Elizabeth Lombardo Ph.D.

Better Than Perfect

Perfectionism

5 Ways Your Thinking Can Hold You Back

Procrastination, perfectionism, stress, and more threats to your happiness.

Posted Nov 21, 2016

Peshkova/Shutterstock
Source: Peshkova/Shutterstock

As I discussed in a previous post, perfectionism is an all-or-nothing, perfect-or-failure mindset. (How much of a perfectionist are you?) People who are perfectionists often ask, “What's wrong with wanting things to be perfect?”

The answer is nothing—unless it is negatively affecting you.

I like to think of perfectionism as a chocolate cake. That may sound strange, but stay with me. Picture yourself making a cake using all the finest ingredients. You have gourmet Swiss chocolate, cage-free organic eggs, and butter from cows that are massaged daily and listen to classical music. Imagine taking all those delicious ingredients, mixing them up in a bowl, and then throwing in a cup of dirt. Once the cake is baked, how likely are you to eat it? Not too likely, I’d guess.

Perfectionism is like that chocolate cake. There a lot of great ingredients in perfectionism, but there are also some components that make it undesirable.

Here are five ingredients of perfectionism that are like dirt in your chocolate cake:

1. Conditional self-worth.

Our sense of worth has a direct impact on every interaction we have. Perfectionists base their worth on certain conditions, mainly the results they receive. What’s more, they view themselves only as worthy as their most recent outcome. This external search to feel valuable can be extremely stressful. Perfectionists feel like they are consistently falling short of the strict criteria they use to determine their worthiness. Any wins and successes are short-lived, because perfectionists quickly focus on finding the next way to feel good about themselves.

2. Personalization.

Perfectionists see things in all-or-nothing terms; to such people, something is either perfect or a failure. And then they take it a step further. “If it's a failure,” a perfectionist reasons, "Then I am a failure.” Because perfectionists do not want to be failures (who does?), they take extraordinary steps to prevent failure from happening.

3. Fear of failure.

It is, in fact, a fear of failure, rather than a desire for perfection, that fuels most perfectionists. This fear decreases the likelihood of taking calculated risks, which are often vital to achieve positive changes. Fear also reduces a perfectionist’s ability to learn from mistakes. Perfectionists are so focused on judging themselves that they cannot use the experience of failure to find new ways to approach issues.

4. Procrastination.

With their all-or-nothing fear of failure, perfectionists often put off starting or completing a task. I remember when I published my first mass-media book, A Happy You: Your Ultimate Prescription for Happiness. It took me more than two years to write, and I didn't want to share it with anyone else until I thought it was “perfect.” Had I instead gotten it to a place where it was good enough and shared it with a professional editor, the book would have been much better and published much sooner.

5. Stress. Perfectionism can be bring stress to every part of your life, including:

  • Psychological health. Consider how constantly striving for perfection affects your emotions. You're probably more stressed. Perfectionists are more likely to experience anxiety and depression.
  • Physical health. Biologically, the stress of perfectionism can hinder your immune functioning, making it tougher to fight off infections. Behaviorally, perfectionism can affect your actions. Does this all-or-nothing thinking sound familiar?: “One cookie messed up my diet; I might as well have the entire plate.”
  • Relationships. Perfectionism can affect your relationships because when you have unrealistically high standards for yourself, you also tend to have equally unrealistic standards for other people. This can lead to tremendous tension.
  • Work. Perfectionism can affect your work to the extent that you never finish projects, find it difficult to delegate to others, or work excessive hours just to make sure your finished work is “perfect.”
  • Fun. Your ability to enjoy life is hindered by perfectionism. Many perfectionists think, “I’ll have fun when I finish my work.” But because of their attempts to feel good about themselves through what they accomplish usually fail, they never really complete their work.
  • Spirituality. Perfectionism adversely affects your spiritual health. It is tough to focus on your true self and your spiritual beliefs when you're overly concerned about making things perfect. And conditional self-worth gets in the way of having unconditional self-worth, based on your values, your strengths, and acceptance of yourself and others.

How can you get rid of the dirt and have a great chocolate cake? Be better than perfect. That means you keep all the good ingredients of perfectionism—striving for success, endeavoring to help others be happy, and pushing yourself toward excellence—but you get rid of the dirt.

Try it today, and remember: You are better than perfect!

LinkedIn Image Credit: GaudiLab/Shutterstock