifts of Imperfection, describes herself as a “recovering perfectionist and aspiring good-enoughist.”
Let’s define good-enoughism as the belief that we have inherent worth, and that our work has inherent worth, however flawed we or it may be.
Good-enoughism may sound like a kind of laziness; like the belief that whatever we did is “good enough” and therefore doesn’t require any more effort. But “good enough” doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for improvement. It means that you should be aspiring, not for perfection, but to do your best.
The tricky part for a recovering perfectionist is learning what it actually means to “do our best,” because we live under the illusion that “our best” and “perfection” are one and the same.
After a lifetime of impossible expectations of ourselves, it can be hard for us to face the reality that sometimes, doing our best means getting out of bed in the morning, forget crafting a magnificent masterpiece. Sometimes we need to recognize that even though we theoretically could put more effort into something, that effort will cost us more than it will contribute. And, as we’ve established, when something is taking away more than it is giving you overall, it’s time to walk away.
Your best does not mean the best you would theoretically be capable of in ideal conditions. Your best is the best you can do with the internal and external resources that you can reasonably access at this time.
Pushing yourself a little is crucial for growth, but powering through and pushing yourself consistently beyond your limits comes at a cost. You become less resilient, less happy, and less motivated, and everyone around you suffers, too. You’ve all had that overachieving friend or acquaintance who is constantly exhausted and never has time or energy for anything other than school/work/their project/whatever. The thrill of achievement is addictive, and these people may think it will make them happy, but it won’t. When they’ve been using their accomplishments to supply them with a feeling of self-worth, one day they will burn out or hit a plateau, and the well of accomplishments–and self-worth—will run dry.
That’s a dangerous path to go down.
The good news is that perfectionism is not a permanent, inescapable condition.
It’s a tendency, and you can identify it and limit its influence.
How to Tame Perfectionism
The first step is, of course, realizing that you have a problem.
If you, too, have spent much of your life under the tyranny of your internal critic; if you have trouble celebrating your accomplishments because you find yourself unable to get your mind off of your failures or mistakes; if, as a student, you would get disappointed when you achieved anything less than a perfect score on a test or a project; if your mistakes come to haunt you in the middle of the night… you, too, may suffer from perfectionism.
Here are a few ways to counter its negative effects.
- Practice self-compassion. Self-compassion is the ultimate antidote to perfectionism, because if perfectionism stems from an underlying belief that you are not worthy, being compassionate toward yourself inherently means recognizing and honoring your worth. Be forgiving, loving, and gentle with yourself.
- Tame your tyrant. Whenever your internal critic starts speaking to you cruelly–in a way that you would not want anyone to speak to someone you love–treat it like we treat our self-doubt demons. Ask it what it’s trying to protect you from, thank it for its input, and show it the door.
- Make a point of celebrating your accomplishments. I believe strongly in the power of ritual, which is one reason I advocate rewarding yourself for every rejection. I believe it’s just as important to have a ritual to celebrate your accomplishments. Sometimes it’s placing a new publication on my “byline shelf”; sometimes it’s organizing a book launch party, even though I hate parties and I hate organizing them even more than I hate attending them; sometimes it’s giving myself a little gift; sometimes it’s simply texting a friend the message, “I was brave today.”
- Identify your realistic best. When you’re wondering if something you’ve done is good enough, ask yourself: do I have reasonable access to internal or external resources that will enable me to do better? If the answer is no, you’ve done your best, and it’s good enough. (And if you have perfectionist tendencies and the answer is “I don’t know,” chances are, the real answer is “no.”)
- Remember that you are enough. No matter what you do or how often you fail, you have inherent worth as a human being, and like Mr. Rogers says, you make every day a special day just by your being you. Even if no one ever loves your work, it still has inherent worth, because you made it. Creation is an act of love. There is nothing you can contribute to this world more valuable than your love.
- Go to therapy. Sometimes it takes more work than you can do on your own to unravel deeply ingrained patterns of self-criticism. You don’t deserve to suffer your whole life under the tyranny of your inner critic. Don’t be too proud to get help. This blog would not exist if I didn’t go to therapy. (You can read my interview on Penniless Parenting for more about my experience with therapy and the benefits thereof.)
Are you a perfectionist, or a recovering perfectionist? How has your perfectionism held you back? What techniques do you use to deal with it? Tell us in the comments!