I think it’s important to have a very close look at perfectionism. Why? Because it’s one of the nasty personality traits that can be advertised as virtues. People seem to find it fancy to be a perfectionist, often mention it as their weaknesses during a job interview. Yes, it is a weakness and we should treat it as such.
If we would all be aware of the fact that perfectionism is nothing more than ego’s disguise of its lack of self-esteem, there wouldn’t be anything glamorous about it anymore. This lack of self-esteem eventually only blocks the free flow of your inner being, your productivity and your creativity. Unfortunately, our ego is pretty good at convincing of us of the added value of this trait. In this post, I’ll show you it’s not and I’ll give you ways to slowly cure from it and regain your capacities.
What is a perfectionist?
Let’s start with making a distinction between a perfectionist and someone who just wants to do a good job. The first and foremost difference is the fact that the former is driven by external motives, the latter by internal motives.
It can be hard to find out which motive really drives us, therefore it’s important to feel inside. The potential perfectionist has to ask himself: how much pressure do I put on myself? How realistic are my goals? How do I deal with failure? Can I be grateful for the small achievements? And probably most importantly: Would I do this even if I were the last person on earth? And how would I do it then?
At the core of perfectionism is a low self-esteem. The person therefore needs external validation in order to feel worthy. The lower the self-esteem, the further the person will go in search of this validation. It will be a long way which eventually leads to nothing. Except for maybe a burnout or depression.
Danger of perfectionism
Perfectionism is dangerous because it’s a vicious circle. Perfectionists set unrealistic high goals which they obviously never achieve. This makes them feel bad about themselves and enhances their self-criticism. In order to prove to everyone that they are worthy, they set ridiculously high goals again and the story starts all over again.
This cycle puts enormous pressure on the person and interestingly enough he thinks he can cure the pain by making just a little bit more effort. The pressure paralyses him and only makes him procrastinate. He only wants to deliver perfect material. But in the end, it’s never perfect. And it’s never done. This way the perfectionist doesn’t only take way more time to get things done, he also misses many opportunities to learn and grow.
In my opinion, this is the secret goal of the ego: not being truly successful. (This doesn’t mean perfectionists deliver bad work. It means they don’t create the work to their fullest potential.) The self esteem is so incredibly low, it actually doesn’t want to be seen at all. Being successful could mean being in the spotlights, which is very daunting to an anxious soul who doesn’t trust himself. “Can I handle being seen? Am I capable of being successful all the time? Maybe it’s safer to just stay undercover, in my safe little cave where no one ever notices how worthless I am…” Obviously, this is not the scenario our conscious mind and our inner being want us to play out. So, what could we do about it?
“Our deepest fear is not that we are weak. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.”
— Nelson Mandela
Being a perfectionist myself, I know how hard it is to get rid of this poison to success (and believe me, I’m still not, this is work in progress). First of all, it took me a while to even acknowledge I am suffering from it. I often would give up on something before I even tried it or would deliberately deliver mediocre work, so I could justify for myself why people don’t like it. Therefore, I never considered myself to be a perfectionist. But the internal dialogues and the symptoms make me guilty as charged. In order to heal myself, I have several methods which have helped me deal with this problem.
# 1 Make progress instead of perfection
Instead of trying to make things perfect, my goal is to make progress. I don’t judge how good something is, but whether I did it better than I did before. Obviously, this doesn’t mean I don’t try doing my best anymore. It’s a way of reframing my goals to myself in order to prevent myself from my perfectionist behaviour. I am more likely to feel proud and satisfied if I have achieved something, rather than wanting to achieve it all. Instead of feeling drained and demotivated of reaching for perfection (what is perfection anyways?!), I’ll feel gratitude for the small progresses I make.
# 2 Done is better than perfect
This first point inevitably leads to the second. Once I’ve made my progress, I consider my work to be done. As a perfectionist I tend to want to work on something for so long, I end up delivering nothing. But it’s better to have something than having nothing.
# 3 Failure is growth
This leads me automatically to the next point. From failure I learn most, probably because it hurts. But my failure can only hurt if I dare to bring my work to public, even if I don’t consider it be perfect yet. The public offers me valuable feedback which can help me make more progress. In the end, the journey is the destination. This leads us back to the first point again: making progress instead of perfection.
# 4 Worst case & best case scenario
When I’m really struggling with a particular issue, I usually do this little exercise: I imagine my worst case and my best case scenario. What would happen if I would deliver work that’s not perfect yet? What would happen if people would hate it? What if they’d love it? What is the purpose of my work? Would I achieve it if I continue being a perfectionist?
I ask myself these critical questions and write down the answers. I’m a huge fan of writing, because I notice it sticks much better and for some reason many more things come up while I am writing. In the end, I ask myself the final question: What means more to me: the pain of realising my worst case scenario or the joy of realizing my best case scenario?
Picturing these scenarios help me confront reality. It often makes me put things into perspective and make me realize that holding onto perfectionism might keep me from experiencing my worst case scenario, but for sure it will keep me from experiencing my best case scenario as well.