There’s nothing wrong with striving for success, but what if your high standards are holding you back? Psychologist Lucy Maddox explains why the quest for perfection may not be so perfect.
It’s an old cliche that when asked what your biggest weakness is in a job interview, you should reply that you’re a perfectionist. The thinking behind it is that this would be a brilliant thing in disguise – a true “humblebrag”. But perfectionism is not always a blessing.
Consider Imogen: she works in a responsible, well-paid job. She is paid to work from nine till five but usually stays at work until eight or nine o’ clock, checking over her emails, making sure everything is done to her satisfaction and making sure there are no mistakes in her reports. As a result her social life suffers and she feels tired and blue.
It’s not always easy to spot perfectionism. It isn’t the case that all perfectionists will be over-working. Perfectionism can also lead to avoiding even trying, which can be misinterpreted as laziness, even though the motivation for avoidance might be anything but.
Consider Daniel: he is also very concerned about things getting just right and is currently unemployed. He has been preparing a CV for several months but doesn’t want to send it off until it’s exactly right and until he is absolutely ready to have a job interview.
Clinical perfectionism is when perfectionist tendencies tip into being actively problematic. It is characterised by a constant striving for unrealistically high goals and an over-critical evaluation of oneself when the goals aren’t met. The consequences of this can be emotional – chronic unhappiness or dissatisfaction when something isn’t achieved – or practically problematic – avoiding opportunities due to fear of failure or working too hard to get things perfect to the detriment of other things.
It’s no bad thing to be aiming for the stars, and a pinch of perfectionism can lead to people being highly successful. But if the standards we set ourselves are too harsh, and if our self-esteem is solely based on how we match up to these standards, that’s when things get tricky. It’s great to aim for top marks in your exams, but less great if you feel like you are a failure if you don’t achieve them. It’s good to try to give a flawless presentation, but if fluffing one line leaves you feeling mortified for days then it might be worth taking a look at the standards you set yourself. If you end up subject to a tyranny of “shoulds” – “I should have been able to do that better, I should have known more” – then the pleasure of what you have achieved can get swamped by displeasure at the small things that have gone awry. What do you need to do to just be good enough?
For some, perfectionism can make it more likely that difficulties such as anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder or anorexia emerge. Clinical perfectionism can keep these disorders going too, making it difficult to give up behaviours which feel like they are helping to prevent failure, when actually those same behaviours can end up getting in the way of what someone wants to do.
If any of this is ringing a bell you might be wondering how to side step this. Here are four ideas.
Think about thinking
Perfectionism tends to lead to all- or-nothing thinking: If we aren’t brilliant then we must be awful. Being aware of these thoughts and holding them up for inspection can be useful. Is it really the case that everyone else is allowed to make mistakes but not you? Are you really terrible if you make one mistake, or does everyone make mistakes sometimes?
Experiment with behaviours
What would happen if Imogen didn’t stay at work until nine at night checking all her emails? Would everything be as awful as she thinks? What would happen if Daniel sent off a CV which wasn’t perfect? Testing out what happens if we miss out the usual checks or avoidances, or even messing things up on purpose, can be hugely liberating. And letting go of the need to be perfect is not only a huge relief, but we also often end up being better at something if we are less worried about being the best. As John Steinbeck said, “Now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good”.
Let yourself off the hook
Be kind to yourself in the same way you would a close friend, or to a younger version of yourself. Would you tell a close friend all the things they got wrong or would you try to remind them what they got right?
Try focusing on other areas of your life for your self-esteem. Is your self worth really based on what you do or is it also linked to who you are? What are your key values? What do you stand for? What do you like?
In the end, there’s so much more to all of us than how well we measure up on just one thing, and sometimes our flaws are our best bits. As the late great Leonard Cohen wrote, “Forget your perfect offering; there is a crack in everything; it’s how the light gets in.” I’ll definitely be remembering that while I’m messily wrapping Christmas presents this year.
Dr Lucy Maddox is a consultant clinical psychologist, lecturer and writer. She works clinically for an NHS service for teenagers in the UK and writes for various publications. Lucy blogs at Psychology Magpie and Huffington Post.