Why should I stop being a perfectionist? Is there anything wrong about having high standards?
Perfectionism is a personality trait that often is observed since early childhood and it may be the key to many mental disorders, anxiety and depression among others. Research show that first-born children are more prone to falling into perfectionism and excessive worry. They also put more pressure of themselves to succeed.
Did you know that 80% of Harvard students and 50% of the US presidents were first born children?
Perfectionism has to do with what you were praised for by your parents, and also with birth order. I am a first-born child and, as you can see from the general appearance of this website, I am struggling with perfectionism too. I am so perfectionist that my therapist asked me not to be a perfect patient and not to try so hard to overcome depression.
My parents bragged about their primogenital daughter being outstandingly smart, well organized, resourceful and responsible. These were the qualities they admired, and now I see how much I wanted to meet their expectations, even though they never overtly told me to do so.
So here I am, going public with my thoughts and fearing that the posts I publish are less than perfect. What if nobody likes my blog? What if I get nasty comments from haters? I must confess that it is tremendously difficult to for me to hit the “Publish” button. To make things worse, English is not my native language, which you have probably already noticed. You can imagine how I check every detail only to find out upon publishing that there is a ton of typos and punctuation errors. Shame on me.
I am still learning to overcome perfectionism. I am hopeful because I can see some progress. Otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this article now 🙂
The very first step to beating your perfectionism is acknowledging you have it and observe how it affects your life and performance.
What is so bad about striving for perfection?
There is no doubt that perfectionism is a toxic behavior. It’s a trap difficult to escape. Aiming at something which is not achievable leads to constant frustration and is the source of all evil. Well, maybe not all, but definitely mental health issues. We think we are never good enough. We believe we need to be outstanding to become worth of love.
Perfectionism influences our actions even as early as in the kindergarten. You know I got programmed to be an overachiever? I was considered a gifted child, so when I started primary school, my teachers got me promoted (with the consent of my parents) to the 2nd grade only after I spent two months in the 1st grade. I was pretty good at most subjects throughout all the levels of education and somehow got addicted to it. It wasn’t even the desire of recognition. On the contrary, now I can see that I was frightened that if I don’t get the highest score it would get noticed immediately. Everybody would gossip about me not meeting the expectations.
Because of my perfectionism, I refused to become a translator. You must know that translation is a nightmare of perfectionists. Even though it was a very natural career path for me to take, I know that it is the kind of work I would never get done by deadline. There will be always that could have been done better. Translators are only noticed when they screw up. As long as everything goes smoothly, people just attribute the choice of words to the author himself.
Brené Brown, a researcher and a storyteller, tackles the problem of difficult emotions such as shame in her book The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are:
In the research there’s a significant difference between perfectionism and healthy striving or striving for excellence. Perfectionism is the belief that if we do things perfectly and look perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment, and shame. Perfectionism is a twenty-ton shield that we lug around, thinking it will protect us, when in fact it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from being seen.
Perfectionism is also very different than self-improvement. Perfectionism is, at its core, about trying to earn approval. Most perfectionists grew up being praised for achievement and performance (grades, manners, rule following, people pleasing, appearance, sports). Somewhere along the way, they adopted this dangerous and debilitating belief system: “I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it. Please. Perform. Perfect.” Healthy striving is self- focused: How can I improve? Perfectionism is other-focused: What will they think? Perfectionism is a hustle.
Last, perfectionism is not the key to success. In fact, research shows that perfectionism hampers achievement. Perfectionism is correlated with depression, anxiety, addiction, and life paralysis or missed opportunities. The fear of failing, making mistakes, not meeting people’s expectations, and being criticized keeps us outside of the arena where healthy competition and striving unfolds.
If you are not sure that you should stop being a perfectionist, I have listed nine ways in which perfectionism is ruining your life, without you even being aware of it.
1. Perfectionism is the enemy of creativity
All innovation requires taking certain risks. Before Thomas Edison invented light bulb, he found thousands of solutions that didn’t work, until he found the one. Great ideas don’t grow in the barren land of your comfort zone. Dealing with doubts and criticism is an inherent part of the creative process. Showing your work to the world requires courage and acceptance of your vulnerability, which is precisely the opposite of perfectionism.
2. Perfectionists suck at team work
To be honest, perfectionists are pretty bad team players. I know it from my own experience. They are unable to delegate, asks or because it makes them feel they lose control over the result, which means it’s going to be less than perfect. You don’t want to be ashamed of somebody else’s fuckup, so you end up doing the whole thing by yourself, while those who don’t care so much enjoy their lives and free time. Feeling like you’re the only one that cares is frustrating and leads to social isolation. And if you expect everybody to deliver a perfect result, nobody wants to work with you anyway.
