One of the most productive things you can do to improve your success in any aspect of life is to turn down perfectionism.
Perfectionism is the pervasive need to achieve an unrealistic standard of perfection-There is no other choice.
- Perfectionism is often driven by historical expectations of perfection, excessive criticism and lack of secure and loving attachment.
- Perfection becomes the necessary criteria for love and self-worth.
- Given we live in a culture that pushes perfection to sell products and invites us to believe that it is actually achievable, early scars and solutions are often re-enforced.
Are You a Perfectionist?
While you may not view yourself as a perfectionist, I invite you to consider that in some way many of us carry some threads of this trait and get seduced and sabotaged by the myth of perfection in different aspects of our lives.
- Some only struggle for perfection in their work world.
- For some it is reflected in a chronic unhappiness with appearance.
- Many accept their own imperfections but demand perfection in others- often their children.
- Some give up on striving for realistic goals, defeated with the all or none perspective of achieving perfection.
Don’t We Need To Strive For Perfection To Achieve Goals?
Actually striving for perfection compromises our goals. The need to be perfect is more of an inhibitor than a motivator.
It is associated with procrastination, time management problems, clutter, worry, school difficulties and relationship problems.
- I was working with some young people on a creative art project, when one teen announced she could not participate because she could not draw perfectly. Startled, the other teens looked up at her and laughed –“ Look at this. It’s not perfect.” She didn’t budge and in some ways physically and psychologically lost her connection with the group.
- One retired couple with the life long plan to sell their home and re-locate, never got there—“ How can we choose?” “What if the children need us?” “ What guarantee d0 we have about being happy?”
- A young attorney, who needed his work to be the best, rarely met the deadlines. His work was brilliant but never useable.
- A woman was embarrassed by the clutter in her home. Cleaning it, however, meant checking every receipt she threw out, every bit of old clothing to donate and rearranging every closet. The effort was always too exhausting to sustain.
- For one couple intimacy became less and less possible. According to one or the other, it was never the right time. She never felt perfect enough. He never felt loved enough. Neither could budge.
The standards for a person caught up in perfectionism are so high that success is impossible—too often efforts perpetuate a cycle of shame and guilt.
Alternatives to Perfection
It is not easy to turn down perfectionism as it offers the illusion of success as a way to regulate the anxiety of failure. Since most of us are defined by a variety of traits, however, one way to turn down perfectionism is to turn up the volume on other healthy and viable alternatives:
Consider being patient instead of perfect. Patience is not a vote for mediocrity. It is the trait that allows for setting a plan toward a goal and sustaining it across steps that seem far removed from the goal. Helmut Schmidt reminds us “ Whoever wants to reach a distant goal must take small steps.”
Patience allows for the mistakes, the practice, the missteps, the fatigue, the lessons learned, the new plan that perfectionism cannot tolerate.
In his book, Curious, Todd Kashdan considers that curiosity is the work engine of growth. He notes that when Einstein was asked about his uniqueness, he did not speak of his intelligence or accomplishments, he spoke of his curiosity- he wasn’t striving for perfection.
- Replacing perfectionism with curiosity is opening the door to possibilities and unexpected goals.
- It is the student being more curious about trying out another equation than needing to get an A and as a result doing very well.
- It is the cook who decides to add something different to the recipe and is amazed with the results.
- It is the ability to stay on the diet or proceed with the plan driven by curiosity about how you will do the next day or whether the plan will actually work.
- As such, curiosity lowers the anxiety experienced working toward a goal because it replaces fear of failure with proactive and engaging thinking.
- Perfectionism is incompatible with creativity. Turning up creativity invites lowering perfectionism. It invites thinking “ outside the box,” and ignoring other details in order to hyper-focus on the creation. Creativity makes room for achievements that perfection cannot provide.
- A recent study by Kathleen Vohs found that those asked to come up with creative ideas about ping-pong balls were more successful in a messy office than those seated at neat desks. The suggestion was that the type of environment gave permission to “ break with tradition rather than “play it safe.”
Be passionate rather than perfectionistic. Most of the truly great achievements we witness or even succeed at ourselves are a result of being passionate. The achievements of great athletes, musicians, writers and teachers may seem perfect but they actually reflect the result of passion and not the wish to be perfect.
- Athletes talk of being in their zone and even when injured fight to do again what they love.
- An extraordinary musician described that when playing he was speaking with the music he was making.
- Author, Russell Banks suggests that the goal of great fiction writers is to have their readers hear and see what they create.
- The great teacher looks for the light of inspiration and understanding in her students.
Perfectionism is not a quest for the best. It is a pursuit of the worst in ourselves, the part that tells us that nothing we do will ever be good enough – that we should try again.
This Year Turn Up the Best in You!
Last reviewed: 6 Jan 2014
Phillips, S. (2014). Turn Down Perfectionism and Turn Up Success:Four Possible Ways. Psych Central.
Retrieved on April 19, 2014, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/healing-together/2014/01/turn-down-perfectionism-and-turn-up-successfour-possible-ways/