I am sure you have heard the phrase “practice makes perfect”, which states that the more you practice a skill, then the better you will become. While practicing a skill is crucial for development, oftentimes, the idea of perfection gets misused. From this, the concept of perfectionism comes into the forefront. Perfectionism is defined as a refusal to accept any standard short of perfection. Perfectionism hurts development because you encounter this all-or-nothing thought process, having a success-failure mindset. Having this thought process can stunt growth and make it more difficult to experience a sense of free will. With that said, being a perfectionist gets a bad rap. Being a perfectionist is viewed as a detrimental quality in that it keeps one from enjoying successes and can control one’s ability to experience life fully. But if you aren't trying to do your best and achieve perfection, then what are you really doing? To better utilize your perfectionist qualities, you must differentiate “striving for perfection” and “being perfect”.
Maladaptive vs. Adaptive Perfectionism
There are two types of perfectionism: maladaptive and adaptive. Maladaptive perfectionism is characterized by excessive preoccupation with past mistakes, fears about making new mistakes and doubts about whether you are doing something correctly. This form of perfectionism is more “evaluative” in nature and is where one constantly analyzes and criticizes their actions. Even when achieving success, they fail to recognize their accomplishments and often think, “this isn’t good enough”. Perfection is something that is extremely difficult to achieve, and research shows that “perfectionism is related to numerous ‘detrimental’ work and non-work outcomes, including higher levels of burnout, stress, workaholism, anxiety and depression” (Swider 2019). For example, trying to become the valedictorian of your class. You put all this extra time and effort into your studies, you volunteered your time around campus with various projects, but they chose someone else as valedictorian. A maladaptive perfectionist might view themselves as a failure for not achieving valedictorian status. However, they failed to realize all the amazing work they put in and all the growth they made along the way.
The type of perfectionism you want to have is called adaptive perfectionism. Adaptive perfectionism is defined by deriving satisfaction from achievements made from intense effort, but tolerating the imperfections without resorting to harsh self-criticism. This form of perfectionism is more geared towards the “strive” for perfection. The difference here being that you are still taking the same actions towards achieving your goal, but if you don’t reach that benchmark, you can still recognize the effort you put in, the growth that you made and you are able to build off of that experience unlike those who are more maladaptive in nature. Let’s go back to that valedictorian example from earlier, an adaptive perfectionist might be disappointed they were not picked, but they are able to recognize the hard work and dedication they put into their journey, which helps them experience more joy and move on to bigger, better things.
My Battles with Perfectionism
Perfectionism did not make its way into my life until post-graduate school and has become more prevalent in my current employment. My job requires me to present topics and skills in front of a specific population, and part of the preparation is presenting those topics and skills to my colleagues. In high school, I would have described myself as a pessimist, but as I progressed through life and through my psychology programs, I began to describe myself as an optimist. Along with optimism, no matter what performance outcome I obtained, I always viewed those performances as learning opportunities and took something away from it to help me grow.
Now that I have found employment directly utilizing my master’s degree, I have noticed that I have become a harsher critic of my performances. After each presentation, regardless of how it went, I tend to view it as “not good enough”. I want to be better; I am a subject matter expert and I want to express that through my presentation style. So, when a long-tenured colleague observes me, I am typically over critical of myself, then, I discuss all the things I could have done to be better. Rarely do I touch on the things that I did well. The funny thing is, after I reflect on my poor performance with my colleagues, they proceed to communicate how well they thought I presented the topic. While my concerns and criticisms were valid, they felt that I was being overly critical and that I was performed a lot better than I was describing.
This battle with perfectionism is back and forth. There are times where after a performance, regardless of how I performed, I look at what went well and what can be improved, while keeping in mind I did my best and was satisfied with how I performed. But then there are times where, regardless of how I performed, I view it as “not being good enough”. This form of thinking adds unnecessary pressure and takes away all the good from your actions. While there is always room to improve, just because it was not perfect, does not mean that you are a failure.
How to: Make The Switch
There are a couple of steps you can take to make this change from a maladaptive perfectionist perspective to an adaptive perfectionist perspective. The first step is to reframe your beliefs about mistakes and failures. With perfectionism, you may have the mindset that you should not make mistakes, that mistakes can be avoided if you try harder, that failure is a terrible thing and should be avoided at all costs, or that you must be perfect to be loved. These views are false because nobody can live without making mistakes or failing. They are a part of life and are how we grow, so accepting the truth about mistakes and failures can have a tremendous impact on your attitude towards perfection.
Instead of telling yourself, “I should not make mistakes,” tell yourself, “everyone makes mistakes and I am no different,”
Instead of telling yourself, “failure is a terrible thing and should be avoided at all costs,” tell yourself, “failure is completely normal and will help me learn.”
Instead of telling yourself, “if I am not perfect, then I am a failure,” tell yourself, “I can do something imperfectly without failing at it.”
The key is to identify your beliefs about perfection. Once you identify them, you can start reframing those beliefs into a more beneficial perspective, which will lead to an increase in productivity and overall well-being.
The second step is to celebrate small victories. After you complete a project, finish a performance, or at the end of a workday or a workweek, take some time and write down everything that you did well. As a society, we are extremely quick to look at flaws and talk about what needs to be improved. While this is important for development, just as important is looking at what you did well because you want to continue to do those things. Combining what you need to improve at and what you can continue doing will lead to a faster level of improvement. So do not shy away from all the good that you did. Celebrate those moments because it feels good to see that we did something well. It feels good to acknowledge that we are doing something correctly. Newtons’ first law states that an object in motion stays in motion, so you can use these small successes to help build towards something bigger. Final Thoughts
Being perfect is something we may not be able to achieve. Trying to be perfect can ultimately lead to a decrease in production, self-esteem and overall well-being. However, that does not mean that you should not strive for perfection. Striving for perfection is something that is in your control. You control your effort, your focus and the actions you take towards achieving the results that you want. Whether you achieve those results or not, be proud of the work you did, celebrate the effort that you put in, and recognize that while you may not have been perfect in this one situation, that does not take away from who you are, how committed and dedicated you are, and how much of a hard-worker you are.
Swider, B. (2019, November 26). The Pros and Cons of Perfectionism, According to Research. Retrieved September 05, 2020, from https://hbr.org/2018/12/the-pros-and-cons-of-perfectionism-according-to-research
By: Joey Velez MA, MBA