Do you need to be perfect? Are you not ever perfect enough? Are you afraid of failure? Do you define failure as anything short of perfection? Do you believe that others love you only if, when, or because you are perfect? Do you imagine their love is conditional, that if you are not perfect, their love will lessen or cease?
The pursuit of excellence is admirable and productive. Neurotic perfectionism, however, is compulsive striving based on negative “all or none” thinking. Maladaptive perfectionism is self-defeating. Such a perfectionist might be more willing to receive an F for failure to submit a paper than to risk a B on that same less than perfected assignment.
Perfectionism can be paralyzing. It is a snowballing disease that causes your world to shrink. The perfectionist, beginning to freeze, starts to fear all unfamiliar tasks in which there is no assurance of mastery. The perfectionist often procrastinates. You can’t do anything because the effort might not be perfect and might make your cloaked unworthiness obvious to all.
The worlds of high school and college are artificial in that grades, prizes, rewards abound. Teachers are there to encourage as well as teach; praise is showered on the most eager students. This is far less true in the workplace and the wide world. Often the new employee must start at the bottom of the office pecking order, a rough position for the insecure perfectionist who lives for praise and is defensive when criticized.
People who remain perfect through high school sometimes crumble when they get their first C or even an A minus in a tough college course.
People who carry their golden 4.0 all through college are apt to expect constant praise in the workplace, are apt to psychically implode when criticized or when they bump up against the first inevitable setbacks.
How will you learn from others if you are fragile, afraid of criticism or any suggestion that your work is less than perfect already? How will you reach your goals if your goals are top level all across the board and you are unable to prioritize?
So drop your unrealistic expectations. We are all flawed and fallible. No one is perfect forever or in every area. Work hard, but make mistakes and learn from them. Laugh and forgive yourself.
Internalize your goals. Work for accomplishment, not for notice or reward. Don’t constantly compare yourself with others. Don’t obsess over past mistakes or achievements. Stay in the present with the tasks at hand. Set reasonable goals. Work for the inherent challenge and for personal satisfaction. Breathe deeply and relax. Be a team player, generous to those around you. Follow your curiosity out into work you can at last fully enjoy.
Further Thoughts on Perfectionism
“Striving for excellence motivates you; striving for perfection is demoralizing.” ~ Harriet Beryl Braiker
“People throw away what they could have by insisting on perfection, which they cannot have, and looking for it where they will never find it.” ~ Edith Schaeffer
“Once you accept the fact that you are not perfect, then you develop some confidence.” ~ Rosalynn Carter
“Gold cannot be pure, and people cannot be perfect.” ~ Chinese Proverb
“One of the most essential things you need to do for yourself is to choose a goal that is important to you. Perfection does not exist. You can always do better and you can always grow.” ~ Les Brown
“As machines become more and more efficient and perfect, so will it become clear that imperfection is the greatness of man.” ~ Ernst Fisher
“My imperfections and failures are as much a blessing from God as my successes and my talents and I lay them both at his feet.” ~ Mahatma Gandhi
“Perfection has one grave defect: it is apt to be dull.” ~ William Somerset Maugham
“The principle mark of genius is not perfection, but originality, the opening of new frontiers.” ~ Arthur Koestler
“The artist who aims for perfection in everything achieves it in nothing.” ~ Eugene Delacroix
“The most valued bowls for tea ceremony are irregularly shaped, and have some gold patches here and there accentuating (rather than concealing) damage suffered at the hands of long ago owners. Asymmetry and irregularity allow the possibility of growth, but perfection chokes the imagination.” ~ Donald Keene
“Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.”
~ Leonard Cohen
“Perfectionism is a dangerous state of mind in an imperfect world” ~ Robert Hillyer
"In order to go on living one must try to escape the death involved in perfectionism.” ~ Hannah Arendt
“Perfectionism is the enemy of creation, as extreme self-solitude is the enemy of well-being.” ~ John Updike
“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor.” ~ Annie Lamott
“I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.” ~ Bill Cosby
“My mother drew a distinction between achievement and success. She said that achievement is the knowledge that you have studied and worked hard and done the best that is in you. Success is being praised by others, and that's nice, too, but not as important or satisfying. Always aim for achievement and forget about success.” ~ Helen Hayes
References and Resources for further study:
Perfectionism: What It Is And Ways To Deal With It. Daniel Darnell, PhD, copyright 2000.
“Perfectionism at Harvard: Friend or Foe?” by Claire Schindler and Diane Weinstein, Bureau of Study Counsel, Harvard University.
Many of the quotations about perfectionism are from Wabi Sabi: the Art of Everyday Life by Diane Durston. Storey Publishing, 2006
Claire Schindler and Diane Weinstein who wrote the Perfectionism at Harvard article suggest reading:
Antony, M.M. and Swinson, R.P. (1998) When Perfect Isn’t Good Enough: Strategies for Coping With Perfectionism. Oakland, CA: New harbinger Publications.
Basco, M.R. (1999) Never Good Enough: Freeing Yourself from the Chains of Perfectionism. New York: The Free Press, Simon and Schuster.