It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why “perfectionism” might be less than ideal. In fact, in preparation for this post I asked my friend’s 7 year old daughter about the perils of perfection and she had a lot of wisdom. Okay, so I didn’t exactly ask about the “perils of perfectionism”—- and when I say she had “a lot of wisdom”—- I’m probably biased but that’s neither here nor there.
Me: “Becca, May I ask you a question pretty please?”
Becca: “I guess.”
Me: “Awesome, I appreciate your enthusiasm!”
Becca: Stares blankly, unamused.
Me: “Okay, so you know your friend Katie from school?”
Me: Tries super hard not to laugh in order to avoid reinforcing sass-mouth but dang, it’s hard sometimes!
Also Me: “So let’s pretend that Katie wants to learn how to play the piano and—”
Becca: “She already knows how to play the piano. She’s been taking lessons forever–like since she was 6.”
Me: “Oh okay great! So let’s pretend that she is trying to learn how to play a new song that she’s never tried to play before. Which do you think would be better?”
A) Katie focusing on trying to play the whole song perfectly.
B) Katie focusing on having fun while she learns.
Becca: “Learning a new song could be hard so I think she should just have fun.”
Me: “That makes sense. What could happen if she focused on being perfect?”
Becca: “She’d probably feel bad every time she messed up and she might not have as much fun. My mom says nobody is perfect.”
THAT, my friends, is not only a sign that Becca’s mom is NAILING parenthood, but it also reinforces why “perfectionism” shouldn’t be the gold standard of excellence; It sets us up to feel crappy about ourselves when really it was never an attainable goal. And just in case Becca’s 7 years of on-the-job-training isn’t enough to convince you, here are a couple more things to consider before allowing any version of the word “perfect” into your next Personal Improvement Plan:
Perfectionism can lead to mental health problems
Multiple studies link “perfectionism” to a myriad of mental health conditions including anxiety, depression, panic disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder. You can find a ton of supporting research by perusing the plethora of studies cited within this 2017 issue of the Journal of Psychology and Cognition.
Perfectionism can increase suicidal thoughts, feelings and behaviors
If you can buy into the idea that perfectionism can lead to all the mental health conditions listed above, it’s likely not that big of a stretch to consider its’ impact on suicidal thoughts and feelings. Not surprisingly this phenomenon has also been studied. While definitions have differed throughout the years, certain aspects of “perfectionism” have been repeatedly associated with increased suicidality. For example, aspects related to having concerns about meeting other’s’ expectations were associated with making more suicide attempts.
Abandoning “perfection” doesn’t mean giving up personal standards and goals
There’s a big difference between being someone who aims high and someone who only feels successful and worthwhile at the top. Here are a few tips for avoiding the latter.
1) Set attainable goals.
Perfectionists often choose goals that no one could ever reasonably achieve. Maybe our friend Katie from earlier in this post can set a goal of learning a new song within the next month by choosing to practice for 15-30 minutes, 3 times a week.
2) Enjoy the journey, without too much focus on the destination.
Do you want that next promotion at work? Great, go for it! However, focus on the daily tasks that you enjoy and the small personal successes (and hiccups) along the way.
3) Practice self-compassion.
One of the biggest differences between adaptive and maladaptive versions of “perfectionism” is that the healthy kind involves a huge serving of self-love. “I’m going to try my best to get an ‘A’ on that chemistry test but if I don’t, I’ll just try again next time” verses “I have to get an ‘A’ on that chemistry test or I’m going to feel like a complete failure.” It’s okay to miss the mark we set for ourselves and when it happens it shouldn’t take a toll on our self-worth. “Failures” aren’t connected to character flaws and/or personal deficits—they are just a part of life and they don’t have to get in the way of enjoying it. So, do yourself a favor—listen to 7 year old Becca and focus on the fun!