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The Problem with Perfectionism

By Karen Williams, LIMHP September 12, 2013 Posted in: Wellness

Many of us know high achievers or, perhaps, you are a high achiever yourself. High achievers seek excellence at school, home and work. Setting realistic, achievable goals offers the high achiever a sense of accomplishment and the feeling of a job well done. Often the high achiever will push just a bit further to produce a result, gain important experience, or move beyond a previous limitation. But a high achiever is not necessarily a perfectionist. A high achiever will leave some wiggle room for themselves with regard to the outcome. Even if a goal is not achieved 100%, they feel a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction for the job they did.

A perfectionist, on the other hand, can have a very different definition of achievement. The perfectionist will have more of an all-or-nothing approach to a given task. Psychology Today calls it “being a slave to success” while others may call it a fear of failure. Either way, this all-or-nothing thinking sets people up for feelings of failure, low self esteem, and fear of making a mistake.

One of the big problems with perfectionism is that it is an exercise in futility – no one can get there. While it’s great to stretch and grow, trying to be perfect will leave the person with increased self criticism, decreased self esteem, and, interestingly, to procrastination – putting things off due to the anxiety and fear of not doing it perfect enough.

If you were reading this blog earlier in the year, I wrote about goals needing to be measurable, achievable, and realistic. The goals of perfectionism are not measureable, achievable, or realistic. How do you measure perfection? You can’t. How do you know when you’ve arrived at perfection? You won’t. Things become unachievable and unrealistic pretty fast. The process of learning new things, enjoying the learning curve and the self discovery that comes with the process gets lost.

So, here’s the good news- perfectionism is made not born, so it can be changed! If you or someone you care about, lean toward perfectionism, here are some ideas to help:

  • Practice setting goals that are realistic and achievable.
  • Practice setting goals that can be measured – if it can’t be measured, it may not be achievable or realistic.
  • Practice thinking of mistakes as opportunities to learn and grow.
  • Practice remembering that mistakes are part of life and not a sign of failure.
  • Practice letting go of looking foolish or silly when trying something new.

You’ll notice that I started each of these ideas with the word practice. That was intentional. Letting go of perfectionism is not always easy, but it can be done. I prefer the word practice, because it leaves some room for error, and for learning, growing, and having some fun in the process.

What do you think about perfectionism? What are your ideas on dealing with this type of thinking? Let me know.

Karen Williams, LIMHP
Karen Williams, LIMHP

Karen Williams, LIMHP is a Mental Health provider at CHI Health.

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