I spent a lot of my life convinced that I didn’t have a perfectionistic bone in my body.
I looked at the “perfectionists” of the world with awe. How did they have the time and energy to focus on getting everything just right?
I didn’t get it. I had bought into a simplistic stereotype of perfectionism. Perfectionists were people who needed to do everything perfectly.
Insisting on doing something without mistakes is just one facet of perfectionism. I completely misunderstood the different ways that perfectionism shows up as I struggled with my own habits of procrastination and avoidance (my own little perfectionistic cocktail).
Awareness of my perfectionism surfaced several years ago when I joined my first non-profit board of trustees. I was in my late 30’s serving with business-people, attorneys, non-profit experts and other professionals who were all more senior and experienced in board service.
Walking into my first meeting, which was also our annual strategic planning retreat, I felt out of my league. During the retreat, a member who had been the head of several non-profits and had served on several boards, volunteered me to chair the Governance Committee.
Whoa! Wait a minute there. I couldn’t chair a committee. I had no idea how the board worked let alone how to chair the committee in charge of supporting current and recruiting new members. I was just wrapping my brain around reading the financial statement!
Under duress, but with a look of pure encouragement and confidence from my “nominating cheerleader”, I accepted the position.
For a while, I put off learning about my role and the expectations. I didn’t want to think about what I needed to do or consider the work that would go into it.
My perfectionism was taking center stage. If I just avoided doing the work, I couldn’t screw it up, right?
Eventually, I switched gears and settled into my role. I learned a lot in the process and have a set of skills that I will always carry with me. My perfectionism almost sabotaged the gift of working at and stretching past my edge, stumbles and all.
Perfectionism is not one set of characteristics. It actually shows up in a few different ways in different people. Perfectionism can show up as overworking, self-criticism, procrastination, and avoidance, just to name a few ways.
Now that I’ve learned what perfectionism looks like, I see it every day in myself, the people that I work with, even the people that I live with.
Perfectionism can be adaptable
Setting high expectations for ourselves and working towards excellence is what helps drive us to success. This drive towards excellence helps undergrads, medical students, trainees and practicing physicians excel in medicine.
Like high achievers in other fields, you are also vulnerable to pushing your drive past reasonable limits. This is where perfectionism lives. It’s when you set your expectations so high they exceed anything that you can reasonably achieve or sustain. Even if you manage to meet your high expectations, you just move the bar higher. You set yourself on a stressful cycle as you work towards impossibly high expectations and only to experience disappointment, no matter the outcome. If you’re a perfectionist, you’re at higher risk for issues such as depression and anxiety than non-perfectionists.
The key is satisfying your strong drive and living towards your most excellent self while maintaining reasonable, sustainable expectations.
Once you recognize how your perfectionism emerges, you’ll be better able to show up as your best without creating unwarranted stress and dissatisfaction.
Let's break it down
Drs. Paul Hewitt and Gordon Flett have studied and worked to improve our understanding of perfectionism. Thier assessment, the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale, assesses for the presence and type of perfectionism in individuals.
They group perfectionism into 3 categories: socially-prescribed perfectionists, other-oriented perfectionist, and self-oriented perfectionists.
Self-oriented perfectionists- You have unrealistic standards and perfectionistic motivation for yourself.
Other-oriented perfectionism- You have unrealistic standards and perfectionistic motivations for others.
Socially prescribed perfectionism-You hold the belief that significant others expect oneself to be perfect.
To a certain extent, some perfectionistic tendencies can help you excel. Approaching tasks and work with rigor, persistence, attention to detail and holding high expectations of the outcome can help you achieve at a high level.
However, without realistic expectations, acceptance of failure and unmet expectations, and self-compassion, these traits can cross into the unhelpful territory of perfectionism.
Professor Joachim Stoeber suggests that perfectionism can be adaptive. He describes more adaptable perfectionism as “perfectionistic striving”.
“Perfectionistic striving are those facets of perfectionism that capture perfectionistic personal standards and a self-oriented striving for perfection.”
He notes that perfectionistic striving is related to positive outcomes such as conscientiousness, endurance, positive affect, and academic performance.
In a recent study, Stober suggested certain coping strategies would lead to greater overall satisfaction in people who experience perfectionistic striving to channel their perfectionism.
Make your perfectionism work for you.
Focus on the effort- Practice finding satisfaction in your effort, not just the outcome. Actively seek points of growth and learning from tasks or work. Focusing on these experiences helps you realize gains that are not just based on one specific outcome.
Positive reframing- Find ways to positively understand your failures. Look for the “gift” in every experience, whether or not you achieved your desired outcome. If you miss a diagnosis, how can you use that opportunity to learn more about a condition and perhaps teach others about how to approach patients with a set of symptoms differently?
Acceptance- Realize that no matter how hard you try, you won’t be able to achieve perfection 100% of the time. I hate to break it to you, but you’re human, just like the rest of us. Being human means that even at our best, imperfection is the rule. So, embrace your imperfections (thank you Brene Brown) and show yourself some compassion as a member of the human race.
Humor- Humor is a healthy, functional defense mechanism. Humor can quickly diffuse arising tension. Try using humor to give you a different perspective when your perfectionism is leading you into unhealthy behaviors.
While perfectionism can cause you unnecessary stress, you can learn to find ways to recognize and adapt your perfectionistic tendencies. When you make your perfectionism work for you, you can experience greater meaning and satisfaction in your life.