“The Buddha taught that everything is impermanent–flowers, tables, mountains, political regimes, bodies, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness. We cannot find anything that is not impermanent. We think that impermanence makes us suffer. It is not impermanence that makes us suffer. What makes us suffer is wanting things to be permanent when they are not.” -Thich Nhat Hanh
“The closest to being in control we will ever be is the moment that we realize we’re not.” -Brian Kessler
How Perfectionism Snuck Up on Me This Week
I’ve been working on this perfectionism post for weeks now. I’ve struggled to bring it all together. Week after week and no finished post! Recently I found myself at a coffee shop with the plan of “really” working on the post–I mean, I had my notes and all my materials ready to go. I was on a tight schedule, only 45 minutes to write before work. When I went to log-on to the internet with my handy-dandy internet code given to me by the barista, the internet started to load… and load… and load…! I started getting more and more impatient and uncomfortable as I watched 5 and then 10 minutes slip by! I thought, “I came here to write, I’m all ready to go and now the freaking internet won’t load? Argghh!”. I grew increasingly angry and frustrated with each minute. Thoughts flashed across my mind about getting back into the car and going to a coffee shop where the internet actually works or just giving up and going into work early…
Then I caught myself…totally being a rigid perfectionist! I was suddenly defining success very narrowly and getting angry I was not getting my way. The internet not working wasn’t a set-back in that moment, it was a disaster that would not tolerated. I was tempted to just take control by leaving.
When I caught myself struggling with perfectionism while trying to write a post on perfectionism(!), I laughed and took a deep breath. I realized that by being so rigid I was increasing my own suffering. I was using black-and-white thinking and making a mountain out of a mole hill (signs of being a perfectionist, as you will see). In the end, I was able to laugh and figure out how I could use my time before work differently; on fitting my energy around the existing situation instead of fighting it. I let go of my preconceived notions about writing my blog that day and embraced the situation; I worked on a short story I have saved on my desktop–no internet required, just creativity.
Perfectionism is a belief that a state of completeness and flawlessness can and should be attained, often to the point that there is a belief that anything less than perfect is unacceptable. As Alice Domar, author of the book Be Happy Without Being Perfect describes it: “perfectionism is an act of control. If things are perfect, the person feels more ordered, more in control. Some people tolerate a lack of control; perfectionists feel overwhelmed by it.”
Dr. Domar shares a list of key traits of perfectionists:
- Expectation that people and situations have no flaws or faults
- Getting stuck on tasks
- Having perfection-oriented automatic thoughts
- Having a hyper-awareness of imperfections
- Feeling shame or guilt following “unacceptable” performance
- Making mountains out of molehills
- Setting rigid standards (success is black and white; something is either a complete success or total failure)
- Expectation of the impossible. Expectation that one can excel in every area
- Making all or nothing/ black and white judgments (If I can’t do it well I may as well write it off as worthless)
- A tendency to overstate what is at stake
- Overreacting to mistakes or missteps
Different Types of Perfectionists
Perfectionism also has different orientations or types.
Self-Oriented Perfectionists: People who expect perfection from self. They adhere to strict standards while maintaining strong motivation to attain perfection and avoid failure; they engage in stringent self-evaluation
Other-Oriented Perfectionists: People who expect perfection from others. They set unrealistic standards for others (parents, children, co-workers) coupled with a stringent evaluation of others’ performances
Socially-Prescribed Perfectionists: People who think others expect perfection from them. They believe that others hold unrealistic expectations for their behavior (and that they can’t live up to this, though they try); they experience external pressure to be perfect. They believe others tend to evaluate them critically.
Perfectionism Upsides and Downsides
Psychologists argue whether perfectionism can be a normal, “healthy” expression of personality or if all forms of perfectionism are maladaptive. Psychologists are finding that some strains of perfectionism can positively affect a person’s well-being and success. Emily Laber-Warren of Scientific American Mind notes the following:
“After all, the willingness to work at something until it is just right can pay off. A person may write a better novel, have a more attractive home or build a more successful business. ‘A lot of good craftsmen, mechanics, surgeons probably would be considered perfectionistic,’ says Joachim Stoeber, a psychologist at the University of Kent in England who has published widely in the field. ‘If you’re happy and functional, there’s no reason to worry about it.’”
Perfectionists achieve much, yes, but many still report feeling unsatisfied, unhappy, exhibit low self-esteem and are often at the mercy of intense mood swings. Perfectionism is often cited as a risk factor for psychological disorders. Though it is curious to note that perfectionists with positive coping styles tend to be no more depressed than average. That would suggest that people can diligently work on building healthy coping and thereby minimize the negative aspects of perfectionism.
It is helpful to remember that there is often no such thing as “perfect” when it comes to being human. Perfectionism can often be considered maladaptive because it is aiming for something that is impossible to achieve.
Perfectionism can be especially toxic when people measure their own worth entirely in terms of achievement. Perfectionism can quickly turn into a liability regarding relationships, productivity and spirituality. William Reich referred to compulsive perfectionists as “living machines” who are highly productive but not enjoying what they produce. Ouch. And then there’s “perfectionism paradox” which happens when the emphasis placed on excellence actually serves to undermine one’s performance and chances of success. “The best is often the enemy of the good” as Voltaire once said.
So how do we become aware of our own tendencies toward harmful perfectionism? And how do we work to conteract it?
Laber-Warren of Scientific American Mind recommends “practicing imperfection” as a useful way to tame the trait’s destructive side. It’s helpful to remember that the goal of addressing perfectionism is not to be “average” (as many perfectionists fear…!) but to curb the negative aspects of it. Perfectionists benefit from noticing moments in which a mistake is made and practicing taking it in stride or even making a mistake on purpose in order to experience tolerating it.
Another helpful hint is to reevaluate your standards. Ask yourself, What would be the costs of relaxing these? Evaluate the evidence for your beliefs—are you overstating what is really at stake if you perform a task imperfectly? Trying to see your situation from another person’s perspective is often helpful in gaining a more accurate perspective.
Because perfectionism can be considered a “worship of outcomes” it got me thinking about the need for sitting with the fact that outcomes are often unknown or ambiguous. This invites living in the moment and being adaptable regardless of outcomes.
Just think, what’s more perfect than perfectionism with no ugly side effects?
~ Eryn Smith-Moeller, LCPC, CDVP
(Originally published by Eryn on November 20, 2011 on her blog softanimalwisdom.