Perfectionism is one of those character traits that people can create identities around. They tend to not only own, but “become” the trait. Listen to the language that you normally hear, or perhaps use yourself. You’ll hear, “I AM a perfectionist.” You’ve probably heard me talk about language before, and the suggestions that you’re creating for your subconscious mind all the time–you are, as the saying goes, your own best hypnotist. Is there anything wrong with saying, “I am a perfectionist”? If perfectionism in your life is carried to the degree where it causes problems, then you may want to rethink your language, and the trait’s role in your life. Separate your identity from the behavior. Say, I have perfectionistic tendencies. Separating who you ARE from character traits and behaviors opens up the possibility in your mind that those behaviors can be changed, and it’s a good first start to reframing perfectionism in your life.
Are there good things about being a perfectionist? Of course. EVERYTHING has its good side and its bad side. Duality is the nature of the universe. Examine any trait and you’ll see benefits on one side, costs on the other; strengths on the one hand, weaknesses on the next. The question of when to make a change lies in which side the coin is falling for you. Is perfectionism under control in your life? If so, you may experience the benefits of being confident in your work, setting an example for others, and being known as the detail-oriented one. If not, you may find that your perfectionism creates problems for you, or for others around you.
As with so many things, it’s not the trait itself, but the degree to which its being expressed in your life, that matters. Perfectionism over-the-top and out of control will create problems for you and for others around you.
What types of problems can perfectionism, run amok, create?
1. You tend to do things yourself. Whether out of fear that someone else will mess it up, or from being convinced that you can do it better, you tend not to delegate, at home or at work or both.
The cost to you: You take on too much yourself and end up feeling overwhelmed, asking yourself, “why am I the one that does everything?” This may lead to anger and resentment which can too easily be focused on others for not living up to your standards. Not the best way to build a team, whether in a family or work environment.
The cost to others: By taking everything on yourself, you claim not only the work but the glory. This does not empower others to have the feeling of responsibility, the joy of completion, and the glory of being the one to complete the project, or the learning experience of messing something up and having to fix it (which is actually when the human brain learns the best). And if this is a parent-child relationship, you’re on your way to creating the next generation of perfectionists.
Try instead: Give the task to someone else, and separate your judgement from what’s really necessary for satisfactory completion. Recognize that other people have their own style of doing things, and that while theirs may differ from yours, different does not equal inferior.
2. You take longer to complete projects. Perhaps you miss deadlines or run right up to the deadline. Or if there’s no real deadline, you never get started, all because you’re working to make it “perfect.” One more round of editing, one more checking of the figures, etc.
The cost to you: If this happens at work, you may be selected less often for completing projects, if you develop a reputation for handing in things that are late or barely on time, which makes others nervous, especially when other actions or decisions hinge on what you’re working on. In many things, “done” is better than perfect, and keeps the ball rolling.
The cost to others: When others’ work is waiting on yours, there is a cost in terms of efficiency and quality. If you run up to the deadline on your piece, or past it, then hand it over to the next person, they may not have the time to do their job as well as they might have. The overall quality of the project can suffer. Also, it’s frustrating to others to be waiting on your piece.
Try instead: take the attitude that “done” is often better than “perfected.” Recognize that you frequently don’t know what needs perfecting until something is in use anyway, because you need that real-world feedback to tell you what’s really required, so by getting a project “out there” to get that real world feedback, you’re very likely reducing unnecessary re-work. Ready-fire-aim.
3. You get stuck in “analysis paralysis.” You spend so much time analyzing the perfect way to do something that you never really get started, or you get stuck at some point and can’t seem to find your way clear to move on with it; the anxiety created by the need to do it perfectly freezes you.
The cost to you: Unfinished projects or unrealized goals, whether personal or business, are costly. You don’t realize the benefits of a goal left unfinished, plus you may create a pattern for yourself of unfinished projects, which is damaging to your self esteem.
The cost to others: If others were waiting for the project or goal to be completed, they will have to find another person to fill your role, or do it for you, or abandon the outcome. If it’s a work project, you may find yourself being viewed negatively.
Try instead: Some of the tips for follow through work well here. Analysis paralysis often happens when you conceptualize the project as a whole. Break it down into smaller chunks so that you don’t get stalled mulling over a stage 10 issue when you’re still working on stage 3.
4. You may take an “all or nothing” view of the world. For example, if you go on a diet or health program, if you “mess up” around lunch time, you figure you may as well mess up the rest of the day (and sometimes spectacularly, just to drive the point home). This is also known as Dichotomous Thinking; this or that … success OR failure, no in-between.
The cost to you: This unbalanced view creates unrealistic expectations for you, and you find yourself self-criticizing, even when your performance would be considered adequate or even commendable by others.
The cost to others: Because your sense of self-worth is often (or constantly) being assaulted from within, your mood and attitude suffer and others in your life feel it. You may tend toward depression or anxiety. Others are less able to enjoy your company, whether that be co-workers, spouses, or children.
Try instead: A concept from neurolinguistic programming (NLP), that there is NO SUCH THING AS FAILURE…only feedback. By eliminating one half of the success-failure equation, you eliminate the possibility of dichotomous thinking, because you eliminate the elements of the dichotomy. We will be doing a tele seminar on the basic tenets of NLP in the future, but for now, consider the ramifications of this very different way of thinking. The human brain learns BEST when it makes mistakes and then corrects them (feedback). Your life and all your outcomes are a result of your actions. So if you want different results you need to take different actions, but how do you know how to change your actions? From the feedback you receive, aka, your result. By characterizing results that are less than you desired as “failures,” you prevent yourself from learning from them and making better choices and therefore getting better results in the future. Not a very perfect system, is it? By thinking of these results instead as FEEDBACK OPPORTUNITIES, you have the ability to fine-tune your actions and hone your approach so that you get better and better results–a policy of personal continual improvement. So, no such thing as failure, only feedback. This eliminates dichotomous thinking by eliminating the dichotomy and empowers you to learn from the results you achieve through your actions, which is what the human brain is wired to do best.
If you recognize yourself, or someone near to you in these examples, there is hope. You CAN learn to bring your perfectionistic tendencies into line so that you experience the benefits and NOT the dark side of perfectionism, and as a result experience more joy in your life!