The problem with perfection is simple: it doesn’t exist. No matter how good you are – as an employee, business person, parent, partner, friend, child, sibling, athlete, runner, volunteer, healthy eater, whatever – you can always improve and do better. And therein lies the problem. If you strive for perfection, you set yourself up for failure.
It took me a long time to learn this. You see, I’m a perfectionist and rather than help me succeed in life, at times it has threatened to hold me back. Perfection is the enemy of good. For this reason, overcoming my impulse to be and perform perfectly is something I continually work on.
Here are some of the problems with being a perfectionist:
You set unrealistically high expectations for yourself. You put more pressure on yourself than anyone else ever would. You expect to be perfect at everything you do, and if you’re not, you beat yourself up about it and get angry or distressed.
You take on too much. This one’s familiar… Perfectionists tend to overload themselves; with work, responsibilities, and commitments. It’s part of that unrealistic expectation thing. You keep adding balls to your juggling act, but still expect to keep them all in the air and deliver a perfect routine. For the record, this is stupid. You’ll drop one eventually. A wise and successful woman recently told me, you can only do three things well at any time in life, and if one of them is your family, and one of them is work, you only have room for one more major commitment. Sage advice. Noted.
You try to please people. Perfectionists don’t like to say no and this ties into the point above about taking on too much. In your bid to be perfect you forsake your own needs for those of others. You put yourself last and try to be everything to everyone.
It can make you obsessive and sick. When I was a teenager I had an eating disorder. I started off trying to lose some post-puberty weight and ended up starving myself. It became an all-or-nothing approach. If I was going to lose weight, I was going to be in complete control and do it the quickest way possible. It was a horrible time. The link between perfectionism and eating disorders is well established (a quick Google search will give you a whole range of official studies). But it’s not just weight that can be a problem for perfectionists; it might be exercise, cleanliness, a strict diet, or a range of other things that start off being healthy and end up becoming an all-consuming and damaging obsession.
You become overwhelmed. Not surprisingly, perfectionists load themselves up so heavily, with such high expectations, that they often become overwhelmed by the position they’ve put themselves in. This can lead to feelings of anxiety or paralysis. The interesting thing is this feeling of being overwhelmed is an entirely a self-made construct.
It leads to procrastination. Yep, rather than help you get work done, perfectionism holds you back. When you’re feeling overwhelmed or pressuring yourself to perform at such a high standard, you tend to avoid doing things. You make excuses. “I’ll write that blog post on perfectionism after I do the dishes. Oh, and I better put that washing away. Those toys need tidying too. And I better put that load of washing on.” Sound familiar? The pressure to do your task perfectly holds you back from doing it at all, or at least until the point when you have no choice but to do it.
It kills dreams and stops you from achieving goals. Ever since I was a child I wanted to write a novel, but it didn’t happen for a long time. I started my manuscript many times over the years, but never got more than about 10,000 words in. Why? Because every time I sat down to write I would go back to the start and read over what I’d written. I’d play around with the words. Fiddle at the edges. Edit and re-work. And get nothing new done. I was stuck by my own making. Finally, two years ago, I removed my perfectionist roadblock and forced myself to write in a way I never had before. I wrote without reading back over my work. Without editing a word. The freedom was invigorating; the momentum incredible. In the space of seven months, with three children aged 3.5 and under, and while caring for a husband who had major spinal surgery, I wrote a 95,000 word novel. I achieved my dream. Not only that, but I achieved it in the busiest, most difficult year of my life. Wow. Nothing had ever highlighted the benefit of not aiming for perfection more perfectly.
These days I work hard to overcome my perfectionist tendencies. Instead of being a perfectionist, I strive for being a completionist – someone who gets stuff done. A person who delivers high quality work that is good enough – great even – but not perfect.
Could this blog post be better? Of course it could. I could stew over it for days, re-working and rewording to the point of not being able to see it clearly anymore. In years gone by, that’s what I would have done. What a waste of time.
Instead, I’ve churned this out in an hour. I’ve read over it a few times, made some changes and corrections, and decided it’s good enough. And you know what? That’s enough for me.