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  • Writer's pictureDr. Anna Jetton

When Perfect Becomes the Enemy of the Good

Perfectionists often pride themselves on being perfectionists because they credit this tendency with being a hard worker, a high achiever, and ultimately being successful. However, is perfectionism really all that it’s cracked up to be? It’s true that perfectionists do tend to be high achievers and typically succeed in what they do. So, does this mean that all high achievers are perfectionists? And if not, what’s the difference? At what point does striving for excellence become problematic and how can we change it?

People who struggle with perfectionist tendencies have typically learned somewhere along the way that their value rests in the quality of the work they do, not in their intrinsic worth as a human. They may have been raised by overly anxious caregivers who were often critical of their efforts. They learned they are most loved, appreciated and valued when they succeed.

Perfectionists struggle with control that is in service of avoiding the pain of feeling judgment and shame. In other words, failure is not an option for a perfectionist because it touches on that pain point deeply.

A high achiever, on the other hand, knows that it’s okay to fail and can see this experience as a learning opportunity. A perfectionist’s main lesson is to learn how to “fail.” In opening themselves up to this experience, they come to learn their self-worth is not dependent on their performance.

High achievers know that hitting a goal is not the same as being perfect because “perfect” is not possible. Instead, they are able to view these successes for what they are, a learning experience. They do not attach their self-worth to these experiences one way or another, and instead view progress as the willingness to learn and grown no matter what the outcome is. To this end, high achievers tend to be naturally drawn toward goals. While perfectionists often feel stressed about having to approach them out of fear of failing (procrastination anyone?).

Are You A Perfectionist?

If you’re reading this, you might be wondering where you fall on this spectrum. Are you more of a perfectionist? Or are you more of a high achiever?

Common signs of perfectionism include:

1. All or Nothing Thinking: Perfectionists tend to accept nothing less than the outcome they anticipate and plan for. Anything less is often viewed as insufficient or a failure.

2. Goals are unattainable: Perfectionists set their goals out of reach and are often unrealistic. When they do this, they set themselves up for failure and the cycle continues.

3. Low self-esteem: Perceived failures are not just disappointing for perfectionists, they are often very painful. Perfectionists tend beat themselves up and are overly critical of their (and others’) perceived failures. This tendency to be overly critical typically increases low self-esteem while also pushing others away.

4. Defensiveness: Because a less-than-perfect performance is so painful and scary to perfectionists, they tend to take constructive criticism defensively.

5. Procrastination: Fear of failure freezes perfectionists from taking any action on a project and they often end up putting things off until the last minute.

And How Exactly Are High Achievers Different?

1. High achievers are ablet to live in the gray. They see opportunity in both success and failure. They recognize there is value to both and lessons to be learned from each. “Mistakes just lead to new ideas” is a perspective they hold well.

2. High achievers know how to pace themselves and set themselves up for success by being honest about their strengths and their weaknesses. They choose their goals accordingly.

3. High achievers carry a healthy sense of self because they are able to see the whole of themselves. They are able to embrace their perceived weaknesses as much as their strengths, knowing that the two are actually interdependent.

4. High achievers value critical feedback because they see this as an opportunity to improve and grow. They are not afraid of it.

5. High achievers are able to remain in the process of a task and have a willingness to approach it a step at a time. They are not attached to the outcome (i.e. “it must go this way”) and instead have a willingness to adapt as they go.

Failure Is the Point ...

Once someone can see the pattern of perfectionism that is playing out, they are able to address it by learning to do things differently. Perfectionists can learn to “fail” in a healthy way that allows them to use some of their traits as a skill set and not see it as a detriment. They learn to grow by having the willingness to embrace the idea that it may not go as planned. They are willing to take new risks without the holding the pressure of needing to control the outcome. Learning to look at the broader picture is a good starting point, such that they are not as focused on the outcome as much as the process of working toward a goal. Let the work be its own reward in this instance. Failure teaches us we are still okay even when the outcome is not.

Self-Compassion is Your Safety Net ...

In addition to learning the value of failure, perfectionist can also learn to soothe themselves in a more loving way; a way they often did not receive growing up. Being able to develop a more cohesive, validating, and compassionate relationship with self is important to learning how to turn down the volume on their inner critic. In this way, they are able to draw upon different self-talk that is more validating to who they are, no matter what the outcome is. They are able to know they are still enough even when things don’t go the way they’d hope. We can learn this by tapping into the care we hold for others … what would you say to a close friend or family member who is struggling with the exact same concern? How do you perceive their struggle? What can you provide them? Now, how will you provide these things to yourself?

If you or someone you love struggles with perfectionist tendencies, help is available. Recognizing that a change is needed is a very important step to reaching a place of acceptance that comes from being able to overcome these tendencies and move toward a belief that “good enough” really is good enough.

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