Perfectionism is when you set yourself high standards that are unrealistic or unhelpful, that you must achieve. It is continually striving to achieve these high standards- and often, the goal posts keep moving.
If these high standards are achieved, or easily achieved, then it’s because they were ‘too easy’ or a fluke- and you set the bar higher again.
If these high standards are not achieved, then you feel like a failure and criticise yourself.
If you think you might have trouble reaching the high standards, it can be stressful and overwhelming. So people often procrastinate, give up or avoid them, and self-criticise. Or, you work yourself so hard- to the point that you’re not living your life and can be at risk of burning out.
Your self-esteem becomes based on how well these standards are met- which is difficult when they are unrealistic or unhelpful.
And often, having unrealistic expectations is not seen as the problem: rather, people see themselves as the problem. For example, if you don’t achieve 99% or 100% on an assessment, it’s because you’re not smart enough. If you feel overwhelmed by needing to do really well on a task, and therefore procrastinate on it until the last minute, it’s just because you’re lazy. If you don’t get an AMAZING performance review at work, it’s because you’re not doing good enough or not working hard enough.
The hard part is that these high standards and their impact have a negative effect on people’s mental health. Worry, feeling badly about yourself, overworking, stress, triple-checking your work, procrastinating, loss of sleep, lack of self-care, lack of leisure activities- the list can go on and on.
Perfectionism thrives on several myths that are not fully true, including:
- Being perfectionistic means you get things done
- Success is the result of working harder and doing things perfectly
- Others will notice when things are not perfect and be critical of this
- If a job is worth doing, it needs to be done perfectly or ‘right’
- Perfectionists don’t make mistakes or experience failure
- The harder you work, the greater the reward for this
- Leisure or non-work activities are lazy; you need to work all the time
It can be worth taking a balanced approach to weigh up how accurate some of these myths may or may not be. My reflections on these myths are as follows:
1. Being perfectionistic means you get things done
Well… perfectionism actually interferes with starting tasks- because they can be overwhelming, so you avoid or procrastinate. But let’s assume this doesn’t happen for you; perfectionism can also interfere with task completion. This is because you’re more likely to double or triple check your work, and to go over and over the task or content to ensure it is perfect or ‘right’ or free of errors. So things can take you a lot longer to complete. But on top of this: it can be stressful to have that pressure to do things right. When your body experiences high stress, your concentration and attention become impaired. So perfectionism is more likely to mean that tasks are not completed promptly, as they are procrastinated on or take longer to complete than what might be helpful.
2. Success is the result of working harder and doing things perfectly
Let’s refer you to the response above…
And, yes, perfectionists can work quite hard. And this might lead to success in some areas. However, it’s also about the cost of this achievement or success. If it’s required you to work so hard that you’re exhausted, overwhelmed, or burning out, this type of success may end up being a bit empty. It’s also possible that good outcomes can be achieved (without needing to be perfect) and get you to a similar place, albeit in better shape.
3. Others will notice when things are not perfect and be critical of this
Doing things well and perfectly is important to you- it’s become a coping mechanism. And you may have experienced that boss, lecturer, partner, or parent who has been critical when things have been less than perfect. The question is: Is everybody like this? (No!). Is everybody likely to notice the little details in your tasks all of the time? Is everybody likely to be critical of you or your outcomes on tasks all of the time?
This is a myth as while some people may operate this way, most people actually don’t. Assuming the worst drives your stress and perfectionism even higher.
4. If a job is worth doing, it needs to be done perfectly or ‘right’
For some jobs or tasks, yes, it is important to have them done correctly. For all tasks? No. Shortcuts exist for a reason- to make life easier. A task that is completed is better than a task that takes a really long time to complete or is not started due to needing to be done a certain way.
5. Perfectionists don’t make mistakes or experience failure
Everybody experiences mistakes and failures at times- it’s a part of life. It can be particularly hard for someone with perfectionist beliefs to cope with this, however, so if there is a risk of failure or of mistakes, then these sorts of activities can be avoided altogether or rushed through (so then it doesn’t really matter if failure occurs- because you didn’t really try), or work can be triple checked to try to avoid a negative outcome.
6. The harder you work, the greater the reward for this
Ever worked quite hard on something and not had a great outcome for it? Totally normal; this is part of how you figure out what works and what doesn’t work.
But also- when you’re working hard without frequent breaks and doing long hours, we know that you don’t necessarily work efficiently or effectively. Concentration and performance are typically improved through regular breaks and having rest and downtime; taking breaks and rest means that people typically work better and more efficiently when they do work.
7. Leisure or non-work activities are lazy; you need to work all the time
This belief implies that humans are work machines who exist solely for this purpose. The outcome of this belief is working until you break or can’t work the same way anymore. This belief is so black and white (work = active; non-work = lazy) that there is no room between these extremes. In reality, there are many leisure activities and hobbies that require a lot of time, energy, and effort from people- which is the opposite of laziness.
If you need to work all the time to feel ok about yourself- it may be worth evaluating whether you enjoy your life and want to continue operating this way in your bigger picture.