“What is my biggest weakness? Well, I can be a bit of a perfectionist…”
Would you consider yourself a perfectionist?
Many people would, especially those who are high achievers and those who strive to produce world changing creative ideas and innovations.
In fact, with modern society’s continued focus on working harder and hustling more, many people think you need to be seen as a perfectionist in the workplace in order to be respected. Rates of self-reported perfectionism have in fact been consistently rising over more than 27 years from 1989 to 2016. And perfectionists are much more likely to suffer from burnout at work.
Yet what they do not appreciate is the damage a perfectionist mindset can cause.
What is perfectionism?
There is often a confusion as to what perfectionism actually refers to. Many people think they are perfectionists because they want to produce high quality work, or put in extra effort to get a good result. They see it as a positive thing. But real perfectionism is far more obsessive than this.
On the whole, perfectionism is about striving for flawlessness, or perfection, in what you do and produce.
The challenge for assessing perfectionism is that it may manifest very differently in different people.
Some people may strive to push themselves because they enjoy the challenge of improving. These people are often referred to as self-oriented perfectionists, since their focus is primarily on improving themselves, their skills and ultimately their performance.
However, where perfectionism often becomes an issue is when the focus of a person’s quest for perfection is focused on other people and what they think. Instead of worrying about the quality of the action, effort or outcome, what they really care about is the perception by others, either wanting positive evaluations but also especially avoiding negative judgement. They care deeply about what others think of them and this may drive them to such a degree to become neurotic, anxious, depressed or even suicidal.
Research into perfectionism has been around for decades, with one of the major studies first coming in 1978 by Hamachek. Here he highlights some of the key differences between “normal” or “neurotic” perfectionists:
Normal perfectionists set realistic standards for themselves, derive pleasure from their painstaking labors, and are capable of choosing to be less precise in certain situations.
Neurotic perfectionists, on the other hand, demand of themselves a usually unattainable level of performance, experience their efforts as unsatisfactory, and are unable to relax their standards.
It is when a person feels they need to strive for unrealistic, unattainable levels of performance that the true negative consequences of perfectionism can begin to take over. Because what these people really want is not the perfect outcome. It is to avoid the negative feelings of shame, judgement and guilt that come with being seen by others as imperfect. And when the judgement and outcome is uncertain, this can exacerbate the negativity bias we all already suffer from, thinking that other people will see things as worse than they really are. In reality, their perfectionism is a form of self-protection.
When someone fears the judgement that may result in doing or producing something which other people do not see as perfect, it can cripple the confidence of that person and make them fear producing anything. In extreme cases, people may even feel like their work is never good enough, even when compared to other people the quality of their output is excellent.
If a person is constantly thinking that if they had just put in more effort to make something better, they can develop anxiety that they are never putting in enough effort, or that they are just not good enough. People with these feelings of perfectionism are even more likely to be at risk of suicide.
Researcher and author Brené Brown highlights how these negative thoughts due to perfectionism can impact people in her book The Gifts of Imperfection. She notes that healthy striving is self-focused: “What can I improve?”. But Perfectionism is other-focused: “What will they think?”. She notes that:
- Perfectionism is a self-destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought: If I look perfect and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of blame, judgement, and shame.
- Perfectionism is an unattainable goal. It’s more about perception than internal motivation, and there is no way to control perception, no matter how much time and energy is spent trying.
- Perfectionism is addictive, because when we invariably do experience shame, judgement and blame, we often believe it’s because we weren’t perfect enough. Rather than questioning the faulty logic of perfectionism, we become even more entrenched in our quest to look and do everything just right.
What causes perfectionism?
Much like developing a fixed mindset or growth mindset, how people develop either a positive or negative form of perfectionism often comes down to their upbringing and childhood experiences.
One especially important determining factor is what the parents are like.
If a parent is controlling, the child is more likely to develop negative types of perfectionism.
And if a parent themselves is a perfectionist, they are more likely to instill this in their children, whether intentional or not.
