Perfectionism can stop progress and keep good people from becoming truly great. Although we might all experience it on the path to achieving a challenging goal, recognizing and defeating perfectionism the key to confidence and action.
What is perfectionism?
Perfectionism is a total unwillingness to accept anything less than perfection. It is an extremely high standard. Within perfectionism, we believe that human perfection is actually attainable. It might be in spiritual areas, in an area of performance, or in moral behavior.
Perfectionism focuses on accomplishments or appearances. It might seem superficial, but perfectionism can also be the quest for significant depth beyond what is reasonable for a certain age or skill level. Looking for quality and depth is not superficial at all, but the drive to present an appearance of perfection certainly is.
Can perfectionism be a good thing?
You might think that some level of perfectionism is a good thing. Perhaps striving for a high standard can motivate even better performance. The problem is that if the perfect standard isn’t met, we would rather not even show up or participate, because perfectionism tells us that a lower performance is actually failure.
It makes us want to hide, or hide our performance completely.
High standards are great—they help us keep working and trying new things. High standards can give us goals and direction.
But perfectionism demands there be no errors at all. It ignores context, interruptions, things beyond our control, and human flaws.
It is a good thing to have high standards. In fact, we should avoid asking perfectionists to lower their standards—because it isn’t a high standard that is a problem.
Instead, learning how to cope with the pressure we put on ourselves and learning how to cope with failure are the bigger problems.
Why should we learn to cope if we experience perfectionism?
Whether perfectionism comes from outside pressures or our own internal ideas, it defeats us if we put too much pressure on ourselves without recognizing accomplishments for what they are.
Perfectionism leaves us feeling lower after an actual achievement. Although we might make progress toward a goal or perform something significant, perfectionism discounts any positive direction we have made.
And, because perfectionism usually focuses on aiming for perfect or flawless performance, it may seem impossible to recover from a true failure. Overall, it keeps us from seeing clearly and adjusting for our next try.
You might say that perfectionism is a bit of a clouded pair of glasses. With it, we can see the high standard in front of us. Yet instead of seeing growth or effort that takes us closer to a goal, we see the distance between that goal and where we are.
Researchers say it creates feelings of helplessness or hopelessness. It can lead to depression, eating disorders, and other significant problems without positive coping strategies. Seeing only our lack makes achievement even less likely, because the goal keeps moving farther and farther away.
After all, what we focus on most we will always get more of. So if we focus on imperfection and how much we didn’t measure up, we are even more likely to fail and not measure up.
Pretty soon, even if we have done well in the past, perfectionism can become a brick wall. If you’ve ever experienced this kind of wall, you know what I’m talking about.
It can be like no matter what you want to do or what your good ideas are, there is just something that keeps you from action.
It might seem like other people or pressures are keeping us from having the time to take action. Or maybe we pack our schedule so full we think there might be some time in the distant future when we can work on what we want to achieve… but just not right now.
Take it from me—I have a LOT of experience holding very high standards of myself, and living with incredibly tight and heavy commitments—if we experience perfectionism, we actually become that brick wall holding us back.
We become the one thing standing in our own way.
How can I cope with perfectionism?
Coping with perfectionism is possible and can help us transform this challenge completely.
One of the best possible ways to deal with perfectionism is to focus on using values and principles to drive us rather than measuring the specific behaviors. We can also look at the outcome of our efforts and adjust as needed for the next opportunity.
Focusing on values and principles
Focusing on values and principles gives us a fixed idea, rather than a moving target. With my values as the driver of my performance, I can look at those values and ask myself how well I am living them. Then, I can identify for myself what I’d like to focus on.
For example, if I were to bring in a music example, this might be like focusing on the musical expression itself in a certain phrase, melody, or song.
If the artistry and musical expression becomes my focus, I’m no longer over focusing on each note or rhythm, but on the shape of the musical line.
Maybe as I’m just getting started learning to play the trumpet, I have to really focus on each note and learn to count rhythms. I might have to learn how to play at a certain volume, and to be able to change volumes while playing.
But after I can do those things with some confidence, I need to move into becoming an artist with the music rather than just focusing on the notes and rhythms.
I have some personal experience with this that might help illustrate this idea.
More than 30 years ago, I performed a short solo in high school band as part of the medley of tunes from the well known musical My Fair Lady. My trumpet tone was pleasant, and I was confident. Yet I cracked a note in that solo, and I focused on that flaw as a sign of failing in my performance.
After the concert, one of the parents of another student in our band approached me. She said, “I really loved your solo tonight. As you started to play, I was excited because I knew you always play so beautifully. And, tonight was no exception—what a fantastic solo! It really made that piece great.”
I had been a perfectionist in my approach to playing the trumpet, and I missed anything good I had done, thinking that the cracked note ruined it all.
While it might have been better without that flaw, the audience heard beauty in the music anyway. The bigger picture came through.
If I had been able to focus on the intention of what I was playing, the artistic message and line of the music, my performance would have been even better and I could have judged my playing based on the overall musical picture rather than focusing on the one flaw.
Looking at outcomes and adjustments
With values and principles to drive me, I am not going to be measuring myself by an arbitrary idea of perfection or always trying to figure out what others expect of me—whether it’s my boss, my husband, my mother, my friends, or other people in my life. Instead, I can keep going back to the main ideas I’m trying to live in whatever I do and check in with myself about how that’s going.
Looking back at my own story of playing the trumpet solo in high school, that would be about using the musical expression and overall sound of the music to judge my performance rather than looking at just the notes.
If I’m not pleased with my performance or outcome, using values and principles that are important to me as my focus, I’ll change my efforts in one of those areas. Basically, I can try different approaches.
Maybe my values are creativity, personal relationships, and influence.
I might work on my trumpet playing during my personal practice time, to develop more creativity in the way I phrase the music. I might improvise how to recover better from a cracked note or take different approaches to playing particular notes so that I have more confidence on them.
Using personal relationships and influence as values, I can focus on playing the music in a way that will really reach the audience and communicate to them. Focusing on the people I’m playing for is always a great way to stop focusing on the mechanics of notes and rhythms and focus more on the bigger artistic music.
With my values at the center of the work I’m doing, I can achieve a wonderful result that takes me to a higher level of performance than I could ever get if I only focus on perfect notes and rhythms.
Where my perfectionism could lead to discouragement when I make one little mistake, using values can lead to many more possibilities, creativity, and performance that is as unique as I am.
A few tips…
In closing, here are a few tips for overcoming perfectionism that will help move us away from the negative thinking and brick walls it brings, while giving us power to work toward high standards.
- Look back over the past to focus very specifically on your achievements and areas in which you have done well. As you do this, appreciate these times and your capacity to do things well.
- Consider which values you care most about. If possible, name them, and identify them.
- Look at your goals and future plans, in light of your values. Consider how a focus on each value might influence the way you work toward your goals or plans. How can your values influence your efforts?
- When faced with a failure, large or small, take stock of what progress you made and what you’ve learned along the way. Consider how you might be able to see the failure as a necessary step toward who you are becoming and where you want to be. Then, keep moving.
- Be kind to yourself. Don’t expect yourself to work in inhuman conditions, like excessively long hours, when you wouldn’t treat others the same way. Instead, treat yourself kindly as you work, just as you might be kind and encouraging toward other people in their efforts.