Under the cloudy sky of perfectionism

Dispelling the myths about perfectionists

When I was young, the idea of being a perfectionist didn’t seem so terrible. The term “perfectionist” didn’t have the same negative connotations as “pessimist” or “narcissist”, for instance.

Being a perfectionist felt almost like a compliment, a term designed to define someone who’s willing to go above and beyond to get the right results. What’s wrong with wanting things to be perfect?

The older I got, the more comfortable I felt using my “perfectionist” descriptor as a sort of excuse for characteristic quirks. Whenever extra hours in the office got in the way of work/life balance, a nutritional meal, or a good night’s sleep, I could write it off as being a “perfectionism” issue. 

It wasn’t until I slowed down and took a closer look at what perfectionism really is, that I learned I’d been kidding myself all along. Being a perfectionist didn’t mean being a high achiever with lofty standards. 

Rather, perfectionism is an unhealthy process of setting impossible goals, then beating yourself up when you inevitably fail to reach them. 

This blog is my personal exploration into the true meaning of perfectionism, and why a perfectionist attitude makes it more difficult to be truly happy.

What is perfectionism? The reality of trying to be perfect

Like me, I find a lot of perfectionists have trouble defining what the term really means. It’s easy to just see the word “perfect” and assume you’re defining something positive. However, despite common believe, perfectionism isn’t the same as just being a discerning, motivated person. 

A high achiever with realistic standards is focused. They can set measurable, achievable goals, and track their progress towards them within a specific time frame. These people push themselves, but they also know their limitations. 

A perfectionist doesn’t just set goals, they expect the world of themselves. As a perfectionist, I’ve been constantly plagued with this “all-or-nothing” mindset. 

I set goals, just like a high achiever, but more often than not, I’m never satisfied with what I do. Being “almost” perfect is just as bad as being terrible. Perfectionism warps your perception of the world to the point where nothing’s ever good enough. 

This one of the key characteristics of a perfectionist, we’re painfully critical — most often of ourselves. 

As a creative person, I’m forever bringing new ideas to life. Yet, many of the projects I work on never see the light of day — because they don’t meet my own (sometimes insane) standards. 

It’s taken years for me to recognise while having a high sense of quality control is good, it’s also an issue which can limit, or even destroy innovation in its purest form. 

The first iteration of any new idea is rarely perfect — after all. This leaves me to wonder, what might I have created if I allowed myself to be just slightly less than “perfect”?


The many faces of perfectionism

I’ve been lucky in my life. My career has brought me face-to-face with a lot of incredible people and companies. It’s also given me a chance to see perfectionism in its various forms. After all, just like many disruptive thought processes, perfectionism is a creature of many shapes. 

Some people, like me, demonstrate the highest levels of perfectionism when they’re addressing their professional work, or creative designs. 

Personal standards perfectionism, I find, is often driven by fear. Something in our head tells us if we are less than perfect, something terrible will happen. It’s almost like a form of OCD. 

We fall into dangerous patterns to prevent a perceived threat, like losing work, not achieving our goals, or simply disappointing the people we work with. 

Other people are pressed into perfectionism in various parts of their lives. I’ve seen people push themselves to the point of physical exhaustion at the gym because they believe they should be able to run further, lift more, or accomplish something incredible. 

There are even people driven by “perfectionist” ideas in their relationships. Perfectionism can cause us to place our partners on a pedestal, making it harder to form intimate, realistic relationships. 

The more I’ve been exposed to perfectionism throughout my life, the more I’ve been able to see the reality. Everyone’s idea of “perfect” is something entirely different. 

“Perfect” as a concept is something just as subjective and intangible as love, trust, or hope, yet it’s something many of us continue to strive for — even when we don’t know where the goal posts are.

Perfectionism is a demotivator

The interesting thing about perfectionism for me, is it isn’t the motivator I once thought it was. When someone calls you a “perfectionist” as a child, you immediately imagine ambitious person, striving to be the very best. 

However, true perfectionism isn’t so simple. The longer you live with it, the more it drains your motivation, and your happiness. 

As a self-professed perfectionist, myself, I know how easy it is to fall into states of depression or fatigue simply because I haven’t been able to meet the unrealistic goals I’ve set for myself. 

Even if my accomplishments are incredible, it doesn’t matter. I haven’t succeeded in my own mind until I’ve achieved the results, I set out to reach. 

In some cases, the pain of failing to be “perfect” can even be enough to prevent me from starting new projects at all. Unlike high achievers, I find perfectionists are often incredibly concerned about failure. We place so much stock in results. 

Failing to achieve our goals can be like a punch in the gut. It’s no wonder many perfectionists put difficult projects on the backburner, or avoid them entirely, in order to protect ourselves from the risk of failure.

I set goals, just like a high achiever, but more often than not, I’m never satisfied with what I do.

Can we escape perfectionism?

There are still too many people in this world who identify perfectionism as a “positive” thing. I’m trying to move beyond this part of my life. 

Now I’ve seen how perfectionism can impact my self-esteem, my personal relationships, and even the way I work, I’m focusing more heavily on the pursuit of balance. 

Of course, I’m not saying I don’t have high standards anymore. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to accept anything less from myself than excellence. But I am taking small steps to reformat my perception of perfection and improve the way I assess myself as a result. 

For me, it’s a slow process. I find it helpful to record my perfectionist thoughts and challenge them whenever I can as part of a regular journaling exercise. Other perfectionists I know say they benefit from trying to focus on the positive. 

In other words, rather than pinpointing all the “less than perfect” elements of something you do, you balance your view by looking at both the positives, and the negatives. 

For instance, you might find a client project isn’t ideal first-time around, but the silver lining is you now have a better understanding of what your customer really wants. 

Perfectionism is a sticky concept — something which clings to our thoughts and behaviours over the years, often consuming a lot of what we do. Once you’ve gotten to a point where perfectionist has influenced everything up to the way you think, it is difficult to break free — but not impossible.

Pursuing a new mindset

My advice to anyone suffering from the stress of perfectionism is simple enough — take baby steps. Perfectionist tend to set huge goals and expect themselves to accomplish them straight away. Overcoming perfectionism requires a different approach. 

Start by challenging the little voice in your head that tells you you’re not good enough. Share those designs or creations you make in your spare time with people you love and ask for their honest feedback. 

Allow different points of view to penetrate your mind from time to time. You’d be surprised how much life changes when you take off the blinkers of perfectionism and start allowing yourself to experiment. 

I haven’t cured my perfectionist ways quite yet, but I’m comfortable with the progress I’m making. Perhaps this in itself is enough proof I’m taking the right steps.