“Always dream and shoot higher than you know you can do. Do not bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself.” – William Faulkner
While this may be seen as an inspirational message to some, for the perfectionist this aspiration is a prescription for doubt, worry, self-recrimination, sleepless nights, and on-going distress. Some of the thoughts that accompany perfectionism include:
“Am I doing enough?” – Of course not. If I were doing enough then everything would be taken care of and everything would be done properly. There’s always more that could be done.
“What if I didn’t get it right?” – I probably didn’t get it right. I should double-check (or triple-check) what I’ve put together so far. Or, better yet, I should scrap everything and start all over again.
“I’m such a failure!” – If I’m not perfect in everything I do, then I’m simply not good enough. I’m supposed to be able to do everything “just right” and anything short of 100% is failure.
Perfectionism involves setting overly-high, even unattainable, standard for oneself and putting immense pressure on having to then reach them. There’s no sense of satisfaction from a job well-done because the job wasn’t perfectly done. Individuals who struggle with perfectionism often have negative views of themselves. While others may view them as successful, perfectionists see themselves as failures. Their attention is on the shortcomings rather than the accomplishments. Getting an A isn’t good enough because it should have been an A+.
There are some rewarding aspects to perfectionism. If there were no positive elements, it wouldn’t be reinforcing to endure such distressing experiences. Perfectionists may take pride in their grades or accolades. There can be a sense of accomplishment with being organized and efficient. Others may seek out these individual because they’re seen as the ones who have it all together. This highlights the slippery slope of perfectionism. Up to a point, perfectionism can be a positive attribute. However, as with any behavior, when it’s taken to an extreme it creates problems and can become a hinderance instead of a strength.
Perfectionism is often associated with anxiety disorders including Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Hoarding (yes, Hoarding) as well as depression. There’s also a strong connection between perfectionism and procrastination. When addressing perfectionism in the course of therapy, the goal isn’t to fail or do poorly. The aim is to recognize ones accomplishments, to appreciate ones efforts, and to accept that sometimes “good enough” is just fine. As I once explained to an adolescent’s mother “We’ll be making some compromises as he works at being less-than-perfect. He may not make his bed every day or it may not be made as neatly. But you’ll still have a wonderful teenaged son who enjoys sleeping in his bed and generally takes care of his bedroom.”
Anne Lamott provides a good enough description of perfectionism:
“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.” – Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
(Can you find the mistake on this page?)