Imperfectly Perfect: The Secret Desire to be a Perfectionist

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

As a coach, I strive to “walk the talk” and serve as a role model, if only for myself. Additionally, I consider myself well-versed in the realms of brain science and human behavior. I share this because, despite knowing better, I have a secret desire to be a perfectionist, and I don’t think I’m alone in this.

When someone calls you a perfectionist, it’s rarely intended as a compliment. Knowing this, why is it that so many of us secretly strive to realize the dream (actually, finally) of becoming a perfectionist? We long to meet the lofty standards we set for ourselves, to flawlessly execute our vision; which, I must say, sounds rather delightful.

One of the problems with the term “perfectionist” is its frequent misapplication; often being used to disparage others. Visionaries like Steve Jobs, Prince, Picasso, and some would say Leonardo DiCaprio, are all referred to as perfectionists. Perhaps they were challenging to work with or overly demanding, attracting the ire of their detractors. However, we cannot deny the tremendous contributions each of these individuals has made to our world (even if you dislike iPhones, guitars, cubism, and Inception).

So, is being a perfectionist inherently a bad thing? It depends.

To gain a better understanding, let’s begin by examining the definitions.

A perfectionist is defined as a person who refuses to accept any standard lower than perfection, while perfection refers to the state of being free or as free as possible from flaws or defects.

According to these definitions, the aforementioned “perfectionists” were not truly perfectionists. Each of them embraced failure, evolved, trusted their intuition, and dared to try new things, uncertain of the outcome. They were willing to take the risk of not meeting their own lofty standards. They possessed an ability to envision what others couldn’t and persistently pursued it, venturing beyond the realms of safety and comfort to become masters of their crafts. They took risks, daring to venture into the unknown.

In reality, they embody more of a visionary spirit than traditional perfectionism. Nevertheless, let’s entertain the notion that these individuals were, in fact, perfectionists. There are indeed many commendable aspects of perfectionism worth celebrating.

Celebrating Perfectionists Traits

Having a perfectionist on your team during high-stakes endeavors can make the difference between wild success and abysmal failure. There are numerous positive attributes associated with perfectionism:

  1. Perfectionism serves as a powerful driver, pushing the boundaries of excellence and achievement, leading to impressive results that surpass all expectations.
  2. Perfectionists tend to be highly motivated individuals, committed to realizing their goals with an unwavering determination to overcome challenges.
  3. By focusing on the end result rather than solely the process, perfectionists can increase productivity and cultivate efficient work habits.
  4. Perfectionists possess an acute eye for detail, which proves advantageous in professions requiring precision and meticulousness.
  5. Perfectionists consistently strive for high-quality outcomes, often resulting in superior products, exceptional customer service, or innovative solutions.
  6. Perfectionists have an inherent drive for self-improvement and personal growth, constantly refining their skills and knowledge, and investing significant time and effort into mastering their craft.
  7. With an unwavering concentration on their work, perfectionists demonstrate strong focus and attentiveness, striving to eliminate errors and flaws, ultimately enhancing productivity.

With all these remarkable benefits, who wouldn’t want to aspire to be a perfectionist?

I wholeheartedly appreciate the contributions of perfectionists to the world. I am inclined to reclaim the term, giving it a warm hug, a cookie, and a heartfelt thank you for the incredible gifts it has bestowed upon humanity. Then send it back out into the world with a renewed definition.

Redefining Perfectionists

A perfectionist is someone driven to enhance something in a way that others couldn’t have imagined. Though their quest may occasionally drive those around them crazy, once their vision is realized, others are left in awe of their accomplishments.

Now, let’s delve into the “crazy-making” aspect of perfectionism.

When Perfectionism Goes Awry

For many years, I worked under a boss who expected me to be a perfectionist. By that, I mean his standards were so extraordinarily high that I was never allowed to falter, not even on the smallest scale, not as a fallible human being.

Regrettably, during those days when I “faked it until I made it,” I hesitated to defend my humanness because his criticism only fueled my impostor syndrome. Holy Moly, what a mess it created as it set off a downward spiral that took years to untangle. Ironically, the pressure imposed upon me didn’t help me rise to the occasion; instead, it dealt acrippling blow to my confidence, discouraging me from venturing beyond what I knew I could accomplish (talk about stifling creativity).

Perfectionism takes a grievous turn when unrelenting standards are imposed on others in an unrealistic and detrimental manner, leading to the suppression of creativity in the process.

