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The Pernicious Effects of Perfectionism

I am a recovering perfectionist. Those who know me might say the recovery is fully complete, as they see no visible signs of perfectionism. My house is not perfectly clean. My car is scratched and full of dog hair. I wear jeans and a t-shirt at every possible opportunity. And, even though I’ve spent a good amount of time as a professional proofreader, I don’t even proofread these blog posts. You might have noticed.

What’s wrong with being a perfectionist? Well, according to psychology experts, quite a bit.

What the Research Says

A 2010 study of professors found that: “…perfectionism trips up professors on the way to research productivity. The more perfectionistic the professor, the less productive they are.”

Since the 1990s, researchers have been studying the links between perfectionism, procrastination, performance anxiety and depression. See this study ​for more information.

Not only can perfectionism hamper productivity and, apparently, your career, but it also affects your happiness. According to Greg McKeown, writing for Harvard Business Review, “Unlike other obsessions and addictions, perfectionism is something a lot of people celebrate, believing it’s an asset. But true perfectionism can actually get in the way of productivity and happiness.” Psychology experts such as David Burns believe that perfectionism, rather than being a mark of excellence, is “… arguably the surest path to undermine happiness and productivity.”

In her book The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene Brown explains the difference between perfectionism and healthy achieving:

“Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best. Perfectionism is not about healthy achievement and growth. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment, and shame. It’s a shield. Perfectionism is a twenty-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from taking flight.” (56)

According to this definition of perfectionism, then, perfectionism is the thing that stops us from actually growing because we won't try new things—and that’s bad for our brains. What if children didn’t try new things and weren’t willing to be awkward? How would they ever learn? In the Silicon Valley, the motto is “fail fast,” implying that failure is a part of learning and growth. Perfectionism has no part in failing, therefore, it impedes growth and progress and can lead to stagnation.

Perfectionism vs. Healthy Achievement

Take note, there IS a difference between perfectionism and healthy achievement.

The important difference between perfectionism and healthy achievement is about where the motivation comes from:

  • Are you trying to do or be perfect in order to avoid blame, judgment and shame?

  • Or, are you motivated by wanting to create something better just because it’d be cool to do so?

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to do something well because you know what you are capable of; however, if the motivation is an attempt to avoid blame or gain that long- sought-after recognition and validation (e.g., “If I do this perfectly, I’ll be approved of/loved/acknowledged…”), then pay attention. You might be spinning your wheels in a state of perfectionist angst.

One of the reasons that Brown’s definition resonates with me is that she articulated EXACTLY how my perfectionism has always shown up. As a kid, I tried to be perfect because I thought it was a shield against some un-named, vague “bad thing happening.” I couldn’t have told you what I was afraid of—I just knew that I was, and the way to manage it was by trying to be perfect.

Real-Life Pernicious Perfectionism

As an adult my perfectionism shows up in two ways. First, I often find myself wondering, “Am I doing this right?” That’s the first sign that I’m trying to meet unknown, undefined expectations and have lost sight of my Self.

The second sign is that I procrastinate. When my perfectionist kicks in, I don’t start the project I’ve been dreaming of for months. I don’t make decisions (because it could be the wrong one). In college, surrounded by really bright kids and high achievers, I was intimidated by their smarts and drive. I compensated by becoming so busy that I couldn’t possibly be expected to be perfect. This is a common strategy for underachievers. Many underachievers are perfectionists who don’t know how to give themselves (or who have been taught not to) permission to “fail.” So, instead, they simply don’t try in the first place.

I’ll give you a couple examples. Ironically, this blog post is one. I’ve wanted to write about perfectionism for four months. Instead of writing about perfectionism, I’ve written eight blog posts on other topics. I was waiting to find the “right time.” And then for the past five weeks, I’ve done nothing because I decided it was time to write about perfectionism. And I really want to because there’s so much to say on the topic. But I was worried about “getting it right.” So, I sat on this topic, which is why you haven’t seen anything from me for a few weeks, which is like blog suicide.

Another example is the mosaic pictured here. I first thought of doing this mosaic for my friend Kim’s clinic, Veterinary Cancer and Surgery Specialists six months before I finished it. I was really excited about the project. Doing a “healing heart” from a salvaged window for her garden at the clinic seemed, well, perfect for animals and their owners that needed to heal. I had a lot of fun doing sketches, trying different patterns and color combinations. I doodled in my journal, got out my fat Crayola markers and doodled some more. But when it came to making a decision and committing to just one drawing, I shut down. The window sat on my project table for two months—until I realized that what was stopping me was fear of “doing it wrong” and the knowledge that “a real artist would do a better job.”

Sigh. Perhaps. But “a real artist” wasn’t inspired to do it. I was.

So after months of thinking (and procrastinating), I finally started cutting and gluing the glass. It may not be perfect, but it’s now hanging in my friend’s veterinary clinic just the same, which is a much better place for it than in my garage.

Tips for Identifying and Dealing with Your Perfectionism

1. Identify what is motivating you to do something better. If the motivation is along the lines of gaining approval, worrying what others will think, proving yourself worthy, or trying to avoid blame or shame, then see what brand of perfectionism you have. Where/when did it start? (Perfectionism is learned not born, according to Brown.)

2. Try on the motto: “Done is better than perfect,” for a week (a day?) and see what happens to your productivity and procrastination.

3. Check out this Huffington Post article for 14 Signs Your Perfectionism Has Gotten Out of Control.

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