3. Perfectionists miss so many opportunities
Perfectionism makes people reluctant to take risks or try new things. Showing publicly your weaknesses or imperfections makes you feel vulnerable, and it is something you can’t stand. The space outside your comfort zone is dreadful. Wakeboarding? Forget it, I don’t want to be ridiculed in front of my friends. The fear of being judged for the lack of perfection prevents you from experiencing many awesome things. Once you stop being a perfectionist, you will notice how many new chances you’ve been missing out!
4. Perfectionism makes you procrastinate
You only get things done when they cannot wait any longer. It’s an ineffective and stressful way of managing your tasks and time. Subconscious sabotaging of your own actions and postponing the tasks till the very last moment not only undermines your self-esteem, but also affects relationships at your workplace.
5. Perfectionism deprives you of satisfaction
Even when the task is done, you are never fully satisfied with the result. You should have done it this or that way. Somebody would have done it better. You haven’t put enough effort. Paradoxically, being very much goal oriented seems to be the right way to achieve success. But you never get there. You only chase the rabbit, but never catch it. No matter how hard you try and how much time you dedicate, you always end up finding flaws which make the outcome unsatisfactory.
6. Perfectionism and low self-esteem go together
Driven by shame, you fear that one day somebody will discover that you’re fake. You owe your achievements to a serendipity. Focusing on your weaknesses instead of your strengths is a dead end. No matter what you accomplish, you never feel good enough, smart enough, or successful enough. Bute being outstanding in everything you do is no condition to be lovable, and doesn’t define you as a person. Here you can read more about redefining success on your own terms.
7. Perfectionism affects your relationships
Another reason to stop being a perfectionist is that it’s no fun to be around somebody who tries so hard to be awesome and outstanding. Lack of authenticity and nervousness make you actually pretty unlikable. If you additionally require the same level of perfectionism from everybody else, and most people are not willing to commit so much for the goal to be achieved, loneliness becomes unavoidable. And it’s rather unpleasant to be lonely, even if you pretend not to care.
8. Perfectionism affects your mental & physical health
It is typical of perfectionists to distance themselves from other people and not appreciating the support they receive from family and friends. Asking for help is perceived as a sign of weakness, so you would rather struggle by yourself than admit to the world that you are not able to cope. Such an attitude contributes to chronic stress, which is the cause underlying anxiety and depression.
Also, perfectionists are reported to have higher blood pressure and more often suffer from heart diseases. But this may be also attributed to the lack of time to take care of themselves.
9. Perfectionism puts you at risk of suicide
Seriously, this one is scary. Perfectionism may be fatal. Did you know that pressure to be perfect makes you more likely to die by suicide? Researchers found out that not only attempts of suicide among perfectionists are more common, but also statistically more successful in taking their lives. That’s not something you want to be successful at, do you?
Conclusion: Done Is Better Than Perfect
A friend of mine told me an anecdote from her last summer job in France. Each year she goes there as an interpreter for grape harvest workers. Last summer, among the interpreters there was a girl who could speak NO FRENCH at all. And yet she signed up for an interpreting job! You get it? I don’t.
Anyway, she was able to understand some every-day conversational French, but far from being profficient in it. But, in spite of that, she showed enviable confidence and treated the whole job as a French course and a money making opportunity.
What does it tell us about her?
For me, she’s mastered the art of letting go and being perfectly imperfect (even though I still find it a bit irresponsible).
Don’t be ashamed of being perfectly imperfect. Perfection is not worth so much sacrifice.
PS. It took me a long time to realize that even when writing about the drawbacks of perfectionism, I was still struggling for perfection. I was desperate to find 10 reasons to stop being a perfectionist, not only 9. Believe it or not, I edited this post 48 times until I realized what I was actually doing <facepalm>. So here you have it. If you come up with a tenth reason, I will be happy to include it. But right now I don’t give a sh*t how many there are.
With only 9 reasons to stop being a perfectionist, this post is good enough. Amen.
PPS. I owe my perfectionist epiphany to Brené Brown. She’s an author of a series of books on difficult emotions and self-growth. Her book titled The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are made me realize how wrong I was about many things and how letting go of ego and other obsessions makes one a happier person.
I also recommend you read her other books or listen to her speak about The Power of Vulnerability.
Lastly, I absolutely love Brené’s writing style, because she proves that scientific research about serious topics can be presented to simple folks in an attractive and enticing way, and that scientists are normal people just like us.