When Amy (no real names or individual stories are used in this blog) first came to counselling she prided herself on striving for perfection. She saw it as a positive quality that shaped who she was and brought out the best in her. Amy, like many other people imagined that striving for perfection was a healthy goal. She imagined that it was perfectionism that was bringing out her best performance in life, and hadn’t understood the hidden cost of perfectionism.
For Amy perfectionism had been a lifelong companion, always demanding that she do better, pointing out to her where she fell short, drawing her attention constantly to where she could have improved. Perfectionism never allowed her to praise herself or feel good for a job well done, because it focussed on the remaining possibility for improvement. Perfectionism always kept Amy focussed on what she didn’t achieve rather than let her see what she had achieved. Perfectionism was like the parent who might say to a child who comes home with a 98% test score: “That’s good but what happened to the other 2%?”
For example, when Amy produced reports for her work, perfectionism was always in the background urging her to rewrite the draft of the report again and again, each time making her notice where she could improve the wording, or the punctuation. This caused Amy to spend far more time and energy on reports than was really warranted. In reality, anyone reading the report would have considered the second draft more than adequate for the task. Perfectionism didn’t let Amy see her work through the eyes of other people who were more than satisfied with her work, but kept Amy refining the draft report five or six times. Worse still, when Amy eventually submitted the report, perfectionism wouldn’t let her see what a good job she had done. If it wasn’t for exhaustion and time constraints she would probably be stuck constantly trying to improve and never getting much done.
And so it was in many other areas of her life as well; her appearance (it took literally hours to get ready to go out); her behaviour toward friends (”I should have been more caring and considerate); housekeeping (clean wasn’t adequate, spotless had to be the target); shopping (”maybe I could have bought it cheaper somewhere else”). Perfectionism was draining Amy of time and energy and never really let her feel good about herself.
Even as Amy began to understand the limitations imposed on her by perfectionism, she was convinced that without perfectionism she would fail to achieve success. She insisted that she needed perfectionism to be able to do a good job. However, with encouragement and support, Amy found that if she were able to set aside perfectionism, she still did a good job. This was because her values of conscientiousness, pride in her work, passion, and motivation were the real powerhouses for performance. It was these values that helped Amy be a success in life. Perfectionism on the other hand just kept nagging Amy with threats of being unacceptable, substandard, or not good enough.
Perfectionism didn’t bring out the best in Amy it pointed out where she wasn’t perfect (like the parent and the 98% test score). Perfectionism not only didn’t help Amy’s performance in life, it actually held her back by making her feel worse about herself, and stopping her from tackling more in life. When Amy escaped perfectionism she found she spent less time and energy on each individual task, and suddenly found there was much more she could do in life, include being happier.
Think about it, perfectionism is not your friend.