In graduate school, I came across a perfectionism survey in a popular magazine. Although I did not think I was a perfectionist I decided to answer the 25-question survey. I was surprised to find that I scored 98 out of 100 on the survey. As if that score wasn’t high enough to illuminate my perfectionism, I was actually disappointed that I did not score a 100. I laughed as I realized the irony of being upset for not getting a perfect score on a perfectionism survey.
I had always thought I wasn’t perfect enough to be a perfectionist. I came to realize perfectionism is more about personality style than achievement. Perfectionists strive for flawlessness and have incredibly high standards. These standards are often impossible or near impossible to obtain. The perfectionist is usually self-critical, which can be very limiting. It is difficult to accomplish anything with such a focus on perfectionism.
Once I began to understand my perfectionism, I started noticing how it interfered with my life. Simple tasks like cleaning took longer than they needed to with an emphasis on being perfect. The time spent cleaning was time away from loved ones, having fun, and enjoying life. I’ve never met a person in their 80s who said, “I’m glad I spent so much time cleaning the grout in my kitchen.”
Other perfectionists have trouble getting motivated to do simple tasks because the pressure to perform perfectly is overwhelming. They may not be able to tackle a chore, begin a diet, enroll in school, etc., because the drive toward being perfect actually discourages any movement at all. Also, the drive toward perfectionism can lead to feelings of emptiness, anxiety, and/or depression.
To combat perfectionism, I made some changes in my life and I recommend these changes for anyone struggling with perfectionism. First, I decided to focus on people instead of perfection. Putting relationships before perfectionism is more rewarding and is better for well being. Relationships provide so much more emotionally than getting something “perfect.”
It’s also important to focus on the process of tasks as opposed to results. Of course it is good to have goals, but a focus solely on outcome will bring only temporary rewards. A focus on learning from the process can bring about lifelong change and greater rewards.
If you are looking for a challenge, try being yourself. Instead of focusing on the pursuit of perfection, self-acceptance is actually more challenging and is a better use of time. Where perfectionism oppresses people, self-acceptance leads to freedom. If we accept ourselves, we won’t need an excessive drive to be perfect. Instead, acceptance and forgiveness for flaws promotes mental health and happiness.
Another way to move away from perfectionism is to change the goal from “perfect” to “good enough.” In changing the goal to “good enough,” “perfect” must be abandoned. Allowing a margin of error can lead to creativity and less self-criticism. Perfectionism is not required for most things in life. Instead, being good enough is good enough.
Although letting go of perfectionism is not easy, it is worth the struggle. I highly recommend embracing life and all its imperfections.
Dr. Golson is a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in therapy with children, adolescents and families. She has been working with families in crisis and traumatized adolescents in New York for over 10 years. Her private practice office in Bayonne is located at 325 Avenue C. Dr. Golson looks forward to answering any questions you may have regarding family issues, child behavior, or developmental concerns. You may submit questions or make an appointment with Dr. Golson via email to firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling (201) 230-8660. You can also follow her on Twitter @drgolson.