Being perfect isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It’s impossible in the first place; after all, you’re only human. Plus, it’s an enormous stressor and can actually be counter-productive. If you don’t think you can complete a task perfectly, you may never start. Similarly, if your job-in-progress is never done to your total satisfaction, you’ll hand it in late (or never).
So, what can you do when being perfect is negatively impacting your personal and professional life? We’ve done our research and talked to the experts. Here’s what we found.
What is perfectionism?
Often seen as a positive trait, perfectionism is the need to appear perfect. Everything you do needs to be judged perfect by you, from how you look to your home life and, of course, your career.
Perfectionism that drives people to set unachievable goals and performance standards simply isn’t healthy. Known as maladaptive perfection, this can cause self-esteem issues and depression. “What makes perfectionism so toxic is that while those in its grip desire success, they are most focused on avoiding failure, so theirs is a negative orientation,” according to Psychology Today. “They expect others’ love and approval to be conditional on a flawless performance.”
Read more: How to Stop Procrastinating. Now.
Perfectionism isn’t a problem if it’s healthy. In other words, striving to achieve high standards in all that you do can be motivational. Doing your best and then letting go, and not being punitively critical about or defined by failures or mistakes you make, is part of healthy, or adaptive, perfectionism.
Perfectionism is a trait you can develop too. In fact, your job can make you a perfectionist. Attorney Lisa Goldkuhl wrote about this recently on LinkedIn, explaining that “a lawyer has to judge competing arguments, opposing counsel’s skill, the strength of your case. But being judgmental is hard on emotional health because you will ultimately turn the eye of Sauron upon yourself. It leads to perfectionism and self-criticism. Which feed depression and anxiety.”
The dangers of being a perfectionist
Your perfectionist tendencies might be holding you back in your career. Strictly in a business sense, when you can’t get work completed on time, you’re inefficient. Inefficiency is directly linked to loss of productivity and profits.
Productivity coach Matt Plummer explains that “for the average professional, an unrelenting drive for perfection can create significant inefficiencies, creating a sort of perfectionism paralysis.” He calls perfection a “deceptive goal,” and compares it to a mountain with no summit. How would you ever know you reached the top?
There’s more. In addition to inefficiencies, there’s lost time. That’s on both a personal and professional level. Perfectionism “robs us of actually getting things done,” says psychotherapist Fara Harris. “You can always go back and make something better, but you can never get back lost time.”
Even if you think you must be productive because you’re always working, your perfectionism is hiding the truth. Speaker and coach Heather Whelpley tells InHerSight that “perfectionism can keep you hidden in busy work. It makes you feel like you're productive searching for the perfect photo for the presentation or revising your blog post for the eighth time instead of just hitting publish, but really, your time could be spent on activities that will make a bigger difference.”
Remember: Perfectionism is not the same as excellence
Striving for excellence is not the same as striving for absolutely perfect. The first is motivational, the second can cause harm.
In her video, coach Deanna M. Rasch says fear is at the core of perfectionism—usually fear of failure, but sometimes it can be fear of success. Perfectionism stalls us: We don’t start projects, we don’t finish them or avoid working on them. Then we get trapped in a cycle of self-judgment. While excellence motives, perfectionism stops our process.
Steps to letting go of being perfect
Embrace the concept of kintsugi. The Japanese mending practice (kin: golden; tsugi: joinery), is the art of repairing broken pottery with gold. The method adds to its beauty but in no way hides the flaw, which actually becomes part of the object’s history. The takeaway here is to allow imperfections to become part of your own personal history and growth. You don’t stop striving for excellence, but you allow and learn from your mistakes.
This can be difficult for someone who is anxious. And former clinical psychologist Alice Boyes says anxiety can manifest as perfectionism. “When there is something they want to get really right they might design tasks in ways that are over the top. This can cause a task that might be quite manageable if kept at a reasonable scale to feel completely overwhelming and trigger procrastination.”
In this case, using anxiety management strategies can be helpful. These include breaking a large task into smaller, more manageable pieces. If she’s anxious, Boyes says exercise helps and in fact she’ll complete tasks on her phone while walking slowly on a treadmill.
Read more: Self-Care for the 50+ Hour Work Week
Licensed social worker Jessica Dore says to look at play too as a foil for perfectionism. “Play is often good medicine for perfectionism because people with lots of rules often struggle with unpredictability, while fun always involves at least some amount of uncertainty and requires that we hold paradox without having to resolve it.
Whelpley adds another solution: “Pick an activity and do it imperfectly on purpose,” she says. “Get comfortable with being uncomfortable in low risk scenarios, like taking a painting class, sharing your imperfect ideas during a brainstorming session at work, or shortening your prep time for a meeting. Then venture out into bigger situations.”
Setting deadlines and time limits as to how much time you can spend completing a task are other steps you can take to reduce your perfectionist tendencies. Whelpley says these approaches help you catch yourself “before you move into serious perfectionism mode,” and unleash the inner critic which can spiral you into heightened stress, anxiety, and burnout.
“Finally, give yourself some grace,” Whelpley advises. “Allow yourself to be imperfect at letting go of perfectionism. It takes time to lessen the behaviors, beliefs, and impacts of perfectionism. Have compassion for yourself in that process.”