Perfectionism is not striving for excellence but being impaired by it.
“My life has been nothing but a failure,” perfectionist Claude Monet once said.
In 1908, after three years of working on a new series of paintings, Monet felt many weren’t up to his standard. It was right before the opening of a new exhibition in Paris.
With a knife and a paintbrush, the French artist destroyed 15 of the would-be masterpieces.
The exhibition, of course, had to be postponed.
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“I know well enough in advance that you’ll find my paintings perfect. I know that if they are exhibited, they’ll be a great success, but I couldn’t be more indifferent to it since I know they are bad, I’m certain of it.” — Monet wrote.
For a perfectionist, nothing is ever perfect enough.
Perfection is an illusion — we believe it makes us better but actually harms us. Perfectionism is not a standard, but a way of living. The more you try to be perfect, the worse you feel.
Perfectionism Won’t Make You Perfect
“If you look for perfection, you’ll never be content.” —
The 1908’s episode wasn’t the first time Monet got rid of his work. The French artist destroyed many paintings before. They were not perfect enough.
The psychology of perfectionism is rather complex — it has both positive and detrimental effects.
Perfectionists strive to produce flawless work. And also have higher levels of motivation and focus than non-perfectionists.
Monet refused to paint unless the light of the sun reflected precisely the way he wanted it. His obsession pushed his peak level of performance.
Many artists built a reputation for setting their bar way too high. Some destroyed their work out of frustration — others, to disavow their early creation.
Charles Dickens burned 20 years’ worth of his letters and papers to hide an affair. Vladimir Nabokov wanted his work to disappear after his death. John Baldessari cremated some of his early paintings and baked them into cookies.
So, are inflexible, unattainable high standards the secret to success?
Successful perfectionists are successful in spite of it, not because of it.
That’s the main conclusion from research by psychologist Tom Greenspon. As he explains in Moving Past Perfect, “If you’re worrying more about how you are doing than what you are doing, you’ll stumble.”
There are two distinct sub-dimensions of perfectionism.
Excellence-seeking perfectionism — having a high standard — can improve our performance. Failure-avoiding perfectionism, on the other hand, is the fear of making mistakes. The irony is that, without making mistakes, we cannot perfect our work.
All perfectionists suffer from detrimental effects — regardless if they are seeking excellence or avoiding failure. Their internal voice keeps saying: “You are not good enough.”
During his lifetime, Franz Kafka published a handful of shorter works. He gained modest critical attention. Plagued by self-doubt, Kafka burned a vast amount of his writing.
The Czech author is now regarded as one of the major figures of 20th-century literature.
Everything disappoints perfectionists. They feel the need to become their harshest judges.
Perfectionism has become an epidemic, according to the World Health Association. And that’s not good news. A record number of people are suffering from severe depression or anxiety disorders.
Beating yourself up for mistakes or not meeting expectations creates more disappointment. Perfectionism makes you feel ashamed of who you are.
The Illusion of the High Bar
We’ve turned perfectionism into a badge of honor. But there’s nothing to be proud of.
“What’s your weakness?”
One of the most common answers to this interview question is, “I am a perfectionist.” People want to show they are so good that their ‘weakness’ is the pursuit of excellence.
Culturally, we perceive perfectionism as a positive.
But, do perfectionists perform better at work?
That’s the question that Laurens Steed, a Miami University’s professor, asked.
The answer: not necessarily.
Steed and team conducted a meta-analysis of 95 studies spanning four decades. They discovered that perfectionism is a much more significant weakness than most people think.
“It’s assumed that being a perfectionist is a good thing, but our findings fly in the face of what we implicitly thought,” said Steed.
Perfectionism is an impossible goal. Having a high bar is a moving target. The better you do, the better you are supposed to perform. Perfectionism never gives you a break.
Perfectionists approach the world in black and white terms. They hold everyone to unrealistic standards. You either have a high bar, or you are mediocre.
But the world is not black and white.
There are healthier goals than perfection.
“Understanding the difference between healthy striving and perfectionism is critical to picking up your life. Research shows that perfectionism hampers success. In fact, it’s often the path to depression, anxiety, addiction and life paralysis.” — Brené Brown
Adopting excessively high standards can set yourself for failure. Either they are impossible to meet. Or you achieve them at the expense of your joy.
Michael Law wrote, “At its root, perfectionism isn’t really about a deep love of being meticulous. It’s about fear. Fear of making a mistake. Fear of disappointing others. Fear of failure. Fear of success.”
Barba Streisand is a self-declared perfectionist. Her latest album features unreleased songs from past decades. She initially thought they were too flawed. All because each had one word she didn’t like.
