The Perfect Enemy

While many people think the pursuit of perfection is something wonderful, and heartily to be desired, in actuality the notion of perfection carries with it negative complications that can lead to significant reductions in both productivity and success.

Two Faces of Perfectionism

The problems with perfectionism generally result from confusing the desire to improve with the desire for “all-or-nothing” outcomes.

The desire to improve is a positive attitude that leads people to develop their capabilities, knowledge, expertise, and overall ability to perform. They accept their mistakes as opportunities to learn and grow. They may “reach for the moon,” but they also tend to feel satisfied with as much as they can achieve at any given moment.

The desire for “all-or-nothing” outcomes, on the other hand, is a negative attitude that leads people to feel dissatisfied with every one of their achievements that isn’t perfect. Because their performance hasn’t measured up to their standards of perfection, they are prone to problems such as:

  • Emotional distress because they make mistakes,
  • Unnecessary procrastination,
  • Stifled creativity,
  • Fear of failure,
  • Low self-esteem, and
  • Personal unhappiness.

Signposts of Negative Perfectionism

If a person’s attitude is taking them toward the dark side of perfectionism, they will often exhibit some tell-tale signs. These may include:

Unrealistic Standards. When perfectionism is the enemy of productivity and success, people often set performance standards that are well beyond their abilities to deliver. This guarantees dissatisfaction, and worse. In some cases, anticipating that they won’t be able to measure up to these unrealistic standards, a person will not even try.

Frequent Failure. When a person’s standards are too high and they have an “all-or-nothing” attitude, failures become a commonplace event. This not only leads to low self-esteem and self-doubt, it may induce a person to try concealing their “failures” from everyone else. The result: complications and behavior that drives people away.

Excessive Rework. Negative perfectionism is an unrelenting master. The person with this attitude may feel the need to do the same work over and over again in an effort to meet those impossibly high standards.

Risk Avoidance. With high and uncompromising standards to meet, the seemingly “sensible” course of action is to stay away from challenges and difficult tasks. The person with negative perfectionism generally hopes to avoid additional “failures” and disappointments by tackling only relatively easy, previously mastered activities.

Avoiding the Perfect Enemy

Fortunately, there are some practical steps that allow you to avoid negative perfectionism. (Note: These steps are easy, in and of themselves. However, overcoming the emotional factors that drive a person toward negative perfectionism is far more difficult – and well beyond the scope of this discussion.)

Keep Your Standards Realistic

Setting reasonable standards is a great way to disarm the power of negative perfectionism. The difficulty, of course, is knowing what’s reasonable and what’s too demanding.

One way to find out is to look at the “margin for error” your standards contain. If there’s little or no room for you to make a mistake and then fix it (particularly where lives are not on the line), in most cases – except perhaps in financial accounting – your standards are too high.

If you’re not sure whether your performance standards on a given task are reasonable, try asking several other people you trust for their opinion.

Accept the Reality of Error

Making mistakes is normal. In most cases, it’s not fatal. Quite often, mistakes lead to opportunities for learning and personal growth. For this reason, working and living with a fear of mistakes is itself an important error.

Instead, cut yourself more slack. Allow for the possibility – even the likelihood – that you will make some errors. But also allow that once you make an error, you’re likely to discover it – perhaps on your own, perhaps with the assistance of others.

And finally, once you make a mistake and discover it, you’ll almost certainly reverse your error and wind up getting things right.  

This is all to the good, because not only will your efforts have successfully met reasonable standards, you will have learned something, often including the best ways to avoid similar errors in the future.

Trust Your Guts More

One side-effect of negative perfectionism is the tendency to stay tense, to obsess, to rethink and rework in a futile effort to live up to unrealistic standards. By allowing your instincts, intuition, and spontaneous ideas to have more control over what you do and how you do it, you take power away from any negative perfectionism that you may be experiencing.

Even better, you’re likely to find that your instincts, intuition, and spontaneous ideas will help you become far more productive and successful than you’d actually achieve in the impossible pursuit of perfection.

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