The Challenges of Working with or Being in a Relationship with a Perfectionist:

  1. High expectations: Perfectionists often hold lofty standards for themselves and may project those expectations onto others, including their partners. This can create pressure and feelings of inadequacy or a constant struggle to meet their ideals.
  2. Self-criticism and stress: Perfectionists tend to be highly self-critical, experiencing significant stress when things don’t align with their high standards. This stress can permeate into their relationships, affecting their well-being and the overall dynamic.
  3. Rigidity and inflexibility: Perfectionists often have a strong desire for order, control, and structure. This can result in rigid routines or expectations that limit spontaneity and flexibility within relationships.
  4. Difficulty with imperfections: Perfectionists may find it challenging to accept mistakes or imperfections, whether in themselves or others. This can lead to tension and frustration when things deviate from their expectations.

Some people might perceive perfectionists as excessively critical, demanding, or difficult to work with. Perfectionism can sometimes create an atmosphere of stress and pressure, which may not be conducive to enjoyable collaboration. Alternatively, in a team setting, a perfectionist can elevate everyone’s performance, as long as their standards are not imposed on other team members in a way that stifles creativity and collaboration.

I’m not a Perfectionist (just wish I was)

When out of control, perfectionism can lead to chronic stress, burnout, anxiety, and hindered creativity if taken to extreme levels. It’s crucial to strike a balance and practice self-compassion to avoid the negative consequences associated with unhealthy perfectionism.

Most perfectionists don’t admit to being a perfectionist because they don’t “feel” perfect (while simultaneously secretly wishing they were). If any of these signs resonate with you, congratulations! You might be a perfectionist! As previously mentioned, that’s not necessarily a bad thing (remember, I genuinely admire them and aspire to become one), but it does require management to avoid tipping into the unhealthy territory:

  1. Setting extremely high standards for yourself that are difficult or impossible to meet.
  2. Being overly critical of yourself when you make mistakes or fall short of your goals.
  3. Feeling a strong sense of shame or guilt when you make mistakes or fail to meet your own expectations.
  4. Procrastinating or avoiding tasks because you’re afraid of making mistakes or not doing them perfectly.
  5. Spending a lot of time on tasks that could be done more efficiently because you want them to be perfect.
  6. Having difficulty delegating tasks to others because you want to ensure they are done perfectly.
  7. Feeling anxious or stressed when you are not in control of a situation or when things don’t go as planned.
  8. Feeling a sense of dissatisfaction or disappointment with yourself even when others praise you for your accomplishments.
  9. Struggling with decision-making because you fear making the wrong choice.
  10. Having a black-and-white, all-or-nothing thinking style that doesn’t allow for shades of gray or mistakes.

If you identify as a perfectionist, recognize the gifts you bring. However, like any gift, too much of a good thing can be detrimental. Striking a healthy balance is crucial.

If you are an extreme perfectionist and need to dial it back, these exercises may help:

  1. Set realistic goals: Perfectionists often establish unattainable standards, leading to feelings of disappointment and failure. Practice setting realistic and achievable goals, focusing on progress rather than perfection.
  2. Cultivate self-compassion: Perfectionists tend to struggle with self-criticism and self-judgment. Nurture self-compassion by treating yourself with the same kindness and understanding you would offer a close friend. Acknowledge both your strengths and weaknesses, remembering that making mistakes is a natural part of the learning process.
  3. Challenge negative self-talk: Pay attention to your inner dialogue and challenge any negative self-talk. Replace self-criticism with positive affirmations and self-encouragement.
  4. Embrace imperfection: Practice accepting and embracing imperfection. Purposefully engage in tasks with imperfections, observing how it feels. Understand that imperfection is inherent to our humanity and does not diminish your worth as an individual.
  5. Experiment with “good enough”: Strive for a “good enough” standard instead of aiming for perfection in every task. This will help you become more comfortable with imperfections and may enhance your productivity and efficiency. Remember, perfect can be the enemy of good.
  6. Release control: Perfectionists often struggle with relinquishing control. Practice delegating tasks to others or allow them to assist you. This will help build trust in others, reduce your workload, and alleviate stress.
  7. Celebrate progress: Perfectionists often fixate on what they haven’t accomplished, overlooking their achievements. Celebrate your progress and successes, no matter how small they may seem. This will boost your confidence, self-esteem, and motivation to keep pursuing your goals.

In a nutshell, perfectionism can be both a blessing and a curse. It’s like having a superpower that comes with a few quirks. While it drives us to achieve greatness and impress others, it can also turn us into overly critical beings who stress about the tiniest imperfections. So, let’s strive for excellence, but remember to sprinkle a little imperfection into the mix. After all, life is too short to obsess over perfectly aligned socks or flawlessly executed to-do lists. Embrace the beautifully imperfect journey and enjoy the ride!