Being described as a perfectionist often carries a positive connotation. It implies high standards and keen attention to detail. If you are on the receiving end, you can generally count on work being provided that is of excellent quality. If you are the carrier of that title, however, it is very likely that you pay a high price. Perfection is often coupled with a tendency to obsess over things and be overly compulsive. This can be unproductive, frustrating, and unhealthy.
Traits of the perfectionist
Perfectionists have difficulty in recognizing when enough is enough. Reasonable performance is never good enough. Since a job can always be improved, too much time is spent polishing things that do not deserve the extra attention. A pursuit of excellence and perfectionism are not the same things. Having high standards is fine. Wanting others to perform well is also fine, but the trap for perfectionists is always having to prove themselves over and over again.
Perfectionists have difficulty establishing clear goals, for themselves or for others. Delegating, sharing work, and letting go are challenges. Giving control and authority to other people, and trusting that others can perform to such exacting standards is often a source of contention. Perfectionists are very, very hard on themselves, and are unforgiving when they make a mistake. When others make a mistake, they are equally unyielding. This sometimes causes troubled relationships with colleagues and partners.
If you identify yourself as a perfectionist, what can you do about it? Here are 4 ideas to consider:
1. Go for 80/20.
Be careful of the perfectionist’s mind trap, which is the perfectionist’s ability to trap yourself with an endless focus on unimportant information and requisites. Because you are detail-oriented and capable of absorbing high levels of information, you are also the weakest link when it comes to taking action.
To you, everything is important and everything must be done. In the end, you get overwhelmed. Some perfectionists procrastinate; some get stuck in analysis paralysis mode. Some give up, while some spend an excruciating amount of time just to get simple things done.
As a recovering perfectionist, let me tell you that “good enough is good enough” in my world. I am not a brain surgeon. When I notice I am obsessing over a detail, I ask “is this essential for the success of the bigger goal?” Usually, it’s not. Time to set it aside.
Focus on the 80/20, the crucial few factors that bring the most impact to your goal. Beware of diminishing returns that come from trying to push and perfect every little thing, especially factors that ultimately do not affect what you’re trying to achieve.
2. Compare yourself to yourself.
Comparing yourself to other people on a regular basis can easily lead to feeling inferior. There will always be a lot of people ahead of you in any area of life. So compare yourself to yourself…
- See your improvement, see how far you have come.
- Look back at what you have overcome.
- Appreciate yourself and focus what you have done and are doing rather than what everyone else is doing.
3. Shape an environment of human standards around you.
Emotions are contagious. So is perfectionism. And even though you can lessen the impact that your environment has, you can also work at the other end of things.
You can reshape your environment by for example:
- Reducing or cutting out the sources that try to reinforce perfectionism in you. Take a little time to review what websites, magazines, podcasts, TV-shows, and books you spend a lot of time with. Take a look at if they have realistic and positive expectations or views on you and on life. And if not, choose to spend more of your time with the sources that lift you up and support you.
- Spending less time with nervously perfectionistic people. And more of your time each week with people who are trying to improve themselves and/or are living a good life in a positive, healthy and relaxed way.
4. A healthy attitude about failure.
When failures happen, you look for the lesson in them: What can I do differently next time? My master coach shifted her vocabulary to replace the word “failure” with the word “feedback.” I like that. You innately know that failures are a necessary part of learning and sometimes teach us the most memorable lessons of our lives. Leave the self-flagellation theatrics behind you. Perfect does not exist.
By becoming aware of the costs of perfectionism, and how it affects your productivity, well-being, and relationships (both at work and at home), you can start to mitigate this destructive habit.