Perfectionism – The Impossible Goal

Updated: Aug 7, 2020

I used to pride myself on being a perfectionist, until I realised it was holding me back.

Perfectionism. A trait I used to pride myself on in my corporate career. Doing everything to the highest possible standard, making sure everything was the best it could be. Perfectly constructed reports, perfectly designed PowerPoint presentations, perfectly planned and organized workshops. I was a model employee, hard worker, high achiever. It’s not that I thought I was perfect, far from it. I was striving to be seen as the one who could do anything. The one who didn’t need any help. The one who could figure it out for herself…

Surely a good thing? Well as it turns out, not really.

Wikipedia defines perfectionism as:

“a personality trait characterized by a person's striving for flawlessness and setting high performance standards, accompanied by critical self-evaluations and concerns regarding others' evaluations”

Psychologists agree that there are positive and negative aspects however when taken to the extreme, perfectionism can actually be bad for our mental health and our performance at work.

Why? Because the constant striving to get things just right means we procrastinate and spend longer on tasks than needed. We worry about what people will think and our inner critic causes us to constantly doubt ourselves. We stay longer hours at work because of the constant checking, tweaking and re-writes. The same high standards play out at home, adding to the burden. We’re anxious, tired, overwhelmed and unproductive. It can even contribute to stress and burnout. If you read my blog “I went from breakdown to breakthrough” you’ll know that’s exactly where I ended up.

This is what I learned about perfectionism.

Perfectionism is just another way of feeling not enough. As its heart is a fear of failure, a fear of being judged, a fear of making a mistake and getting something wrong.

We set ourselves a high standard. But we don’t tell ourselves what that standard is, so we’ve no idea whether we’re meeting it or not. We beat ourselves up for not meeting this unclear, impossible standard.

At work this is compounded as we’re told it’s good but not quite good enough. Maybe good-and-a-half. Everything will be OK if we just “raise the bar”.

We fear failure, so we try to cover all bases, please everyone, try to get it right. We don’t want to make an unnecessary mistake; we don’t want someone to give us negative feedback so we pour our heart and soul into being the absolute best and then wait for the dreaded verdict.

And if we can’t be perfect, it’s best not to try. So, in comes self-sabotage and procrastination to save us from the embarrassment of being seen to be doing a sub-standard job.

I know many perfectionists. I used to think I was in good company with my fellow perfect seekers. All of them are the most conscientious, committed, passionate, hard-working individuals I know. However, they’re also among the most self-critical, fearful, stressed, overwhelmed people I know too.

Despite all my knowledge and experience and reading a lot of very educational brain books I realised recently that these tendencies were still showing up and holding me back. Fueled in part by constantly working outside my comfort zone developing my business and comparing myself to other “more successful” people. I not