It’s likely that you, or someone you know, routinely uses the word “perfectionist” as a label for their expectation when engaging in a task or challenge — but are there unintended consequences for this self-label? Consequences that actually hinder, not improve, chances for future success?
Perfectionism, in theory, seems like it should be the gold standard we all strive for, but did you know that living life through a perfectionist-prism often creates more turmoil and frustration than it does happiness and success? Taken literally, the word “perfection” means just that, the condition, state, or quality of being free from all flaws or defects. Think about that for just a moment — the perfectionist mindset is a deeply flawed one right from jump, as the goal to be “free from all flaws or defects” is an impossible goal to attain. In fact, to strive for perfection is to set yourself up for a lot of frustration and anxiety, when in fact there is a much healthier and effective way to approach life tasks — and without compromising future success.
Strive for excellence
Can you still work to be the best, but do so in a way that doesn’t demand “perfection?” Fortunately, the answer to that question is YES. For my clients, one thing we do is begin to evaluate the self-talk and language they use, and improve upon concerns and issues that may be holding them back. An example of this strategy is to change the word “perfection” into “excellence,” a more realistic term that doesn’t compromise worth ethic or results. In fact, striving for excellence allows for mistakes, errors, focus disruptions, and bad days — wiggle room perfectionists don’t allow themselves to experience. “Excellence” is a gold standard, but doesn’t carry with it such absolute expectations that anything less than perfect simply isn’t acceptable.
By eliminating all-or-nothing thinking (“I either do this perfectly or I have failed”), you will not only enjoy the progress toward your goals, but also learn to develop vitally important coping skills to galvanize human resiliency when dealing with stress and adversity.
Vanity, or results?
To call oneself a “perfectionist” can be cliche, and some people use the expression to gain assumed credibility from others. The thinking is that by proclaiming “perfection,” it can be assumed that the overall quality of work will be superior to others. While that sounds great, it doesn’t always bear out that way in real life. In fact, my experiences have shown that oftentimes when people strive for perfection, they quickly become frustrated and prematurely quit when they realize their results will not be “perfect.” So the real question becomes do you want to increase your chances for success by striving for excellence (and accepting adversity along the way), or would you rather hold up the image of being “perfect,” realizing your chances for success may be compromised because of that very title and paradigm?
While it may seem like there is barely any difference between striving for perfection or excellence, I would argue this distinction is often the difference between those who do, and those who come up short. So often in life the big goals we set for ourselves involve tough days, “politics,” unfair decisions, and even sheer bad luck. Perfectionists will experience those unfortunate circumstances vastly different than those who strive for excellence and build in the fact that anything worth going for in life will likely include adversity. As the old saying goes, “it’s not how many times you get knocked down, but how many times you get back up,” lending support to the idea of eliminating absolute thinking and instead always striving to do your best.