Perfectly Imperfect: Understanding the Drive for Perfection

Business woman in yellow jacket leaning against glass wall in workplace

What is perfectionism

Perfectionism can be considered to be a combination of thoughts and behaviours which drive people to relentlessly strive for “perfection” in different areas of their life. The perfectionist assesses their self-worth (and at times, the worth of others) based largely on their performance and achievement. At the same time, they often assess their performance or achievement as lacking, or not good enough. People who experience perfectionism are often highly anxious about making mistakes or failing at something.

Perfectionism, a double edged sword

On the one hand, perfectionistic behaviours can drive people to achieve high levels of performance, productivity and professional success. Perfectionistic behaviours are also often rewarded and promoted within performance driven workplaces. However, on the other hand the perfectionist often achieves these high levels of performance at immense personal cost. They may experience feelings of anxiety and depression, a sense of worthlessness or never being good enough, or focus on work at the expense of other areas of their life such as exercise and their families. 

Five signs you may have a perfectionistic thinking style

  1. Disproportionate checking or rechecking of work – some checking and revision of work prior to final completion may be appropriate in some situations. For example, it makes sense to review work before it’s submitted to a client or published online. However, those with a perfectionistic thinking style may check and recheck work more than is required, and still remain unsatisfied with the end result or feel anxious they have made a mistake. 
  2. Excessive procrastination – we all procrastinate from time to time. We may avoid starting a task because it’s boring, or put off having a challenging conversation because we don’t want to feel uncomfortable. Perfectionists regularly find themselves procrastinating in an attempt to avoid starting a task. The high standards they place on themselves for everything to be “perfect” all of the time can create a sense of anxiety when attempting to start a task. Procrastination enables the perfectionist to temporarily avoid feelings of anxiety associated with starting a new task.
  3. Crippling fear of failure – whilst some nerves about trying out a new task for the first time is common, when confronted with a new task the perfectionist may experience crippling anxiety about it. They worry about not getting it right the first time, or that they may make mistakes. This fear of failure may lead perfectionists to stick to what they know. It feels safer to engage with tasks which are familiar and which they know they can complete to a high standard.
  4. Consistent difficulties making decisions – the perfectionist will often strive to make the “right” or “perfect” decision and will consider the decision from all angles. The anxiety caused by the prospect of making a “wrong” or “bad” decision may lead them to worry excessively, or to avoid making a decision altogether. 
  5. Rarely feeling satisfied with the work you have produced – the term perfect in the context of work performance is quite vague. It doesn’t provide any concrete guidelines about what success looks like. Because success hasn’t been clearly defined, the perfectionist often doesn’t know when they’ve achieved success. It’s like having your manager make a vague statement about your performance like, “do better”. In itself, this statement provides no clarity about what area you need to improve in or how to do it. Likewise, aiming for a vague idea of “perfection” provides little clarity about what we’re aiming for and may create a sense of anxiety. 

Three ways to manage a perfectionistic thinking style

  1. Try to separate performance and achievement from self-worth. Don’t get me wrong, performance and achievement is an important element of cultivating self-confidence. However, it can become risky when all of our confidence or sense of worth is derived from performing and achieving. It may be helpful to consider the other aspects of you and your life that help to provide a sense of meaning and purpose. By taking a broader view of ourselves and our lives, our performance and achievement becomes just one part of a bigger picture.
  2. Notice when attempting to avoid feelings of anxiety. For example, we may attempt to avoid feelings of anxiety through procrastination (we avoid a task which causes us to feel anxious), or through being indecisive (we attempt to avoid the anxiety we feel about making a decision). Starting to notice when we attempt to avoid feelings of anxiety, may help us to change how we act.
  3. Break tasks down into small and manageable parts. One of the common reasons people avoid starting tasks is because the task itself may feel overwhelming. By breaking the task down into small and manageable parts, this may help to reduce feelings of overwhelm and our desire to avoid the task. So for example, if you have a report to write you may just start off with adding headings to your document. Next you may add some general dot points about topics to cover. Then, start to flesh out the dot points into sentences. Before you know it, all of these small tasks have resulted in a completed report.

If perfectionism is impacting you and you need support from a Psychologist or a Coach, don’t hesitate to reach out.

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