The Perils of Perfectionism


 I’m about to tell you a very old joke. It’s so old, in fact, that when you hear it, you’re going to nod in recognition of its familiarity. It’s old enough that you’ll groan at its antiquity. But it’s also a joke that has become part of the fabric of our culture, and it says a lot about how we push ourselves and how we feel about ourselves in today’s corporate culture.

You’re in a job interview, and the interviewer asks a trick question, “What are some of your weaknesses?” The joke answer is to reply, “I’m a perfectionist. I work too hard.”

The joke is that it’s not really a weakness, right? In our corporate culture, we prize that kind of mania. So the weakness is a really a strength. It’s not much of a joke, but there you have it.

But what if it’s not a joke? What if that really is your reality? What if you find your work becoming more disorganized, and you start experiencing enormous amounts of anxiety, and you start procrastinating? What if you are a perfectionist, and you don’t know it?

The procrastination that comes from closet perfectionism

When you make a mistake, do you think less of yourself? Are you frequently afraid to fail at a task? Are you afraid that people will think worse about you if you make mistakes?

On his website, guru Mawi Asgedom writes, “Performance-driven perfectionists 1) rarely consider themselves successful no matter what they accomplish, 2) judge themselves so harshly when they fail that they often shut down or spiral into apathetic destructive behavior.”

What this means is that, if you’re a closet perfectionist, you’re very critical of yourself, and you can’t get work done because you’re unsure of whether or not you can meet your own impossibly high standards.

That fear of failure is a big part of what causes a closet perfectionist to become so anxious. Wellness coach Elizabeth Scott says, “High achievers tend to be pulled toward their goals by a desire to achieve them, and are happy with any steps made in the right direction. Perfectionists, on the other hand, tend to be pushed toward their goals by a fear of not reaching them, and see anything less than a perfectly met goal as a failure.” That possibility of failure looms large over the heads of closet perfectionists.

Perfectionists have two speeds – perfect and sloppy. Because they have such a high standard for everything they do, the idea of making a mistake is terrifying. That means they become paralysed and they procrastinate.

Procrastination, strangely, actually allows a perfectionist to work. When you’ve procrastinated for six months, and now only have six hours to complete a project, your criteria for perfection falls from “Do it perfectly” to “Complete it”, and, for better or for worse, that becomes doable. So you hand in sloppy work.

But that’s a bad cycle to be in. You don’t have to hand in sloppy work. You don’t have to hand in perfect work, either. You should be able to work on a task to the best of your ability, confidently and well. That means allowing yourself to make mistakes, and to not meet goals.

When a goal isn’t met, that’s okay. You can try again, learn from your mistakes, and do better next time. Closet perfectionists have a habit of ruminating on their perceived “failures” and piling negativity onto themselves. This will hurt your productivity even more.

What you can do instead

  • Work to change the way you view yourself and your work. Elizabeth Scott writes, “Those who wrestle with perfectionism tend to have a critical voice in their head telling them their work isn’t good enough, they’re not trying hard enough, and they’re not good enough. If you’re going to overcome perfectionism, you need to work on changing this little voice!“ Pay attention to that critical voice and be aware of when it turns harsh and negative. That’s when you need to step in.’s Jake Lawnson recommends using thought-stopping techniques when that criticism starts.
  • Don’t focus on the consequences of not completing your project. This makes you want to procrastinate worse and makes you feel awful. Instead, focus on the positive benefits of completing the project.
  • Focus on finishing tasks. You can always make a completed project better after the fact. Zen Habits’ Leo Babauta writes, “Perfectionism is the enemy of completion. Nitpick and worry about getting it ‘just right’, and you’ll never get it done. Done is better than right. So if you start to nitpick and worry about perfect, say ‘screw it’ and then just try for ‘good enough’. You can always make it better in the next version.”

Above all, understand that failure is not the end of the world. If you let yourself make mistakes, you let yourself learn from them. In the end, you’ll be happier, have more self esteem, and much more productive.



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