Hi. My name is Andy and I’m a perfectionist.
I remember the first time someone used that word to describe me. I was in elementary school and my dad went to a parent-teacher meeting. When he came home, I heard him proudly say to my mom, “The teacher said she is a perfectionist!” I didn’t know what that meant, so I asked.
“It means you do everything with care and your homework is always pretty,” he explained. “Oh,” I thought, “that’s a good thing.”
Yet in middle school, I had to sit through an hour-long lecture while my teacher passionately warned us against the evils of perfectionism. My classmates agreed with her, but I was puzzled. What could be so wrong about wanting to be the best at things?
I’m a postgraduate student now. Through the years, I have tasted the best and the worst of perfectionism. I’ve received the laurels that come with doing excellent work. And I’ve cried out of frustration because I felt I still wasn’t good enough.
According to Dr. Andrew P. Hill from York St. John University in England, there are two types of perfectionism.
One of them makes us set high personal standards and gets us working towards our goals. It gets us moving.
The other kind of perfection, ruled by what they call “perfectionistic concerns,” is the one you want to avoid.
It makes us constantly worry about making mistakes and falling short of our own impossibly high expectations. It can paralyze us or make us work so hard that we struggle with burnout. And it can hurt us, causing serious health issues such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders and even early mortality.
In short, some perfectionism is good, but too much of it will crush your heart and your body. You need to find a good balance if you want it to be healthy.
If you search online, you’ll find that most people will tell you to fight your perfectionism. They want you to get rid of it. But if some of it is good, why should you discard the whole thing? Life gave me some lessons on how to live with my perfectionism and take the best out of it. I’m not a straight-A student on the subject, but I think I know enough now to share.
1. Apply your perfectionism only to yourself, never to others.
Perfectionists are often hardworking and proactive people. That makes us excellent leaders. But perfectionists are also notorious control-freaks. We strive for the highest quality work, and that’s not easily achieved. To create a perfect product, we need order and we need everyone in our team to give their all to the project.
The problem is that not everyone wants things to be perfect. Most people only want them to get done. They want to finish their work so they can move on to happy hour and have some coffee, or a beer.
Being seen as a control-freak can be terrible for you in the workplace. Your boss might love you for your great results, but your colleagues will hate you for making them work harder than they want to. I’ve been ditched from a workgroup at college once because I wanted to go beyond the requirements the professor had set to us. My classmates just wanted to get a reasonable grade. They were having none of that. Oh, and they were my best friends.
You can’t expect others to live by the same standards you set for yourself.
Do your best, give it your all, but learn to accept a different level of effort from some people. It might be difficult sometimes, but relax. At the end of the day, the work will be done, and that’s what matters.
2. Pick your battles.
I know that if it depended on you, the world would be perfect in every way. You would be perfect in every way. Everything you do would be of the highest quality, from your academic work to your manicure.
Unfortunately, that’s not how things work. There’s a reason why Dr. Hill’s research found a link between perfectionism and burnout. Perfection is exhausting. It takes time and effort beyond measure, and even so, it often remains out of reach.
You need to learn where to focus your efforts.
Some things are just not worth it. If you are packing a gift for a child who will take three seconds to shred the wrapping paper and won’t even take the time to appreciate the package, don’t bother taking 20 minutes to make the perfect bow. Let it go. Baby Julie will be happy anyways.
3. Establish limits.
While we can be the best employee in the house, perfectionists are also master procrastinators. This seems contradictory, I know. But sometimes our expectations are so high they overwhelm us. We fear getting started because we might mess it up. It’s like that old meme: can’t make a mistake if I never do anything in the first place. Picture me tapping my temple.
If we let ourselves get carried on, we will only get started when it’s almost too late. Then we have to deal with last-minute panic and the added stress of knowing we are not doing our best. Delivering a half-baked product is always the worst feeling.
That’s why you need to set limits to your procrastination. Establish deadlines for yourself and stick to them. Breaking big tasks into small ones often help. Remember Wordsworth: “to begin, begin”.
On the other side of procrastination, we perfectionists can be the worst when it comes to overworking ourselves. We work extra hours, we sleep late so we can study more, we push our limits in the gym, we just don’t know when to stop.
My karate master often has to command me to take a break or I won’t, even if I can barely stand. I lost the count of how many times I got yelled at because of that. When I was in middle school, I once hurt my wrist because I had been practicing my handwriting too hard. I had to wear a special wristband and do physiotherapy for two months.