When assessing the major psychological traits associated with negative perfectionism, some of the major aspects are:
- excessive concern over making mistakes
- high personal standards
- the perception of high parental expectations
- the perception of high parental criticism
- the doubting of the quality of one’s actions
- a preference for order and organization
Here again we see that two of the major traits relate to high expectations being felt by children from their parents, as well as criticism from parents.
This is not to say that parents’ expectations are the only reason someone would develop perfectionism. Other potential sources could be school, peer groups, communities, other family members, society, work, role models and even the expectations or responsibilities someone places on themselves which grow and spiral over time.
Is there good as well as bad perfectionism?
Not all perfectionism needs to be negative.
Yes, a great deal of negative, or “maladaptive” perfectionism can result in very negative psychological consequences, including eating disorders where people are never happy with how they look and how they think others see them.
However, as we saw above, if a person is not aiming for flawlessness in the eyes of others, but instead is striving to improve for themselves and their own sense of accomplishment, this can result in great performance and amazing creative output.
This positive perfectionism can for example result in athletes pushing themselves harder than people without positive perfectionism, reaching performance levels other people could only dream of.
It can also result in artists, entrepreneurs or other creatives becoming obsessed with their work.
How is perfectionism related to creative performance?
There have only been a few studies looking for a link between perfectionism and creativity.
Some studies have found a weak positive link between positive perfectionism and creativity and also with their creative performance at work.
Other studies have found a weak negative link between negative perfectionism and creativity.
So the direct link between perfectionism and divergent thinking ability is weak.
However, if someone is a positive perfectionist, their conscientiousness might make them invest more time into executing their ideas. This would be very positive.
At the same time, people with negative perfectionism may work on their ideas but be more afraid of sharing them with the world for fear of judgement. This can be a huge hindrance their creativity and creative productivity.
It might also be difficult working with a creative person who is a self-oriented perfectionist. This can often be a problem for perfectionists managing other people.
For example, geniuses like Steve Jobs, Elon Musk and Stanley Kubrick were not willing to accept anything less than perfection in the products and films they produced. They had a vision of what they wanted, and would often berate, insult or fire people who were not doing things exactly the way they expected them.
How can we overcome negative perfectionism?
One problem is that in almost all cases, in reality there is no such thing as perfection.
Things could always be adjusted and made different, which some people would like and others less so.
It will always be impossible to please everyone all of the time.
So instead, aiming to please some people most of the time can take the pressure off. If you suffer from negative perfectionism, keeping this in mind may help transition you more towards the positive perfectionism side.
In an ideal world, you would eventually be producing for yourself. Those people who evaluate your work positively would then form your tribe. After all, as a creative you only need about 1000 True Fans to be successful in what you want to do. And for those who do not, their opinions will become less important over time.
Nonetheless, sometimes if someone is still suffering from negative perfectionism, the core reasons behind it need to be addressed directly. Often, this may be a conversation with the people who are the cause of the perfectionist judgement feeling, such as the parents. If you feel like this is you, have an open conversation about the pressure you feel and the impact that it is having on you. It may turn out that parents or other people may not even be aware of the pressure, anxiety and other psychological effects which their pressure creates. They may feel like they were pushing in order to get the best out of you, without realising what other effects this may have.
However, for some people where perfectionism is truly causing severe anxiety or depression, studies have found that therapy such as Cognitive Behaviour Therapy can be effective in many cases.
Finally, one of the reasons why people feel frustrated is when the expectations of what they want to achieve are beyond their current skill levels.
They have an unbalanced view of what doing or creating something should feel like while they are doing it, and end up disappointed by the eventual results.
They see other people being able to produce things seemingly easily (even when these people have often spent years or decades working hard to build up their skills, and failing often along the way), and do not understand why it is then so difficult for them when they try.
By resetting your expectations about how easy or hard the journey to produce something should feel like, it can become much easier to focus on the level of challenge which fits your current level of capability, and growing that over time.
After all, even if the outcome we achieve is not perfect, often the journey to get there will help us be better the next time.
This is how we grow.
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