I am a recovering perfectionist. I have been a perfectionist my whole life. Even as a very young child, I actually enjoyed tidying and organizing my room (and sometimes the rest of the house!) and wanted everything to be just-so. I have always wanted to be the best I could be at whatever I undertook –school, ballet, being a wife, cooking, or professional endeavors. What I do is only good enough when it meets my expectations. For me, doing something “half-way” or leaving it undone feels like having an itch and not scratching it. It nags at me until I get it done and get it done “right”. My perfectionism also takes the form of wanting to take as big a bite out of life as I possibly can. It leads me to be constantly planning or doing something because there’s just so much I want to accomplish or experience. These perfectionist tendencies are entirely my own doing. They are not the result of anyone placing excessive pressure or expectations on me other than myself. I’m glad to know that I’m not alone. 30% of the general population are perfectionists.
Healthy perfectionism can be a good thing. It means setting high goals or standards for oneself. Perfectionism can give people the driving energy to achieve and provide the motivation to persevere in the face of discouragement and obstacles. It can fuel success. Not only does the perfectionist benefit from his or her successes, but others may also be the beneficiaries of the perfectionist’s efforts.
Perfectionism can be unhealthy when goals are set so high as to be impossible. It can take the form of procrastination, self-judgement, self-criticism, and dissatisfaction. Other signs of perfectionism include feeling like you “must” or “should” do something, moodiness, and magnifying failures while minimizing successes. Negative perfectionism can also take the form of criticizing and judging others.
In its pathological form, perfectionism can be damaging and can lead to underachievement and even self-sabotage. In the extreme, maladaptive perfectionism has been associated with psychological and physiological complications, such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders, migraines, obsessive-compulsive disorders, and even suicide.
Thankfully, my perfectionism has, for the most part, remained in the healthy category. It has been a key factor in driving many of my personal and professional achievements such as performing with the Boston Ballet as a young teen, being the first person in my family to graduate from college, earning promotions throughout my career, and saving to finance my education, buy a vacation home and pursue my passion for travel. My perfectionism is in part behind my decision to leave my career as a healthcare executive to become certified and launch a practice as an executive and leadership coach.
That’s not to say that healthy perfectionism has always been good for me. In my desire to do and experience all the world has to offer (well, and the fact that I am a people-pleaser), I frequently over-extend myself, leading to stress and chronic tardiness. I don’t always allow myself sufficient time for sleep, exercise and healthy eating. I sometimes impose my own standards and expectations on those around me. I stayed in a career for too long after it stopped exciting me.
To remedy this, I am embarking on a path of perfectionism re-hab. If you are among the world’s healthy perfectionists, I invite you to join me in these five self-coaching activities to embrace your perfectionism and learn to exhibit behaviors and attitudes toward the opposite end of the perfectionist polarity:
- Make a list of all the ways in which your perfectionism has been of value or service to you and others. Celebrate them!
- Notice the ways in which you act and think like a perfectionist. Don’t judge, just observe yourself with detached interest and curiosity. When does perfectionism become an obstacle for you? This awareness can give you the ability to choose when to listen to your perfectionist voice and when to ignore it, rather than obeying it automatically.
- Give yourself permission to make mistakes as an important part of learning. Try not to criticize yourself or others for not living up to your standards or expectations. Regard all actions as “practice.”
- Reward your and others’ efforts, progress and persistence instead of (or at the very minimum as much as) results.
- Work on creative activities where there isn’t a “right” answer. Devote more of your time to doing things that bring you “flow” – where you are “in the zone”, lose track of time, and get lost in what you are doing because it brings you so much joy. If you’re a constant doer, engage in activities that cultivate your ability to simply “be”, such as yoga, meditation, and mindfulness exercises.
As with any well-entrenched habit, it can take some time for a perfectionist to introduce this kind of self-compassion into their repertoire. The key is to give yourself the choice to employ your perfectionism when its valuable to you and to let go of it when it doesn’t serve you.
Debra Doroni is a certified executive and leadership coach. This article is for information purposes only and should not be seen as substitute for medical or therapeutic evaluation and advice.
- “Real Learning: Meet the Perfectionists”, MassLive.com blog, Lisa Natcharian, July 15, 2010
- Wikipedia: Perfectionism (psychology)