Meticulousness is fine. And is sometimes necessary. But, perfectionism can paralyze you.
I see this all the time when coaching teams.
By trying to avoid mistakes, organizations fail to launch. Anything short of perfection feels unacceptable. They fear a small mistake could turn into a catastrophe.
Perfectionism is the enemy of innovation — both at an individual and group level.
Stop Trying to Perfect Yourself
There’s a difference between striving for excellence and trying to be perfect.
Do you love having the last word, putting the finishing touch, or correcting what people do or say? Are you obsessed with trying to find mistakes?
Perfectionism can become toxic. Using perfection as a way to measure our self-worth is harmful. It often leads to frustration, self-doubt, and exhaustion. We feel worthless.
Perfectionism is not about striving for excellence — it’s a way of being.
Experts found that perfectionism has become a way of life. It creates and amplifies mental issues. Perfectionists have a problematic relationship with themselves.
As Paul L. Hewitt, from the University of British Columbia, explains, “It’s not a way of thinking, but a way of being in the world.”
For a perfectionist, nothing — and no one — is ever good enough.
Hewitt’s research shows that perfectionists want more than just perfecting things. They want to perfect their identity.
Perfectionists strive for flawlessness — they want a perfect outcome or performance. Perfectionists are obsessed with being (perceived as) perfect. They can’t admit their own flaws.
Perfectionism is the illusion of perfecting the self.
The pursuit of perfection makes our lives anything but perfect. It wrecks our happiness, relationships, and wellbeing. We neglect our basic needs, like eating and sleeping, just to get work done.
Perfectionism is a growing epidemic. Holding irrational standards is the cause of rising stress, anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts.
External pressure — socially-prescribed perfectionism — is harming our self-esteem. Everyone seems to expect us to be perfect. Our self-worth depends on our achievements.
When Georgia O’Keeffe approached the end of her life, she wanted to purge her work. The artist destroyed many paintings throughout her career for the same reason. She wanted her reputation to remain strong.
As Brené Brown wrote, “Healthy striving is self-focused: How can I improve? Perfectionism is other-focused: What will they think?”
Setting unrealistic high standards is toxic. We feel worthless when we realize we are not flawless. Failure equals to self-defeat.
Good enough might be, well, perfect
“Better to do something imperfectly than to do nothing flawlessly.” —
Robert H. Schuler
Increased self-awareness is vital. Realize that perfectionism can impact your work both positively and negatively.
Embrace being vulnerable. Accept you will never be perfect. Be kind to yourself. Life is a work in progress.
Start by breaking the high-bar/ low-bar dichotomy. Set an achievable bar instead. Challenge yourself without killing yourself.
Laurens Steed suggests shifting our mindset: good enough just might be OK.
Learn to stop. You don’t need to write a sentence 32 times. At some point, the changes won’t move the needle. Too much analysis can actually harm your work.
Focus on your wellbeing. Many artists lived tormented lives. Their obsessions left no room for joy. What’s the point of becoming famous at the expense of your happiness and health?
Become comfortable with imperfection. Make mistakes on purpose and don’t fix them. This method — exposure therapy — was developed by Dr. Amy Przeworski. She recommends people to tie their shoes unevenly. Or to leave a comma or a period out of a paper.
Whatever your obsession is, disrupt it. A small mistake won’t make the whole worthless.
Stop comparing to others. Be your own yardstick. Comparing to others is deceiving. We see what’s right with others and what’s wrong with ourselves.
As Nobel Laureate William Faulkner wrote, “Always dream and shoot higher than you know you can do. Do not bother to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself. “
Be curious. When things go wrong, don’t attack yourself. Curiosity is the mother of learning and improvement. What can you learn from it?
Be flexible. Learn to recognize what is realistically achievable — or not. Stop seeing the world in black and white terms. Perseverance, resilience, and flexibility can help you improve your work — more than perfectionism will.
Set time limits. Use a timer before you start a project. Artificial limits help overcome fear and procrastination. Lorne Michaels, the producer of SNL, famously said, “The show doesn’t go on because it’s ready; it goes on because it’s 11:30.”
Strive for your best, not for perfection. Celebrate small wins. Appreciating progress boosts our performance.
As Lin Yutang wrote, “I have done my best. That is about all the philosophy of living one needs.”
Trying to be perfect is exhausting. Your life is a work in progress. Enjoy and celebrate both your achievements and your mistakes.
Focus on making progress, not perfection. Turn good enough into your new perfect.
Gustavo Razzetti is a change instigator who builds cultures that push your organization forward — not backward. He advises, writes, and speaks on team development and culture transformation.