‚Äč'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?

  • Do you feel like what you accomplish is never quite good enough?
  • Do you often put off handing in papers or projects, waiting to get them just right?
  • Do you feel you must give more than 100% on everything you do or else you will be mediocre or even a failure?

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:

  • Fear of failure. Perfectionists often equate failure to achieve their goals with a lack of personal worth or value.
  • Fear of making mistakes. Perfectionists often equate mistakes with failure. In building their lives around avoiding mistakes, perfectionists miss opportunities to learn and grow.
  • Fear of disapproval. If they let others see their flaws, perfectionists often fear that they will no longer be accepted. Trying to be perfect is a way of trying to protect themselves from criticism, rejection, and disapproval.
  • All-or-nothing thinking. Perfectionists frequently believe that they are worthless if their accomplishments are not perfect. Perfectionists have difficulty seeing situations in perspective. For example, a straight 'A' student who receives a 'B' might believe, 'I am a total failure'.
  • Over-emphasis on 'should', 'must' and 'ought'. Perfectionists often live with an endless list of rigid rules for what they must accomplish. With the emphasis on how everything has to be done, perfectionists rarely listen to what they really feel like doing.
  • Never good enough. Perfectionists tend to see others as achieving success with a minimum of effort, few errors, little emotional stress, and maximum self-confidence. At the same time, perfectionists view their own efforts as unending and forever inadequate.

The vicious circle

  • You set an unreachable goal.
  • You fail to meet this goal because the goal was impossible to begin with. Failure to reach it was always inevitable.
  • The constant pressure to achieve perfection and the inevitable chronic failure reduce your productivity and effectiveness.
  • This leads you to be self critical and self-blaming which results in low self-esteem and possibly anxiety and depression.
  • At this point you may give up completely on your original goal and set yourself another unrealistic goal, thinking 'This time if only I try harder I will succeed'. The vicious circle continues!

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:

  • Realistic goals. Set realistic and reachable goals based on your own wants and needs and on what you have accomplished in the past. This will enable you to achieve and also will lead to a greater sense of self-esteem.
  • Modest improvements. Set subsequent goals in a sequential manner. As you reach a goal, set your next goal one level beyond your present level.
  • Try for less than 100%. Experiment with your standards for success. Choose any activity and instead of aiming for 100%, try for 90%, 80%, or even 60% success. This will help you to realise that world does not end when you are not perfect.
  • Focus on process. Focus on the process of doing an activity not just on the end result. Evaluate your success not only in terms of what you accomplished but also in terms of how much you enjoyed the task.
  • Check your feelings. Use feelings of anxiety and depression as opportunities to ask yourself, "Have I set up impossible expectations for myself in this situation?"
  • Face your fears. Confront the fears that may be behind your perfectionism by asking yourself, "What am I afraid of? What is the worst thing that could happen?"
  • Celebrate your mistakes. Recognise that many positive things can only be learned by making mistakes. When you make a mistake ask, "What can I learn from this experience?" More specifically, think of a recent mistake you have made and list all the things you can learn from it.
  • Discriminate. Avoid all-or-nothing thinking in relation to your goals. Learn to discriminate the tasks you want to give high priority to from those tasks that are less important to you. On less important tasks, choose to put forth less effort.

Healthy Striving

Perfectionist versus Healthy Striver

Perfectionist

Healthy 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.