Now don’t get me wrong, I do believe in trying to be the best version of yourself that you can be. However, there are times when I think we go a little too far especially when we aim for perfection. In my opinion, the pursuit of perfection can have negative effects on our mental health and levels of self-belief.
There is no doubt that we are more digitally connected than ever before. Apps like Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, Snapchat etc. are helpful for connecting and communicating across the ether. The danger is that we compare our lot in life and business with the sometimes sanitised, bloated and exaggerated posts that appear online. (It is very rare that someone posts that they are having a difficult time, are struggling, feeling anxious or things aren’t working out for them). What we can end up doing is comparing our life and experiences with highly stylised and manufactured comparators. They are living the perfect life and we are not.
This comparison and aim for perfection is a double-edged sword. On one side, by setting challenging and stretching goals we are motivating ourselves towards increased achievements. Just think of the athlete trying to better personal bests. On the other side, there is the emotional toil and the bittersweet taste of not quite getting there. We also need to take heed of how subjective we can be. Someone’s high standard can be someone else’s mediocrity or someone’s pipedream. The trick to getting it right can be found in the A and the R in a version of the well-used and probably over-used SMART acronym; Ambitious and Realistic. There is nothing wrong with ambition but it has to be tempered with realism. We need to take into account our past results, the resources we have at our disposal and our abilities.
I also think that the desire and drive for perfection can lead to procrastination. If the voice in your head is saying “you have got to get it 100% right, it has to be perfect”, you may delay in getting started until you have the right mindset and all the necessary resources at your disposal. If you start without these then you may think you are travelling along the road to failure. The fear of failure can be a root cause of procrastination.
We are opening the door to the fear of getting it wrong. We have to accept that there is nothing wrong with making mistakes; they help us to learn and develop. I also believe we are more creative when we allow ourselves to screw up. We need to experiment; embrace failure and learn from it; begin to accept that the road to success is littered by mistakes. Only by doing this can we even start to dream of perfection.
Sometimes using the mantra of “doing it badly” can help you make a start and get going. Open yourself up to doing a bad job, show a willingness to take small steps at a time. Allow the first draft to be terrible, start being happy to fail again and again. Open yourself up to and accept criticism. Although, to some, this approach may sound abhorrent, no matter how this feels you will be doing something about the inertia and you will be learning along the way. Accept and learn from the criticism especially from those with more experience than yourself and forget about the rest, it doesn’t matter.
When you have started, the desire and drive for perfection can also lead to excessive effort and over-work. “I’ll just keep going until it is perfect.” But will it ever be perfect, does it need to be perfect? Are you spending excessive energy and time unnecessarily when you could be reinvesting this in other areas? Choose where to invest your energy, it probably isn’t boundless. Weigh up when and where that extra effort and time will produce the best return on the investment. Keep some energy in reserve for when it is really needed. Remember to keep an eye on the level of effort you are exerting and the impact on the quality and value of the results obtained.
When I decided to write this piece, I came across the work of two psychologists, Dr Gordon Flett and Dr Paul Hewitt who describe three types of perfectionism:
- Self-orientated perfectionism – always trying to achieve your goals and trying to avoid failure;
- Other orientated perfectionism – setting unrealistic standards for others or judging others against your own (often unreasonable) standards;
- Socially prescribed perfectionism – where people are judging you against unrealistic expectations.
I can identify with all of those.
In a similar vein, I can identify with Taibi Khaler’s concept of “drivers”; be perfect, be strong, hurry up, please others and try hard. As Khaler states, these are born in our unconsciousness and can lead to both positive and negative behaviours. I am beginning to recognise when these are starting to have a detrimental effect on me.
To conclude, I am starting to recognise that my drive for perfectionism has a dark side. I am becoming more comfortable in challenging my “drivers”. I do consider what is really important, I am embracing a “good enough is good enough” mantra and I am learning to recognise when applying more effort and spending more time won’t produce better results or make a difference. I now know that I don’t always need a Rolls Royce solution; sometimes a Fiat Punto will be sufficient.
 Hewitt, P.L., & Flett, G.L. (1990). Perfectionism and depression: A multidimensional analysis. Journal of Social Behaviour and Personality, 5, 423-438.
 Kahler, T. (1975). Drivers—The Key to the Process Script. Transactional Analysis Journal, 5:3