I’m clearly not the best at this, but I’m learning to set and respect my body’s limits. It’s not worth it becoming the best at any activity if you practice so hard you hurt yourself and lose your ability to do it.
4. Allow yourself to be spontaneous and flexible.
According to Dr. Margaret Wehrenberg from Psychology Today, one of the worst aspects of perfectionism is that it can stop us having fun. It makes it difficult to be spontaneous — aka “do stupid sh*t”. And because we need to control everything in our life to make sure we are the most productive, we often fail in being flexible with our schedule. Then, when friends ask us to hang out, we end up missing the best outings. Has happened to me too many times,and I always regret it when I see the pictures afterward.
I love making to-do lists and keeping myself busy. I keep a bullet journal to keep track of all my never-ending projects. As I was writing this article, I got a text from a friend asking to hang out this Friday. I glanced at my schedule, and it is full, even though I’m on summer break here in Brazil. Go figure. But I’ll work around it. I’m allowed to have fun, especially when I’m on vacation!
As for spontaneity, I learned that having artistic hobbies is a great way to practice. Try something fun and learn to love art for its “flaws”. Surprise yourself with how artistic your “mistakes” can turn out. Embrace the perfect imperfection of art. I promise you’ll enjoy it.
5. Learn to deal with frustration.
This is a big one. Aiming at perfection is signing up for a lot of frustration. As Dr. Hendricksen points out, “Being a perfectionist isn’t about being perfect, it’s about never being good enough.” I hate to admit it, but that’s the lousy truth.
Michael Jackson is my greatest idol and a confessed perfectionist. In a 1996 interview, he said, “I believe in perfection. And I try to create that in everything I do. We never seem to totally get there, but I believe in perfect execution. And when we don’t get at least 99.9 percent, I get really upset.” That’s how life is for most of us. That’s why frustration is a big part of our days.
I found that two things help me dealing with frustration. The first one is valuing progress over what Michael called “perfect execution”. I set a goal to do better than my previous attempt, instead of trying to do perfect. I’m slowly replacing my “practice makes perfect” approach with a “persistence makes progress” mindset. It makes things a lot easier. (Shoutout to my friend Kristin Windsor, a fellow mental health advocate, for teaching me that saying!)
The other thing that helps is accepting that life is not perfect nor fair. There will be times when we will do our best, and it won’t be enough. Sometimes, people won’t even notice. Doing our best is, in itself, a great joy for perfectionists. But too often, we need the approval of others. We want praise, but we don’t always get that, even if we deserved it. In the real world, everyone doesn’t get a trophy. The sooner we understand and accept that, the better.
6. Allow yourself to be happy with what you achieve.
Because of frustration, we sometimes forget to celebrate our achievements. We are blind to our 99,9% success because we are too focused on the 0.1% that went wrong. That, girl, is a straight path to misery.
Remember to celebrate when celebration is due. Even if you didn’t get the 1st place, be excited about your 2nd place position. You are still in the podium, aren’t you? Cultivating gratitude is one of the surest ways to find happiness in life. Allow yourself that much.
7. Remember, nobody actually expects you to be perfect.
I know the opinion of others is not what matters the most to you. You want to be perfect for the sake of it. It’s your standards that you feel the need to meet, not those of others. Or so you say.
The truth is, everyone is looking for approval.
Even the angstiest teenager who slams the door of her bedroom yelling that she doesn’t care. Everyone likes praise and the feeling of acceptance. We all want to fit in.
The good news, then, is that nobody is expecting you to be perfect. I promise you. Even if you have a rigorous teacher, a severe boss or a demanding partner. They don’t want you to be perfect. They just want to know you care, so simply show them you are trying. All people truly expect of you is that you do what you can. If you end up doing excellent work, great! Everyone will think you’re awesome. But if you do only good enough, that will be exactly that. Good enough.
Again, I know you want to be perfect. So do I. And I know you will continue to do your best to achieve that. So will I. But let go of the imagined weight of the expectations of others. It will make it easier to deal with frustration when we only get that 99.9%.
Wow, ok, I ended that at a dark note! I’m sorry, but that’s life when you are a perfectionist. It’s bittersweet, usually more bitter than sweet. But I wouldn’t give up on it. I don’t think I could, even if I wanted. It’s part of my personality, of who I am.
And to be honest, I feel like it’s a positive trait to carry, despite all the negative talk around it. I’m sure you’ve already seen that quote on social media about shooting for the moon and landing among the stars. That’s how I feel being a perfectionist. I’m an astronaut, always trying to get to the moon, never quite getting there. But the view is still amazing from up here.