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Perfectionism

Nick Halpin, PhD.

'I've written and rewritten this essay, maybe five times, and I still don't feel I can hand it in. The problem is that it has taken over my life. I've cut some lectures, left an important assignment for next week which I know will cause even more problems, and I am spending all my time just endlessly trying to improve this essay. It's crazy because I know it's probably good enough, but I can't help it... I so want it to be absolutely right.'

Have you heard of the Pareto Principle? It's very straightforward and seems to apply across a wide range of situations and activities: namely that 20% of our efforts deliver as much as 80% of our results... which of course leads to the paradoxical equation that the remaining 80% only delivers a measly 20%! The message is that 20% of your efforts are likely to deliver an acceptable, reasonable job - not a perfect result, but well above adequate. The additional results are sixteen times more costly. It doesn't always work out that precisely, but we all know that the extra effort that we put in to make something 'perfect' is rarely cost effective. And of course that extra effort could so easily be diverted into other projects, other tasks. As Donald Wetmore has put it, 'Excellence in performance is attaining a degree of perfection, not absolute perfection.

Are you a perfectionist?

If so, rather than simply working toward success, you may in fact be trying to be perfect - too perfect!

Perfectionism refers to self-defeating thoughts and behaviours associated with high and unrealistic goals. Perfectionism is often mistakenly seen as desirable or even necessary for success. However, recent studies have shown that perfectionist attitudes actually interfere with success. The desire to be perfect can deny you a sense of satisfaction and cause you to achieve far less than people with more realistic goals.

Causes

If you are a perfectionist, it is likely that you learned early in life that you were mainly valued for your achievements. As a result you may have learned to value yourself only on the basis of other people`s approval. So your self-esteem may be based primarily on external standards. This can leave you vulnerable and sensitive to the opinions and criticism of others. To protect yourself you may decide that being perfect is your only defence.

Perfectionism is often associated with the following:

The vicious circle

Four myths

MYTH No.1 I wouldn't be the success I am today if I weren`t such a perfectionist.

REALITY: Perfectionism does not lead to success and fulfilment. Although some perfectionists are remarkably successful, what they fail to realise is that their success has been achieved despite, not because of, their compulsive striving.

There is no evidence that perfectionists are more successful than their non-perfectionistic counterparts. There is evidence that given similar levels of talent, skill or intellect, perfectionists perform less successfully than non-perfectionists.

MYTH No.2 Perfectionists get things done and they do things right.

REALITY: Perfectionists often have problems with procrastination, missed deadlines, and low productivity.

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, in even 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 agonising over some non-critical details that a critical project misses its deadline.

MYTH No.3 Perfectionists are determined to overcome all obstacles to success.

REALITY: Although perfectionists follow an 'I'll-keep-trying-until-it's-perfect' credo, they are especially vulnerable to potentially serious difficulties such as depression, writer`s block, and performance and social anxiety.

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.

MYTH No.4 Perfectionists just have this enormous desire to please others and to be the very best they can.

REALITY: Perfectionistic tendencies often begin as an attempt to win love, acceptance, and approval.

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 relationships.

The 'perfect human' is as appealing and mythical a concept as the unicorn. Many of our greatest endeavours 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 recognise mistakes, failure, and general imperfection as part of the reality of being human.

What can I do about it?

The first step is to realise that perfectionism is undesirable. Perfection is an illusion that is unattainable. The next step is to challenge the self-defeating thoughts and behaviours that fuel perfectionism. Here are eight strategies:

Healthy Striving

Perfectionist versus Healthy Striver

PerfectionistHealthy Striver
Sets standards beyond reach and reason Sets high standards, but just beyond reach
Is never satisfied by anything less than perfection Enjoys process as well as outcome
Becomes dysfunctionally depressed when experiences failure and disappointment Bounces back from failure and disappointment quickly and with energy
Is preoccupied with fear of failure and disapproval - this can deplete energy levels Keeps normal anxiety and fear of failure and disapproval within bounds - uses them to create energy
Sees mistakes as evidence of unworthiness Sees mistakes as opportunities for growth and learning
Becomes overly defensive when criticised Reacts positively to helpful criticism

The healthy striver has drive, the perfectionist is driven

Healthy goal setting and striving are quite different from the self-defeating process of perfectionism. Healthy strivers tend to set goals based on their own wants and desires rather than primarily in response to external expectations. Their goals are usually just one step beyond what they have already accomplished. In other words, their goals are realistic, internal, and potentially attainable. Healthy strivers take pleasure in the process of pursuing the task at hand rather than focusing only on the end result. When they experience disapproval or failure, their reactions are generally limited to specific situations rather than generalised to their entire self-worth.

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 fist 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 regain his freedom. So the trap works and the villagers capture him.

Are you trapped by your perfectionist values? Perfectionism is not helpful. It does not have to play a part in your life. There are better ways of thinking and living. Not only are you likely to achieve more without your perfectionism, but you will feel better about yourself in the process.

Acknowledgements

This leaflet is based on material from the following:

Catherine McPhail (for the first version of this leaflet)

Geoff McNulty, Brunel University Counselling Service

Donald Wetmore, (www.stretcher.com)

Counselling & Dev. Centre, University of Illinois

Counselling Service, University of Texas

©2003 The Counselling Service, University of Dundee