Understanding and Minimizing the Negative Effects of Perfectionism

The science behind how to not let failure define you.

Understanding and Minimizing the Negative Effects of Perfectionism
Photo by J. Meier on Unsplash

The science behind how to not let failure define you.

The world might have made you believe that you’re nothing if not “successful”. But is it healthy to strive for perfection in whatever you do? Recent research by a team from the University of Bergen in Norway has established that there are two types of perfectionists: the striving perfectionist and the evaluative perfectionist.

People who are striving perfectionists have an intrinsic desire to be the best. In contrast, the evaluative perfectionists consider it of utmost importance to not fail in the eyes of other people. The study established that people with evaluative concerns tended to show symptoms of depression and anxiety, whereas the striving perfectionists rarely had anxiety and never depression. Research has also linked evaluative perfectionistic concerns to stress, eating disorders, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

“Perfectionism doesn’t make you feel perfect; it makes you feel inadequate.”
 — Maria Shriver

As Brené Brown puts it in her book The Gifts of Imperfection, “Healthy striving is self-focused: How can I improve? Perfectionism is other-focused: What will they think?

So, how to identify if you are a striving perfectionist or an evaluative one? The Frost Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale defines eight agree-disagree statements and is grouped into two categories: strivings and evaluative concerns.

Striving Concerns

  • I have extremely high goals.
  • Other people seem to accept lower standards from themselves than I do.
  • I set higher goals for myself than most people.
  • I expect higher performance in my daily tasks than most people.

Evaluative Concerns

  • If I fail at work/school, I am a failure as a person.
  • If someone does a task at work/school better than me, then I feel like I failed at the whole task.
  • If I do not do well all the time, people will not respect me.
  • The fewer mistakes I make, the more people will like me.

If you found yourself nodding more often to the second list, you might have some evaluative tendencies. This article discusses the research-backed ways on how you can get rid of the need to be perfect all the time. But before that, let’s take a look at how the evaluative concerns might be holding you back.

How Perfectionism Can Hold You Back

“Perfectionism is self-abuse of the highest order.”
 — Anne Wilson Schaef

According to Psychology Today, here are the ways your desire to be perfect in everything you do can hold you back:

  • Conditional self-worth: If you put too much value in being “perfect” in whatever task you’re performing, you’ll likely tie your self-worth to the idea of a job well done. This can hardly be sustainable, especially when not all your endeavours are bound to be successes.
  • A strict definition of failure: Your innate perfectionism might make you see the world in all-or-nothing terms. If a task you’re performing fails, you see yourself as a failure. It gets hard to dissociate yourself from your accomplishments.
  • Irrational fear and procrastination: Because you’re so obsessed with succeeding, you’ll tend to have a deep-rooted fear of failure. This might prevent you from starting to work. The “what if it fails?” voice in your head shuts the “what if it succeeds?” one and you end up putting off work. If you’re so focussed on not failing, you’ll not be able to pull yourself up and look for lessons in the failure.
  • Stress: Your need to be perfect can give you undue stress. As psychologist Elizabeth Lombardo puts it, “Perfectionism can affect your work to the extent that you never finish projects, find it difficult to delegate to others, or work excessive hours just to make sure your finished work is perfect.”

How to Keep Your Perfectionism in Check

Of course, holding yourself to high standards is not inherently bad. It’s possible to have high goals and still not let it overwhelm you. Here’s how you can go about it:

Find meaning in your work.

A quote attributed to Aristotle goes, “Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work.” If you learn to love the work process, you’ll stop holding so much value in the results.

In the book Finding Meaning in an Imperfect World, author Iddo Landau argues that of all the misconceptions that lead people to believe that their life is meaningless, probably the most common and harmful is the perfectionist presupposition — the belief that life is meaningless without perfection. By focusing so much on life being perfect, people miss out on the magic that’s in the ordinary.

The author suggests two strategies to increase meaning in one’s life:

  • Identifying or discovering what’s meaningful for you. This can be achieved through journaling and/or self-reflection. As Landau quotes, “Many dedicate more thought in one evening to deliberating which restaurant or film they should go to than they do in their entire lifetime to deliberating what would make their lives more meaningful.”
  • Recognising or emotionally appreciating the meaning in your life. This is possible if you learn to appreciate all the things you have. You need to acknowledge all the gifts you've been given and learn to attach emotional value to them.

Get rid of the need to be perfect at all times.

The biggest roadblock perfectionism presents in your life is how it makes you focus all your energy on avoiding failure. If you learn how to shift that energy into learning lessons from any disaster, you can go about incorporating healthy perfectionism in your life. According to Psychology Today, here’s how you can do it:

  1. Play first. Edit later: When you begin a project, focus on getting it completed, not on every part of it being perfect.
  2. Go with the flow: Avoid distractions while working and keep the momentum going. If you start overthinking about the results, it might hamper your workflow. Don’t fall into that rabbit hole. Enjoy the journey.
  3. You’ll never be ready: Accept the fact that no matter how much you prepare and polish your product, you’ll never be 100% ready. Yes, you will face criticism, but it will be worth it. Launch now. There’s no time like the present.
  4. Done is better than perfect: An extension of the above.

Set realistic goals.

If you beat yourself up too hard, it’s important to take a step back and really evaluate your goals. Are they realistically achievable? According to psychologist Lara Honos-Webb, PhD, “A goal is unrealistic when it requires more energy, skills, talents, and time than you have available in order to achieve it.”

Don’t be too hard on yourself. Know your weaknesses and play to your strengths.

Final Words

Being ambitious is awesome. But, wanting to win at everything to the extent that you fill yourself with guilt and brutal self-retribution each time you fail is toxic.

Most often, people tend to beat themselves up over failure in a small project that won’t even matter in the ultimate scheme of things. This can bring your confidence down and make you feel like you aren’t good enough.

Remember: you failed in ONE project. You’re not a failure. You don’t have to let it define you. Your self-worth is not tied to your accomplishments. You are better than this one failure. You can do it.

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