You don’t want your surgeon to execute a cut which is ‘near enough’ the right place, or the person controlling your flight to tell the pilot not to worry if they can’t climb.
In our everyday personal and professional lives, however, perfectionism is not only unnecessary, but can also be damaging.
There’s a difference between wanting to do things well, and wanting, or needing, to do them perfectly.
Many of us set ourselves high standards in the areas that matter to us.
Teachers want to give the best lessons they can. Decorators want to do a great job. Researchers want to uncover the most useful material they can.
You might set the bar high for your personal appearance, or for the meals you cook, or for the sporting and leisure activities you engage in.
At the same time, you know that however carefully you prepare, things can go wrong, sometimes through mistakes or misjudgements you make, and sometimes through things that you can’t control. That’s Life, as the fabulous Frank Sinatra told us. (Now there’s a man who weathered a few mistakes.)
But perfectionists have very low tolerance for these margins of error.
They cannot take mistakes, errors, hiccups in their stride. Instead, they obsess over what has gone wrong.
They will focus one tiny error in a document they prepared. A meal is ruined if one small part of it is undercooked or overcooked, or you forgot to get the cream for the dessert (actually, that really is major…no, no, joke!).
And perfectionists often set themselves impossible or unrealistic standards in not just one area, but in everything they do. Just reading these words, can’t you feel the pressure rising? No wonder that perfectionism is a major contributor to unhealthy levels of stress.
Those who aim for perfection in everything may think a bit of stress is the price you pay for caring enough about what you do.
And yes, there’s nothing wrong with a manageable level of performance-related anxiety — provided it is short-lived and discharged in a timely fashion.
But needing to get everything perfect can mean that you:
- Miss deadlines.
You can’t deliver something which isn’t 100% accurate, even in cases where speedy delivery is more important than, say, presentation.
- Put things off.
You are so scared by the thought of making a mistake, or having something spoil your plans, that you delay starting, because once you start, you are committed to finishing, and something might go wrong.
- Are terrified of ‘failure’.
This means that you limit your activities. You ditch ideas, refuse requests, make excuses for not taking something on. By refusing to take chances, you are cutting yourself off from the possibilities of creativity and experimentation.
- Have low resilience.
Robust personalities know how to roll with the punches. They learn from mistakes, and are not overwhelmed by them.
- Take ages to complete a task.
If you make one mistake writing a greetings card or a note or a shopping list, you throw it away and start again. That person sitting knee-deep in crumpled-up bits of paper? Probably a compulsive perfectionist.
- You are over-critical, of yourself and of others.
Being ready to see failure in everything affects your self-esteem, and your relationship with others. If you are known to be hyper-critical, people are wary of opening up to you.
- But most important of all, you are not happy.
If you would like to manage your perfectionist traits in order to feel better about yourself and, paradoxically, be more effective, you will need to alter your perspective.
You could try to channel the qualities that drive your quest for excellence into areas that will enhance your life.
Pick the areas of your life that matter most to you at the moment.
They might include aspects of your role at work, or aspects of your home, personal, family or social life.
Focus on say, three areas where you feel that, at the moment, you want to continue to set very high, very specific standards.
It might be important to you to maintain a fastidious standard of housekeeping, or a stylish home, but if your life stage means kids and pets run rampant through every room, you might want to relegate this aspect of your life to a lower priority.
Revisit these areas from time to time, as life goes on and your circumstances change.
Allow yourself to ease up with the other activities. Tell yourself that you need to conserve your perfectionist energy for your top priorities.
See the overall picture
Perfect comes in different forms. When non-perfectionists talk about ‘a perfect evening’ or ‘a perfect outfit’ or ‘a perfect meal’, what they are conveying is an overall feeling of warmth and satisfaction.
Their pleasure wouldn’t be spoilt by someone saying, yes, but we were late getting there or yes, but it cost a lot, or, yes, but there wasn’t enough choice on the menu. That’s because their perception of the overall event is positive.
Try painting a broad picture of your criteria for success
- Overall, you want your report for work to contain the required information and to be accurate and readable.
- Overall, you want your kids to be polite and sociable.
- Overall, you want the dinner table to look attractive.
Allow for blips and failings. One shortcoming doesn’t ruin the whole thing.
Eliminate the word ‘perfectionism’
The trouble with this word is that it has a faint whiff of the humble brag.
Get rid of the connotations of high achievement and lofty ideals by defining your perfectionist tendencies in a negative way:
- My unnecessary attention to detail is hindering my work.
- My habit of focusing on errors rather than achievements undermines what I/other people have produced.
A final thought
When teachers give a mark out of 10 for, say, an essay or a presentation, it used to be the convention never to give full marks, on the basis that no piece of work could be absolutely perfect.
That thinking gave way to the perception that it is fine to award 10 out of 10, to indicate that the work is the best that could be achieved in the context and circumstances.
Take heart, perfectionists everywhere.