The Pressures of Perfectionism

What does it really mean to be a perfectionist? Read on to find out!

Ever caught yourself excessively checking and rechecking your work? 

Do you procrastinate finishing your tasks because it’s not perfect? 

Perhaps you pride yourself over your meticulous detail to perfection and are afraid of failing?

If you’ve watched Disney’s Encanto and find yourself associating with Isabella’s What Else Can I Do? or Luisa’s Surface Pressure, these thoughts may have lingered in your mind a couple of times. Well, I’m here to tell you that it’s ok to experience various types of emotions. However, if we’re constantly thinking that way, then you should OPEN YOUR EYES wider! Why? Because my dear, you’re slowly putting yourself in danger of perfectionism!

Yes, you heard it right. Some might perceive it as good while others strive to reach that level. Perhaps it’ll result in you being chosen among others for opportunities like being selected as a leader or being showered by praises because it shows that you’re perfect. But the sad reality is that we’ve misunderstood the whole concept of perfectionism.

According to Mazmanian and Short, perfectionism is defined as ‘the tendency to strive towards personal improvement and putting high standards for oneself’. Striving for personal improvements is definitely a good thing to work on as it motivates you to keep improving. However, putting high standards on oneself could be deceiving if we interpret it wrongly. 

So, is it alright to strive for perfectionism? Is it wrong to set high standards on ourselves to be successful? To answer this, we must first dissect the myths of being a perfectionist, what it could cost you, and what it truly means.

What It Mean to Be a Perfectionist

Myth 1: Perfectionists get things done and they do things right.

Reality: Perfectionists often have problems with procrastination, missed deadlines, and low productivity.

Perfectionists are really particular with everything they do to ensure good quality work is produced. However, it gets worse when this need to constantly produce perfect work could lead them to exert more effort, using up all their energy to ensure that they don’t make any mistakes. This would be more time-consuming and cause delay in the progress of other tasks. 

For example, you pull an all-nighter to complete your written assignment and spend hours checking it over and over and over (you get the idea) again. While doing this is good to a certain extent, overdoing it could lead to many unnecessary changes and reduce your productivity level as you spend much of your precious time agonising over non-critical details because it’s not ‘perfect’. In the end, you’d rewrite the whole thing again with a possibility of missing the deadline. 

Why? They perceive that flawless products must be produced at all time. If it can’t be done perfectly, then it’s not worth doing. Worst thing is that you’d start to feel exhausted and procrastinate doing other tasks. 

It's ok if you can't do it perfectly as long as you can do it.

Myth 2: I wouldn’t be successful as I am today if I weren’t such a perfectionist!

Reality: Perfectionism doesn’t always lead to success and fulfilment.

There isn’t any evidence that perfectionists are more successful than others. Spiritual guru, Deepak Chopra, shared that success is ‘the continued expansion of happiness and the progressive realisation of worthy goals’. And isn’t that the reality of it all?

At the end of the day, what matters is the continual growth of a person. Most people become successful because they learn from their own mistakes. It’s the moment where we get up from our mistakes and continue on that shapes us to who the people we can become. Just like Thomas Edison.

Myth 3: Perfectionist are determined to overcome all obstacles to succeed.

Reality: They’re more vulnerable to potentially serious mental issues like depression or social anxiety.

“I’ll keep trying until it’s perfect.” “I’ll withstand all challenges to get the perfect results.”

Being too focused on perfecting the end product or obtaining intended results often takes away the ability to learn from the process of accomplishing a task. While having an end goal is good, concentrating solely on that can affect a person’s mental health as end results are unpredictable despite putting in a lot of effort. 

Having to deal with episodes of failure can be overwhelming for someone who only strives for perfection and could take a toll on one’s mental health. Firstly, you’ll start feeling stressed all the time especially when completing a task which leads to a faster burnout rate. As you experience burnout, even the simplest task becomes a drag and, if not addressed, could even lead to more psychological disorders, depression, hopelessness, and anxiety, in the future. Suffering from episodes like these could also severely affect your study or work performance, bringing you back to the start of the problem and looping you into the vicious cycle.

Prevent Yourself From Being Pressured by Perfectionism

So while we pride people who consider themselves as perfectionists, there’s more to it than it seems and could lead to even bigger problems. That’s not to say we shouldn’t aim to be the best version of ourselves! Rather, we need to control ourselves from going overboard. For people who associate themselves with perfectionism, or anyone looking to improve themselves, here’s what you need to be aware of.

1. Be realistic about what you can do.

Before setting realistic goals, you’ve to first know your own capabilities and weaknesses. Otherwise, the goals that you’ve set may be overwhelming for you to achieve. This is where healthy goal setting is applicable because they’ll be set based on your wants and desires instead of being based on expectation of others. As such, you’ll feel motivated to achieve your goals and whenever you face any criticism or failure, you’re able to embrace it with an open mind and heart.

Write down healthy and realistic goals for yourself to manage your perfectionism.

2. Shift your mindset and accept imperfectionism.

Perfectionism isn’t a behaviour but a way of thinking of yourself - Andrew Hill

Having a perfectionist attitude often means having a fixed mindset which, in actuality, sets us back from being the best version of ourselves. On the flipside, going cold turkey and forcing oneself to develop a growth mindset as a perfectionist can be very difficult initially. That’s where adaptive perfectionism comes in.

Adaptive perfectionism is having a healthy relationship with perfectionism where you’d tolerate the imperfections without resorting to the harsh self-criticism. This is where you’d have to learn, accept, and embrace your own imperfections. Whenever you encounter any failures or make mistakes, practice saying “I can learn from my mistakes and improve!”. Whether you realise it or not, it actually helps you to increase your self-esteem, feel good about yourself, and you’d start to respect and value yourself — even the imperfections. 

At the same time, you’re able to develop emotional regulation skills or the ability to control one's own emotional state. For example, whenever you feel extremely sad or angry towards yourself, you’re able to control them by not letting them take control of your actions like verbally beating up yourself or hurting yourself.

3. Learn to deal with criticism.

Once you’re able to accept your own imperfections, you should also learn how to react and deal with criticism. Instead of viewing criticism as a personal attack against your work, accept it as constructive feedback that’ll help you improve yourself. Take that criticism as an opportunity to grow and strive higher!

4. Monitor your progress.

Whenever you’re trying something new or improving yourself, monitoring your progress is a must! Not only does it show you whether it’s impactful or not, you can also see the small changes throughout your journey. A simple way to keep track of this is via bullet journalling. Add a section in your weekly reflection to review your progress on controlling perfectionism. Here are some simple questions that you could reflect on:

  • Was there anything I avoided this week due to fear of making mistakes? 

  • How did I react when making mistakes or facing criticism?

  • What flaws did I notice and accept? How did I embrace it?

If you’re struggling with these steps on your own, remember that you’re never alone! Perhaps talking to a counsellor, therapist, or someone you trust that can help you and keep you accountable would be a good place to start.

Perfectionism is a double-edged sword. It may offer you a good side for your personal improvement journey but it could also kill you slowly from the inside. While you don’t have to get rid of perfectionism, you should learn to manage it. Remember, humans are meant to make mistakes. We need to be brave and learn from the mistakes to improve ourselves.

Nur Sorfina completed her Bachelor of Business (Honours) Banking & Finance at Taylor’s University in July 2021. She is the Director of Public Relations of Taylor’s Connect and currently interning as an IT Advisor at KPMG Malaysia.