The Perils of Perfectionism (and how to fight back)
Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life… I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.” -Anne Lamott
Hi, my name is Sarah, and I’m a perfectionist. Have been for as long as I can remember. Some signs that this is true: I have written two sentences in this post so far, and I’ve already revised it six times. Also, I don’t trust other people to do things as well as I can do them, and I dread criticism because it means I missed something along the way despite considering the problem or project from all possible angles and accounting for as many objections as possible. To be honest, my perfectionism has been a helpful trait in my professional life, and I could see how it could be a helpful trait in other professions, too. For example, I have always believed that perfectionists make the best hairdressers.
However, possessing the trait of perfectionism is also entirely exhausting, and, if left unchecked, can really suck the fun out of things. Research backs me on this one. Studies link perfectionistic tendencies to problems occurring in obsessive-compulsive disorder and eating disorders. Self-proclaimed perfectionists often report their relationships are negatively affected by their perfectionism. In my experience, perfectionism interferes with relationship-building with children because the same rules don’t apply to kids as they do for adults. After all, what four-year-old cares if he is coloring inside or outside the lines?
In truth, it makes sense that perfectionistic tendencies can be harmful. At the core, perfectionism is really fear masked as achievement, and fear has a way of messing with the order of things.
Underneath perfectionism is the faulty belief that we can avoid negative consequences by trying harder or being more careful. That maybe, just maybe, our character will remain intact if we can wow any and all audiences. Except, the problem is, no matter how hard we try to cover our backs and trace our steps, somebody will always be able to find fault in what we’ve done – either real or imagined. Eventually, the fear inherent in perfectionism cripples a person’s desire to take chances, and the world becomes smaller because the perfectionist doesn’t want to attempt anything unless she knows for sure she can satisfactorily complete it. The only possible outcomes become “success” or “failure,” and all aspects of life begin to suffer.
Are you a perfectionist?
If you’ve been nodding your head with me so far, you may be a perfectionist. However, other signs often show their face with those that won’t stop until no fault can be found.
Do you avoid working on projects until the deadline is looming uncomfortably close? As mentioned above, perfection is crippling because it is a weighty burden to bear. Holding out until the last minute can signal fear that the effort you put forth won’t be good enough for project-receivers. Procrastination also serves as a time-saver, because as a perfectionist, you could probably work on the project 24/7 from the date it is assigned and still not be satisfied with it by the time the deadline comes.
As mentioned above, if you are a perfectionist, you have probably done your very best to make sure your work or your performance is impeccable. Since you are so critical of yourself, criticism from other people – even the constructive type – may feel like a blow to your ego, or worse, your character.
Do you become defensive when people attempt to speak to possible areas of improvement in yourself or your work? Defensiveness goes hand-in-hand with a fear of criticism. Since you were certain you covered your bases when working on a project, the problem certainly can’t be you. Rather, whoever is challenging your integrity must be the one at fault.
Despite how much you hate receiving criticism, are you critical of others? If you work hard to produce quality output, you may begin to believe that you are the “bees knees” and deserve recognition for what you’ve done, especially since you threw so much of yourself into the project. Judging others may also be a way of buffering your self-esteem and giving yourself validation.
Is there a cure for perfectionism?
Perfectionism doesn’t have to be all bad. There is nothing wrong with desiring to be your best or wanting to be proud of the work that you do. As mentioned above, producing quality output can really be a strength in most contexts. However, unrestrained perfectionism tends to stifle certain aspects of ourselves and our lives. Focusing on bringing the fun back into life can help combat the negative symptoms of a worldview skewed by perfectionism.
In a search for perfection, creativity and appropriate risk-taking often get left by the wayside. How can you spice up your workplace, your relationships, and your hobbies so that you don’t focus on only one path to success? Perhaps vowing to give each of your immediate coworkers a unique compliment will help you understand the value they bring to your team. Or maybe changing your workout routine will help you loosen up before you play a community basketball game. Since you can create anything with creativity, the options are endless!
You don’t need to be the best, and chances are (let’s just be honest) you probably aren’t THE best person on the planet at what you do. And even if you are, you’re still not perfect and never will be. Viewing yourself in sober judgment can help combat the stress perfectionism can cause.
Perfectionism doesn’t play well with others. Allowing other people into your world while seeking the good in them can make a huge difference in how much you enjoy a task or project. Chances are, you’ll also find that two minds and two perspectives are better than one.
A More Excellent Way
The opposite of fear is love. If we focus on a fear of failure, or even if we focus on the act of achieving, we are missing the point entirely. Instead, the Bible exhorts us to focus on serving the Lord. As Colossians 3:23-24 says: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.” The best way to expand our horizons and experience true joy is to remember that humans are just humans. Humans may be able to inflict temporal criticism and pain, but God is in control of our eternal future. As such, we can be free to use our gifts to the glory of the Lord, our ultimate judge. Anne Lamott says that perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if we run carefully enough we won’t have to die, even though we will inevitably die anyway. The truth is, if we persevere in the race of faith toward Christ and serve him faithfully and humbly, we really won’t die, at least not forever. Perfectionism won’t save us. Only God can do that.