Career

How Being A Perfectionist Is Holding You Back

It took me fifteen attempts to write this introduction. Throughout the process, I questioned my intelligence, my English skills, and my suitability for doing anything other than making paper snowflakes with a pair of safety scissors.

It’s safe to say I’m a perfectionist. (Or is it? I better quadruple-check with the latest studies.)

I might not be a typical example, but I doubt I’m far outside the bell-curve. I think many 20-somethings these days are feeling the same kind of pressures that I do: pressure to have the most productive schedule, the healthiest account balance, the dankest Game of Thrones memes on our Facebook profiles.

But does the pressure to be perfect actually help us improve? There are signs it could be holding us back.

Fear of imperfection

For example, I love ice hockey. But at one point in my training, I plateaued hard; my progress halted completely. Eventually, I realised I was only practising techniques I had already mastered, and avoiding unfamiliar drills out of fear of looking stupid. The solution was to let go of my perfectionist need to look like an awesome hockey player and embrace looking like a total noob. As soon as I did that, I was free to experiment with new techniques, and my progress started to climb again.

A lame story, perhaps, but it’s a pattern I often see repeated – both in my own life and in others’.

A few months ago, I spoke to a personal trainer who said he sees perfectionism in clients all the time. “People think that if they’re dieting and they eat something bad, it means they’ve failed. Then they get discouraged and give up.”

There’s a world of difference between perfectionist standards and setting healthy goals. Setting up rigid, excessively harsh rules like “don’t have a single ice-cream or you’ll be fat forever” only sets people up to become disappointed in themselves.

But such behaviour has come to be considered normal, because perfection is considered normal.

Perfectionists aren’t perfect

There’s a perception – one frequently portrayed in the movies – that perfectionists tend to be highly successful, if a little high-strung. But Vijaya Manicavasagar, Associate Professor and clinical psychologist at Black Dog Institute, says that perfectionism can actually lead to “behavioural paralysis.”

“Some perfectionists get so overwhelmed by their fear of failure that trying anything becomes too much,” she tells The Cusp. “They freeze up, and end up doing nothing rather than failing.”

And the paralysing power of perfectionism is often delivered to us through the things we trust most: our smartphones and computers.

Associate Professor Manicavasagar says that because young people tend to use social media more frequently than older generations, they can be uniquely susceptible to the pull of perfectionism.

By consuming social media, we’re slowly conditioned into thinking that every aspect of our lives should be amazing. If we’re not travelling the world, eating gourmet food and enjoying glamourous experiences with good-looking people, we feel that we’ve somehow failed. And if we let it, that self-monitoring can infect every aspect of our lives; we begin to see everything through the lens of, “Is this Instagrammable?”

And I think the reality-distorting power of social media may be limiting our collective ability to learn from our failures.

The lessons of losing

I know what you’re thinking: Wow, failure can teach you things? What an original insight!

Yeah, it might be trite, but I think it’s a truth we ignore to our peril. And it certainly doesn’t sit well with perfectionism. “Perfectionists tend to be very focused on the end-goal,” says Associate Professor Manicavasagar, “They don’t notice the process.”

That’s an important thing to consider, as the end-result comprises so little of life. Reading your exam scores takes ten seconds. A semester lasts six months. Which experience has more to teach you?

As JK Rowling once said, “Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way.”

Embrace sucking at life

As someone with perfectionist tendencies, I often view realistic goals as concessions to mediocrity. But they’re not. Being realistic is merely acknowledging that you’re human and you’ll make mistakes. What really leads to mediocrity is demanding the impossible from yourself, and giving up as a result.

When you set your goals too high and too narrow, you’re essentially walking a tightrope. Adopting more realistic standards is like having a safety net; you have room to make mistakes, and learn from them.

In hockey, the first thing they teach you is how to fall. By learning to fall, you lose your fear of the ice, which makes you less likely to panic and more open to improvisation.

I think it’s a lesson we could all use now and then.

If you or someone you know needs help dealing with perfectionism or another mental health issue, you can contact the Black Dog Psychology Clinic here.


Joel Svensson is a Canberra-based writer originally from Melbourne. He’s written more latté-fuelled stories about first-world problems than he cares to admit, and can be found coping with misleading hashtags at @le0jay.