I recently came across a post by a therapist who’s written a book encouraging her readers and patients to kill off their perfectionism.
Wait! Please don’t shoot! We might want that perfectionism!
Thank goodness that the chef cooking our splurge anniversary dinner wants to prepare the best shrimp scampi possible, that the engineering team designing the jet engine for the plane I’ll be flying in a couple of years takes great pride in being exact, and that my daughter’s surgeon was committed to being precise when he performed exploratory surgery on her.
And for some people with more mundane jobs who are experiencing bad times, aiming for perfection in their work may be the only thing in their control and the most satisfying thing in their day.
Perfection can be a win-win approach to some projects.
So before you try to kill it off, let’s talk about how to make it worth keeping around.
Adaptive and Maladaptive Perfectionism
For the last 20 years or so researchers have been honing in on a fact which is a little politically incorrect: perfectionism isn’t all bad. In fact it can be really healthy, adaptive, and satisfying–if the motivation and the arena are right.
Healthy and Unhealthy Motivations for Perfectionism
If you’re motivated to strive for perfection because you want to reach for your own high standards, your perfectionism is likely to be adaptive and healthy, and it usually leads to positive emotional states[i]. Researchers refer to this as “self-oriented” perfectionism. It’s about desire and how you approach projects, not that you necessarily need to achieve perfectionism.
If, on the other hand, you try to be perfect because you’re concerned and worried about what others will say about you, or out of fear of abandonment or criticism, it will more likely to lead to depression, anxiety and procrastination.[ii] This sort of motivation brings with it dread of mistakes and self-accusations. This type of perfectionism no longer feels desired so much as it feels necessary.
Perfectionistic Tendencies Have Genetic Roots
Both kinds of perfectionism are partly determined by genes.[iii] Sorry. It’s part of you and you can’t kill it off. It’s part of the Driven personality. But used well, perfectionism is a calling and a gift. The question is, how will you use it?
Do you use your perfectionism to achieve something you’re passionate about, or to keep from getting in trouble or getting rejected? If it’s the latter, chances are that your natural, genetic inclination to be precise has been hijacked to try to help you feel more secure. In a defensive, pre-preemptive move, your fears took over your capacity to be meticulous and conscientious, and you no longer make conscious decisions about when to use those skills. Fear is driving, not love.
Seeking Perfectionism in All the Wrong–and Right–Places
There are some arenas where it does make sense to aim for perfection and others where it doesn’t. Some people use perfectionism habitually, whether they’re cleaning the kitchen floor, finishing a sculpture, or making love–which, in case you didn’t realize it, can be really off-putting to the other person.
The plumber that came to my house to fix the sink recently did a perfect job. His work looks good and functions just as it should. But the van he used to get here looks like chaos on wheels. He knows where perfectionism works well and where it doesn’t matter. He chooses when to be precise and when not to bother.
Perfectionism in Music
Let’s take music as another example. I used to be a professional classical musician, and I can tell you that the standards in the world of classical music are perfectionistic. You won’t get past the first round of an audition for any orchestra if you make a single mistake in that audition. Of course you can’t play like an automaton and be successful–you also have to be musical and expressive. Perfection is not sufficient, but it is necessary.
The result, for both performers and listeners, can be sublime.
When I began my training as a Jungian analyst I stopped performing for a number of years. Once I graduated I began playing again, but not professionally. I joined a rock and soul band–just for the fun of it. In our first gig I missed two, maybe three, notes and I felt horrible. So much for fun.
I thought that it was finally time for me to hang up my horn for good. But no-one else seemed to notice, and in fact they seemed to appreciate my involvement, so I kept on playing in the group. I eventually realized that this group was not a place where I needed, or wanted, to exercise my perfection.
Perfectionism of the sort that I needed to use as a classical musician has far less place in an amateur rock and soul band. In our most recent show I probably missed more notes than I’ve ever missed in any performance, but the rock and the soul were still there, and no-one else seemed to notice. Much more importantly, I’ve learned to enjoy it despite my many imperfections.
Steps Toward Healthy Perfectionism
- Sort out your motivations. Those of us who do have perfectionistic tendencies tend to have a mix of healthy (intrinsic) and unhealthy (extrinsic) motivations.
- Nurture the good ones; approach the maladaptive ones with understanding.
- When you find yourself getting stressed about mistakes, empathically check in to see what you’re afraid of, and try to reconnect with your original passions and goals rather than trying to please others.
- Switching the emphasis from unhealthy to healthy motivation will take time and attention, but it is possible.
- Clarify where your perfectionism belongs and where it doesn’t. Make a list with two columns.
- Where does it make sense to set your standards high, and where can you afford to loosen up? Awareness is the first step.
- Then set intentions not to give in to your urges to perfect if it’s just to please others.
So, rather than thinking of perfectionism as something you have to kill off, think of it as a way that you would like to approach specific projects that would make them satisfying for you, and, perhaps, also beneficial to others. That’s perfected perfectionism.
[i] Stoeber, J., Otto, Kathleen (2006). “Positive Conceptions of Perfectionism: Approaches, Evidence, Challenges.” Personality and Social Psychology Review 10(4): 295-319.
[ii] Yu Xie, Jiyu Yang, and Faxiang Chen, “Procrastination and Multidimensional Perfectionism: A Meta-Analysis of Main, Mediating, and Moderating Effects,” Social Behavior and Personality: An International Journal 46, no. 3 (2018).
[iii] Iranzo-Tatay, C., et al. (2015). “Genetic and environmental contributions to perfectionism and its common factors.” Psychiatry Research 230(3): 932-939.