“We must understand the need for perfectionism is a corrosive waste of time, because nothing is ever beyond criticism. No matter how many hours you spend to render something flawless, somebody will always be able to find fault with it.” Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear
I have a confession to make. I am a recovering perfectionist. And a few year’s back I would never have admitted that to my closest friends, let alone in a blog post. I was working in ways that were entirely unsustainable, doing and re-doing things that were perfectly (pun intended) acceptable in the first place. If I found a mistake after the fact, I would lie awake at night wondering how it slipped through my hyper-vigilance (aka perfectionism patrol).
I took constructive feedback as out-and-out criticism. I couldn’t actually listen to the message because I was too busy focusing on my inadequacy. Honestly, the whole thing really sucked up a lot of head space. I was mentally exhausted. Ultimately, I realised I had a problem when I was starting to project my perfectionism on the people around me. And not surprisingly, they didn't like it one bit.
I know a lot of people in the creative industries who are slaves to perfectionism. On the surface it just feels like a person striving to do their best possible work, always. Nothing wrong with that, right? Some of us use perfectionism as a mechanism for avoiding criticism, rejection and failure. But if we’re turning ourselves into pretzels to avoid what we perceive as failure or rejection, that’s when our quality of life suffers.
A quick search of notable quotes on perfectionism uncovers some beauties. ‘Perfectionism is self-abuse of the highest order’ (Anne Wilson Schaef), ‘You were born to be real, not perfect’, ‘Perfectionism promises riches and delivers misery’ (David Burns) or my personal favourite, ‘Perfection is slow death’.
So clearly perfectionism gets a bad rap but why?? Well, the simple fact is that it’s possible to find fault with pretty much anything and everything. What is ‘perfect’ is highly subjective. The perfect song to you might be an annoying ear-worm to another. The ‘perfect’ piece of art a total eyesore to the person standing next to you. Nothing, or no-one, is above criticism, constructive or otherwise.
The perfectionist can often feel anxious or worried about being ‘good enough’. There is an underlying anxiety that can manifest in black or white thinking and fear of disapproval and rejection. And because the fear of disapproval is so strong, the perfectionist views all tasks as being equally important – from crafting a simple email to completing and delivering a major project.
This skewed perspective can ultimately lead to procrastination and indecision. And procrastination can hamper creativity and productivity. Why the hell would you want to start something new knowing that it has to be exactly perfect?
Psychologist Marc Hollender in his 1966 paper Perfectionism defines perfectionism as "The practice of demanding of oneself or others a higher quality of performance than is required by the situation"
So clearly, there’s a difference between perfectionism and striving for excellence.
Which one are you?
You may be trapped by your perfectionism if you:
-Regularly set your standards so high that you struggle to achieve them
-You’re never quite satisfied with your work
-You have very rigid rules around the way you work
-You’re overly concerned about making mistakes
-Your work or project never feels quite finished even after you’ve reviewed, refreshed, refined it and reviewed it again.
-You find negative feedback and criticism particularly difficult, even distressing
-Your reaction to constructive feedback or criticism is to become defensive and upset
-You’re angry at the person who is delivering the negative feedback
-You have constant doubts about the quality of your work
-You project your perfectionism on others and have equally exacting standards
On the flipside, if you are an im-perfectionist…
-You strive to set high standards which stretch you without breaking you in two
-You’re not too bothered about making mistakes (knowing that we all do)
-If you do make mistakes, you can deal with constructive negative feedback and quickly move on from it.
-Your confidence or sense of self is not eroded by constructive criticism
-You can handle failure and be philosophical about it.
No-one enjoys criticism or disapproval, but someone who isn’t a perfectionist will generally not let it affect their sense of themselves.
How to challenge that perfectionist thinking.
-Are your thoughts real? What evidence do you have that something is either perfect or not?
-How is your perfectionism serving you? What is your perfectionism costing you in wellbeing terms?
-What is your return on investment? Let’s face it. It takes energy and time to be ‘perfect’. So do an audit on how much time it’s taking you to be ‘perfect’ or do perfect work. Are you re-writing, re-checking, re-recording to the point where other aspects of your life are being impacted?
-What the worse thing that can happen if you do work that’s less that perfect?
-Will those small mistakes matter next week? Or in a year, 3 year’s or 5 year’s time?
Can you challenge yourself to:
-Think of mistakes as lessons rather than failures.
-Enjoy and complete a project even if you think it’s not perfect
-Give yourself a break (and others around you if you’re projecting your exacting standards onto them)
-Find the courage to be vulnerable
-Have a sense of humour and don’t sweat the small stuff
-Make good-enough great
Elizabeth Gilbert writes that perfectionism is ‘fear in fancy shoes and a mink coat, pretending to be elegant when actually it's just terrified.” If you are your own worst critic, give yourself a break. And don’t forget to back yourself.
Thanks for reading
Viv Fantin is a certified, accredited coach at Next Act Coaching. If you’re interested in a complimentary 30 minute skype call to learn more about how coaching can help you set clear, achievable goals, manage stress, and sort through work-life balance along with many other issues please contact Viv on firstname.lastname@example.org or Ph 02 6687 1965. Check out www.nextactcoaching.com.au for more info.