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What is Perfectionism?
In psychology, perfectionism is a personality trait that prompts people to seek perfection when it is by definition impossible to achieve.
Perfectionists are by nature very hard on themselves. They are rarely happy with what they are doing. Their unrealistic expectations need to be impeccable, and fear of making mistakes cause them a lot of frustration and stress.
According to Don Hamachek, an American psychologist, there are mainly two types of perfectionism :
- Normal perfectionism: this is when a person has high standards but still manages to find satisfaction through sustained effort
- Neurotic perfectionism: this is when a person never manages to find satisfaction, no matter how much work, sacrifice, and effort are put into it. They pursue their goals more out of fear of failure than out of a desire for accomplishment.
So be careful, do not confuse being a perfectionist and being conscientious. Because, unlike perfectionists, conscientious people set themselves achievable standards. That is, they know how to balance their efforts and accept mistakes.
Perfectionists, on the other hand, set unattainable goals. As a result, they have difficulty accepting mistakes and sometimes invest considerable effort into small, unimportant details at the expense of higher priority things.
This personality trait usually develops in childhood. For example, a child who grows up in an environment where his parents are rigid and have high expectations of him learns that the only way to be loved and recognized is to accomplish great things. As a result, these individuals will often become a perfectionist.
The Consequences of Perfectionism
Perfectionism has many consequences, starting with stress and anxiety. When you set yourself unattainable standards and leave yourself no room for error, you put enormous pressure on yourself because what you ask of yourself is humanly impossible.
Being a perfectionist is also very tiring. You spend a lot of energy wanting to control everything down to the smallest detail and make everything perfect. And since you feel that you can never do enough, you never give yourself any rest. Therefore, you work tirelessly.
It also makes you less productive. Consequently, you sometimes invest yourself thoughtlessly in minor, unimportant details to the detriment of much-needed rest.
In some cases, it also makes you procrastinate because you set standards so high that the very thought of starting discourages you. So you would instead procrastinate rather than achieve something imperfect.
Perfectionism also creates a breeding ground for depression. When you live each day feeling that you can never be enough and that you can never do well enough, you develop low self-esteem and find it difficult to find faith in the future which can create deep sadness.
Perfectionism is therefore not to be taken lightly.
How Do You Know if You Are a Perfectionist?
We are all more or less perfectionists. But the greatest perfectionists among us have characteristics that others do not. If you recognize yourself in the following points, it is undoubtedly that you are more a perfectionist than the average person.
You Are Very Critical of Yourself
When you are a perfectionist, you are your own worst critic. If you're getting great results, all you see are the little things you could have done better - all those mistakes and imperfections that you could have avoided. In other words, you are never to be 100% satisfied with your work.
You Have Unrealistic Expectations
When you complete a task or a project, you have unrealistic expectations.
For example, if you are new to writing, you might instantly desire to be as good as Stephen King. Or if you are learning a new language, you would like to speak it fluently after a few lessons. But, unfortunately, when you fail, you devalue yourself.
You Think in Black and White
When you do something, everything has to be perfect. Anything less good than perfect is considered a failure, even if it is already excellent.
If you get a 95/100, you will perceive that mark as a failure because you could have scored a 100/100. On the other hand, if 95% of people say they are satisfied with your work and 5% have a few reservations, you will only see the criticisms. And if you accomplish 9 out of 10 tasks in your day, you will conclude that you are not working hard enough.
Ultimately, you don't look at the effort and sacrifice you make. All that matters is the result. For you, there is no middle ground - it's either black or white.
You Have an Excessive Fear of Failure
We are all afraid of failure, but perfectionists are more fearful of it than others. This is because when you are a perfectionist, you value results excessively, and you are so involved in what you do that the thought of failure is unbearable.
For you, to miss something is to be a failure or less than nothing. You don't see failure as a learning opportunity but as a judgment of yourself. In other words, you don't separate your job from who you really are.
You Dwell on Unimportant Details
Being a perfectionist also means focusing on unimportant details. You spend considerable time and energy on details that make no difference.
