This is part-2 of a 3-parter series on why being a perfectionist isn’t so perfect and how we should deal with it.
Perfectionists are their own devils. – Jack Kirby
“Perfectionists vary in their behaviours: some strive to conceal their imperfections; others attempt to project an image of perfection.”
– Flett, York University
Perfectionism – does it really enable you or disable you?
On the surface, being a perfectionist appears to be aspirational. Many reowned and accomplished sports athletes, celebrities, singers and professionals in their field are self-professed perfectionists.
Afterall, a perfectionist is synonymous with being an overachiver. You are constantly driven to visionary goals, turning your life into a blazing trial of accomplishments. You push yourself to be the best you can be and unlock potential that is previously untapped, that nobody knew was present. You achieve goals which people previously thought were not possible. You seem to have unlimited strength and motivation to move forward and persist regardless of the adversity of the situation. You have such a sharp eye for details that no mistakes are left unturn. Your presence ensures that everything will get done the way they should be done, and even better. You are a source of inspiration for people around you that ideals are possible to achieve.
Debunking the ‘perfect’ imagery of perfectionism
You may already be aware that perfectionism is a form of obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD) associated with many emotional, psychological and interpersonal issues. In being a perfectionist, you might think that you are getting the best of yourself and your life. In actuality, perfectionism hinders you from becoming the best that you can be. The continuous thought of being perfect limits your true ability from shining.
Below is a list of 6 key reasons why perfectionism disables you and limits you from achieving your highest potential. As you read this list, try to see if any of the below applies to you!
1. Lower productivity.
By being a perfectionist, you impede on your productivity levels. By the 80-20 Pareto principle, 80% of results in an activity is typically associated with 20% of the efforts put in. The remaining 20% of the results can only be achieved via spending 80% of your efforts. You spend excessive time fussing over minute details and getting the remaining 20% of the task right, when you can be more effective by moving on to other tasks. At the same time, your meticulousness towards details turns you into a workaholic who sacrifices personal rest and social life for work, which makes you even less efficient given the law of diminishing returns. Instead of sharpening the saw which allows you to cut more wood in the future, you push it beyond its point of optimal performance. It becomes dull and ineffective in the long-run.
Ironically, your perfectionism may even lead to procrastination. Have you ever had a time where you intentionally put off doing something because you are waiting to find the best solution, the right time and right context before tackling it? By being a perfectionist, you end up overcomplicating a task and making it seem bigger than it actually is. You develop fantasy-level expectations for the end result to the extent where you end up avoiding it altogether because you think it is impossible to achieve.
As you get caught up in the little details, you miss the bigger picture and scheme of things. You are too busy pruning a particular tree to recognize that you have a larger and more important role to play in overseeing the entire ecosystem. Your myopia prevents you from becoming the real visionary leader that you have locked inside of you. You are too busy overexerting your left brain rather than letting your right brain come into the forefront. If you are a manager, you may be recognized as a ‘micro-manager’ rather than the leader. You also develop a tendency to get caught up in end result rather than the process. For example, prizing the wedding day itself over the course of the relationship. Graduation day over your schooling life. Being promoted over the length of your career. Recognize that the process you undertake to achieve your goal is actually the longest period in the path of goal achievement. The end result is just that one point, that one day when you achieve the goal. Shouldn’t you try to enjoy the longest stage where you spend the most time in?
4. Stagnation of growth.
Your mind stagnates because you are not getting new inputs to process. You are stuck in regimenting things to be done in a certain way which you have identified as the best. Your all-or-nothing approach means you avoid situations which you cannot conquer. By not opening yourself to alternative contexts, you rob yourself of all the opportunities to grow. Embracing differences is the key to growth, simply because it exposes you to such a wide variety of new ideas and situations that you can learn from. Regimenting yourself to your style and approach does not open you up to learning opportunities. You already know everything in your mind; what you need to do is open yourself up to things you do not know rather than crippling yourself in your pursuit of growth.
5. Poorer health and mental well-being.
Your health suffers because you neglect your well-being and you are constantly subjecting yourself in a warp of negative emotions (whether you noticed it or not). You sacrifice your sleep and recreation in the name of work. You bear the brunt of responsibility for everything that happens – you constantly wrap yourself in anxiety, worrying about the outcome and things that can go wrong. When things do not turn out as expected, you suffer a backlash instead. You start beating yourself up over the minutest of mistakes. You swirl in a sea of guilt and self-depreciation and obsessively work towards working on your ‘flaws’ to address them or even dissociating yourself from them. You might even start sinking into a state of depression and unhappiness. When things do not go wrong, you undermine and downplay on the success of what has been achieved because it can always be better. Either way, it seems that you cannot win at all. This is why research has shown that perfectionists are prone to stress, clinical anxiety, depression, or in the severe cases, even suicide.
6. Sub-optimal relationships.
Because of your anally retentive nature, you start alienating people around you. Your rigidity and inflexibility throws them off. They find it hard to connect with you because you are guarded emotionally and you do not let your walls down. Your unrealistic ideals result in dissatisfaction in your relationships with others and end up cutting you off from them instead – your co-workers, your peers, your friends, your partner, your family, kids.
How perfectionist limited myself
When I was living life through my perfectionist persona, I observed many things on the sideline.
Productivity and effectiveness
Perfectionism was getting in my way of being more effective. I was investing too much time on little things that did not seem to play a role in the bigger scheme of things, instead of focusing on the things that do matter. This only became prominent when I started working. Where in school I could get away with taking control of everything right down to the nitty gritty, at my job the breath and depth of the projects were so colossal that it was no longer humanly possible for me to be so intricately involved everything and nail everything to perfection. I was spending a lot of late hours and weekends working and there was no end in sight since work would never end. It was not sustainable.
I was also extremely hard on myself for any mistakes or things. In my mind, there was always an ideal scenario for everything. If presentations, tests, exams, etc ever went against my expectations, I would mull obsessively over it for a period of time and constantly beat myself up over it. If things went right, I would always be thinking about how it could have been better. I would frequently forget about the accomplishments I have achieved before because it was in the past and no longer relevant – I was always looking onward on how I can be even better.
On the social front, I noticed that I unwittingly alienating some people around me. By being dictatorial, rigid and inflexible, I had developed a hard edge around myself which was intimidating people. I was up in my ivory tower and emotionally inaccessible to people around me. It was unintentional because deep-down, I always held people relationships to be more important over material success.
I started to work on turning things around, which you will see in the last part of the series. In the last installment, we will discuss how you can consciously choose to tune out the negative aspects of perfectionism and turn your perfectionist alter ego into your ally.
This is part-2 of a 3-parter series on why being a perfectionist isn’t so perfect and how we should deal with it. For the other parts of the series, please visit the writer’s site.