Is it possible for you to be simply “good enough?”
If your inner voice responded negatively to that provocative question, you may be a perfectionist. You set high standards and you work hard to live up to the expectations you set for yourself. Do you sometimes notice, though, that you are more focused on what you did wrong or what isn’t working instead of everything that is going well? You want things to be flawless, but are they ever truly perfect?
Sometimes you may find it difficult to take in praise from others because it doesn’t ring true for you. You know the things that weren’t perfect, so it can feel difficult to celebrate the outcomes or connect to others’ excitement about them.
You may also find that you put off doing things because you know it will be difficult to do it just right. Or, because you worry you will make a mistake, you decide it’s easiest to simply not start something in the first place.
Do you consider being a perfectionist a strength?
Doing well is important, no doubt. But as a perfectionist, the challenge is that you may never think you’ve done well enough. You find it hard to appreciate your accomplishments because you focus more on what you haven’t achieved. Or, you compare your achievements to the artificially retouched and edited versions of others’ lives on social media and decide you aren’t actually living up to high standards after all.
Sometimes it feels like your life is a never-ending treadmill that stopped being fun a long time ago. Despite the high standards you set, you never feel finished with your projects because you continually think of things you should do to improve the final result.
It is constraining to constantly be thinking about all the things you should do, or do better, or do again.
For instance, you decide you want to go on an exciting and enjoyable trip, but then your perfectionist brain goes to work and it immediately becomes a stressful prospect. You will have to find a lovely place to stay, with all the right amenities, in the most centrally-located spot, at the best price, during the time of year offering the most ideal weather, with the most convenient and affordable travel to and from the place. And all of that is just to get you there, so those stresses are only the tip of the iceberg. Once you work out all those details, you realize you need the perfect clothes to wear or the trip will be ruined. Your stress spikes again as you judge your closet, and later, as you judge yourself in the harsh florescent department store lights as you look in the dressing room mirror. And on and on it goes.
The trip is an analogy for every aspect of your life—college, a party, a date, buying a home, planning a wedding, creating an exercise routine, finding a job, and even grocery shopping. Everything you do is haunted by the idea that you will need to do it perfectly.
Setting and achieving high standards seems rational to you. After all, everyone sets standards that they live by, and yours have led to a lot of successes so far. Who dislikes a person that can make things go so well, after all?
Our standards play an important role in guiding our behavior. Sometimes, our environment or experiences taught us that making mistakes or being less than perfect isn’t acceptable. Or maybe we have difficulty coping with the distressing feelings that happen when something doesn’t work out exactly as we intended. Instead of recognizing that humans are designed to make mistakes and learn from them as they grow, we can internalize standards that require us to be flawless.
Adopting perfectionist standards may help you at times, perhaps many times, but there is a cost to that perfectionism that only you pay. The cycles created by perfectionism ultimately make your life harder. The more you show up perfectly, in your personal or professional life, the greater the expectation from yourself and others that you will continue to show up perfectly.
Conversely, when you avoid things because it will be difficult to make them perfect, those commitments build and build until the stress you feel about them becomes overwhelming. And because you’re a perfectionist, you can’t easily let yourself out of any of those obligations either.