Steve Jobs was an excellent example of this. His excessive attention to detail was his genius, but it was sometimes ridiculous. For instance, when opening an Apple Store, he would have debated for 30 minutes with his teams to decide on the shade of gray that the toilet panel should be.
If you spend hours on small details, it is a sign that you are a perfectionist.
You Are Never Satisfied
No matter how successful you are, you always want more. If you hit X, you want 2X. And if you hit 2X, you want 5X. You are never satisfied with what you have. For you, the work is never finished.
Therefore, in summary, if you are very critical of yourself, have unrealistic expectations, think in black and white, are overly afraid of failure, dwell on unimportant details, and you are never satisfied with your results, it most certainly means that you are a perfectionist.
Are You a Perfectionist?
How Do You Overcome Perfectionism?
Perfectionism is not inevitable. There are different solutions to overcome it, as we will see in the following points.
Become Aware of Your Unproductiveness
To overcome perfectionism, you need to realize that it is making you unproductive.
By constantly striving for perfection, you waste a lot of time and energy concentrating on unimportant details at the expense of higher priority things. Moreover, you set the bar so high that you put enormous pressure on yourself and fuel your anxieties. Under such conditions, it is impossible to be effective.
And that's without counting procrastination. Your pursuit of perfection makes you procrastinate. You would instead do nothing today then do it imperfectly.
Realizing all of this is the first step to quitting being a perfectionist.
Change Your Standards
Overcoming your perfectionism also involves redefining your standards. This doesn't mean that you have to be less ambitious, but you have to set humanly achievable goals. Because having standards of excellence is a good thing, having unrealistic standards, on the other hand, is unproductive.
So when starting a task or a project, be realistic. Ask yourself each time:
Is this doable, or am I still over-idealizing things?
If you have to give a presentation in 3 days, for example, and you are already overwhelmed with work, ask yourself if it is feasible to create 30 slides + a presentation video. If not, change your standards and focus on the essentials.
Create a Checklist
Creating checklists when you're a perfectionist can help you a lot.
The problem with striving for perfection is that you always feel like you're never done. For example, if you write, you are always tempted to change your words or phrases over and over again. If you are doing video editing, there are always little details that you want to change at the last moment. If you create websites, you can't help but constantly change the layout, shift elements, change images, or add new effects.
As a consequence, you spend entire hours perfecting and refining. The best way to avoid falling into this trap is to create checklists. This is how it works:
Before starting a task, break it down into micro-steps. And every time you complete a micro-step, and you're pretty much happy with it, check it off and forbid yourself to go back on it. Doing this will give you a better sense of when your tasks start and when they end.
Use a Timer
For example, give yourself 1 hour to complete a task and not a minute more.
And if you haven't finished in the allotted time and still have a few things to work out, stop the task.
By imposing a limited time on yourself, it will encourage you to manage your time better.
Break the Rumination Cycle
To overcome perfectionism, you must also learn to break your concentration cycle.
If you're a perfectionist and finish a task, presentation, or project, you tend to brood over it. You will re-think repeatedly about the same things, about the mistakes you made, about the criticisms you have been made, about the things you could have done better.
All of these thoughts repeat themselves over and over in your head like an old broken record. To live more at peace with yourself, you need to break this cycle. For that to happen, here are some steps that can help:
- Step 1: Realize that you are over-concentrating. Watch your thoughts and notice that you are rehashing the past.
- Step 2: Don't trust your initial reactions. When you ruminate, you often tend to imagine things worse than they are. You apply a disproportionate dimension to your mistakes, and you underestimate your work. Rather than criticizing yourself unfairly, try to look at the situation objectively. Have you been that bad? Was it a disaster? By asking yourself these questions, you can readjust your perception of anything.
- Step 3: Distract yourself. Once you see the situation more objectively, seek some distraction. Read a book, watch a Netflix series, go out for some fresh air, chat with someone. That is, do what is necessary to stop thinking about the situation.
These few techniques should help you overcome your perfectionism.