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Is Being a Perfectionist a Bad Thing?

Are you a perfectionist? If so, you might want to read how it could backfire on you...

It was during my IGCSE English exam I discovered something about me that has been affecting all the areas of my life. English was my favourite subject and when the exam started I began writing in pencil first, then I’d rewrite with my pen on top of that and erase the pencil parts. I was careful not to make any mistakes as it might be unpleasant for the examiners to look at. Though this process was time consuming, my exam paper looked spotless. And when the invigilator informed us about the last 15 mins remaining, I panicked as I still had 4 big questions untouched. Unfortunately I was only able to finish two questions before I had to hand in my paper. 

Fast forward to the results day, I scored an E — I was disgusted with my results as 3 years of hard work, practice, and learning went to waste.

But little did I know this incident was teaching me a valuable lesson which I would cherish for the rest of my life. And that is the lesson of the negative effects of perfectionism.

According to Dr. Tal Ben-book Shahar's "The Pursuit of Perfect", there are two types of perfectionists: adaptive and maladaptive.

Adaptive perfectionists are constantly looking for new ways to improve their talents. Their expectations are constantly growing, and they approach work with optimism, pleasure and a drive to develop.

Maladaptive perfectionists, on the other hand, are never pleased with their accomplishments and, if something isn't flawless, they disregard it. I obviously belong to the latter.  

Research indicates that perfectionism is on the rise, with an increasing percentage of people attempting to improve their lifestyles.

A 2011 research further found a positive link between perfectionism and health issues such as eating disorders, depression, migraines, anxiety, burnout, and personality disorders.

Yet, perfectionism is something a lot of us use to humble-brag in our job interviews. But I’m here to tell you why it's bad news. It's an excuse we use for unfinished work. Simply put, it's a blocker of progress. Let me illustrate.

         Image Source: Amazon.com

Why is it a problem?

 

First of all, perfectionism makes us think that we have to get everything right at the first try. It can harm our productivity by increasing our proclivity to procrastinate. If you're a perfectionist, you might resist starting a new project until you've discovered the very ’best method’ to tackle it.

Additionally, the time spent on perfecting our craft at the first try becomes so time consuming that we tend to miss the deadline and ditch the project fully. I had to learn this the hard way. I’ve started countless big and exciting projects and have ditched them as I was getting tired of my perfectionism.

Even if the tasks are small, trying to perfect your craft on the first try makes us mentally tired and eventually makes us bored of whatever we are trying to do. 

“Learn from your mistakes” is a powerful statement which I need to try out more often as perfectionism also means that we’re trying to avoid mistakes. I personally hate when mistakes happen, so I try to avoid it at all costs. But how can I learn from my mistakes if I don’t make any? So by not making mistakes when I can afford it, mistakes tend to happen often when I can't — like what happened with my IGCSE English paper. 

Perfectionism can drastically harm your self-esteem. This is because perfectionists view self-worth as being linked to achievement. They believe that others will judge them based on their accomplishments. This can result in a negative spiral of self-criticism, blaming, and self-sabotage. It can also trigger Impostor Syndrome because you frequently find ‘proof’ that you aren't good enough.

How to deal with it?

 

 

Set deadlines

Something that has helped me immensely is setting deadlines. It means that I set a deadline for myself which I have to abide by. So even if my project is a work in progress, or ‘unfinished’ I try to wrap it up. And most of the time, to my surprise, the work turns out to be great. Try this for yourself and see.

Welcome criticism

Being a perfectionist also means that I try to do my work so well that the audience has nothing to criticise about. However, welcoming criticism opens you to new possibilities on what can be improved which will lead towards perfecting your craft more than perfectionism itself. It allows you room to breathe and make mistakes, and embrace your mistakes and improve on them.

Make mistakes and learn from them

As I mentioned previously, if we don’t make mistakes we won’t learn from it. Novelist James Joyce referred to mistakes as ‘portals of discovery’. This is due to the fact that they can deliver rich learning experiences that educate you considerably more than a flawless performance. Though, not reflecting on your mistakes makes them worthless. Meaning that you have to learn from your mistakes and try not to repeat them so that the mistakes you made would be worth it. 

Focus on the bigger picture

Perfectionism can lead to ‘tunnel vision’, which occurs when you focus on one little area of something while ignoring the rest. You might, for example, obsess over a minor aspect of a presentation, such as the fonts or special effects, rather than focusing on the content and meaning that you are attempting to deliver. Remember to keep an eye on the big picture. Your flaws will appear far less severe, and you will feel less need to be flawless.

 

Don’t compare yourself with others

The internet is your worst enemy when it comes to comparison. The hustle culture coupled with harsh critics on the internet has set unrealistic standards on us to succeed and present work that is exceptional. As a result, we tend to compare ourselves with those who have done well in the field.

But how can you compare your 1st or 2nd draft with someone’s 100th or 252nd? That’s just ridiculous! When we see people’s work on the internet, what we don’t see is how much effort and how many hours of work went into that. What we see is the fruits of their labour, we don’t see their failures. So the only person you should be comparing yourself to is you or your past self. 

 

It’s easy to drown in the crazy expectations of society and set ridiculously high standards for yourself and never seem to be satisfied with your work. While the two types of perfectionists differ in their own ways, what research confirms is that neither forms improved performance. It concludes time and time again that perfectionism isn't a useful approach, period!

We discussed 5 main ways of how to deal with it and be on your journey of overcoming perfectionism. Though the journey might be long, what’s essential is that you try your best and utilise these tricks and make them work to your advantage.

Ali Najah is Taylor's University's alumni, who pursued a Bachelor's Degree in International Business and Marketing (Honours). He is a Board member of the Media & Design department at Taylor's Muslim Student Association (MSA). He is also a writer and photographer at Taylor's Etc Magazine.

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