Perfection is the “condition, state, or quality of being free or as free as possible from all flaws or defects”—an intangible endpoint that perfectionists strive towards.
While some forms of perfectionism may be fueled by healthy ambition, perfectionism can also be used as a defense mechanism. It’s a “20-ton shield,” says Brené Brown, research professor at the University of Houston and author of The Gifts of Imperfection. “It’s a way of thinking that says this: if I look perfect, live perfect, work perfect, I can avoid or minimize criticism, blame, or ridicule.”
Indeed, aiming to “work perfect” offers a form of protection: if the work is flawless, there’s no basis to find fault with the person who produced it.
Perfection can be a motivator but not always a sustainable one. Even when strains associated with perfectionism (such as anxiety and depression) are apparent, it can be difficult for perfectionists to move away from their tendencies. If you’re a perfectionist who’s ready to consider some alternatives, read on for practical ideas that may resonate.
The imperfectness of imperfection
First, let’s consider what perfectionism means in a professional context. I’ll rework the above definition: in order to be perfect, you essentially need to identify all possible shortcomings in your work and systematically eliminate them. Your stellar performance then shields you from any modicum of criticism. Right?
Well, not exactly.
Eliminating flaws from your work—assuming that’s even possible—requires you to imagine the gamut of criticisms and internalize them. Far from creating a protective barrier, the very process of becoming “perfect” does the opposite: in effect, you absorb and address the critiques of multiple prospective observers. Even if you never ultimately receive negative feedback from others, the criticism is still there. It’s just coming from a different (and likely unintended) source: you. And falling short of unrealistic goals can be painful for people experiencing “maladaptive” forms of perfectionism.
A rising trend
Perfectionism is becoming more prevalent in certain cultural contexts. According to one recent study, perfectionism is on the rise in the U.S., U.K., and Canada, where researchers observed that “competitive individualism” incentivizes people to perfect their behaviors and lifestyles.
While it’s beyond the scope of this post to thoroughly analyze the sociocultural influences related to perfectionism, it’s worth acknowledging that perfectionism is often reinforced by external narratives about the “model employee,” the “top performer,” the best anything. We compete, compare, rank, and review—all at hyperspeed via email or other digital media. At any moment, we could see or hear something positive or negative about ourselves and our work, measured against any number of standards. All things considered, perfectionism as a defensive response is understandable.
Understandable but unsustainable. So, what’s the alternative?
Make adjustments, keep the payoffs
The tricky thing about perfectionism is that it has demonstrable payoffs. This reinforcement makes it difficult to manage an about-face, even if you want to. With this in mind, it may help to consider adjustments that retain the payoffs, without exacting the price of using “perfection” as your standard.
Payoff #1: Perfect work means ultimate satisfaction
If you're a perfectionist, it may be difficult for you to relax before achieving a “flawless” performance. Perfectionist writers spend exorbitant amounts of time adjusting a string of sentences, while perfectionist graphic designers endlessly tweak colors until they achieve perfect balance.
In these moments, you may (consciously or not) disregard time and efficiency. You invest three extra hours in order to achieve “ultimate satisfaction” rather than leaving that time open for other worthwhile activities.
Here, it can help to rationally evaluate the project at hand. Try listing objective evaluation criteria based on the overarching purpose of your work and its intended audience. This will help you to zero in on when and where to apply your most rigorous standards. If facets of your work preoccupy you but have little bearing on actual performance, you can refocus your efforts to deliver a more consequential return on investment.
With this in mind, the perfectionist graphic designer may realize that it’s most important to have a bold and eye-catching design, and that a mere handful of savvy viewers will notice that the colors are ever-so-slightly off-balance.
Payoff #2: You’re known as someone who “thinks of everything”
Thanks to your internal critic, you likely have the capacity to think from multiple vantage points: you anticipate how a plan could unravel or identify logical inconsistencies in an idea or piece of writing. It’s a fantastic skill—for the most part. But if you spend hours on end addressing all possible gaps and variables, you risk losing sight of the big picture.
The alternative isn’t to leave gaping holes in your logic or disregard worst-case scenarios. What you can do is identify limitations and simply be upfront about them. For instance, when sending work to colleagues, indicate issues that you have yet to address and either explain why they’re negligible or suggest how you’ll address them in future versions. This way, you show that you’ve effectively “thought of everything” without outlining a response to every contingency or going on tangents.
Payoff #3: Perfection makes your work worth the time invested
Perfectionists may think: “When I do something, I go all in. Why bother otherwise?” This can be a good thing: evidence suggests that perfectionists are conscientious, engaged colleagues.
Here’s the catch: it’s hard to imagine that anyone can be “100 percent in” on a myriad of activities. Unless perfectionists are able to say “no” on occasion in order to balance their workloads, the return on their efforts will likely diminish. Even for perfectionists, the ball will inevitably drop somewhere.
This is where the “essentialist perfectionist” becomes a helpful combination. If you’re not familiar with essentialism, it’s a practice that focuses on identifying what’s really important in that moment. Eliminating non-essentials means focusing on tasks that are most relevant to your position or that have the greatest impact on your organization’s mission. This mindset will help you to limit the scope of your activities and wisely focus your energy.
About the Author | Jen Bogle is a writer and social-impact communicator studying organizational psychology. She aims to help organizations enhance employee health and well-being.
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