While perfectionism is commonly seen as believing you want to be perfect or perhaps the obsession of wanting something to be exactly right, being a perfectionist can manifest in other subtle ways:
- Having to check something just one more time
- Procrastinating with the thought that it isn’t the perfect time to start something
- Being the first person to spot a mistake all the time
It actually reflects more than we think and can be a blessing or a curse.
“Perfectionism is more than pushing yourself to do your best to achieve a goal; it’s a reflection of an inner self mired in anxiety.” — Thomas S. Greenspon
This is said by Thomas S. Greenspon, a psychologist and author of a recent paper on an “antidote to perfectionism,” published in Psychology in the Schools 
In other words, perfectionism is born out of uneasiness, concern and doubt rather than a simple basic want to do things well.
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The Psychology Behind Perfectionism
Why are some people such perfectionists? There are several reasons why this personality trait is stronger in some than others and it’s down to a certain psychological mindset.
While some people take or leave mistakes as a lesson, perfectionists see them as personal flaws. They mentally beat themselves up and feel that sense of failure – the same fear of failure that perfectionism stems from.
Another source of perfectionism is the issue of the ego. Many people want things to be perfect because they’re in a mindset of caring what other people will think of them – that they’ll be judged negatively if something isn’t up to a certain standard.
Childhood experiences can also allow perfectionism to evolve in your personality, especially if you’ve learned from a parent or guardian that you somehow can’t be loveable if you’re not perfect. This transcends into your way of thinking throughout work and relationships into adulthood.
And of course, the restricted rules during your education years can teach you at a young age that following rules is important and to your detriment if you’re to break them in any way or not live up to them.
How Perfectionism Secretly Screws You Up
Many people take comfort in being a perfectionist but it’s a common myth that perfectionism creates perfection.
One downside is the time wasted on making something seemingly perfect and actually causes you to become less productive.
Spending more time on something can often be an illusion – we think we’re improving something but that time isn’t necessarily quality time and could be hindering your performance.
For example, say you were working on an important project for your department that accounted for 15% of sales for the company and it took you 4 months to complete. While another coworker completed another project in a month that only accounted for 7% of overall sales for the company. While it didn’t rack up more sales, your coworker had time to complete further projects which brought a total of 21% of sales.
This is an example of the idea that failing fast is better than succeeding too slowly. When you fail fast, you learn much more in a shorter period of time preparing you for future success much sooner and this is what perfectionism can prevent.
How to Change Your Perfectionist Mindset
If you feel your perfectionism is holding you back, then it might be time to change your habits and way of thinking. There are several strategies you can adopt to change your perfectionist mindset and improve your success in life.
1. Abandon the “All or Nothing” Mindset
A common mindset when it comes to perfectionism is either you want to do something well or not at all. But the problem with this is in denying the importance of the process.
Achieving greatness comes from the experience and insights gained from this process, allowing you the chance to tune and apply these for future success. This inadvertently reduces the chance of failure overall despite what the perfectionist mind may try hard to deny.
2. Keep in Mind the 80/20 and 70% Rule
It’s sometimes easy to ignore the essence of something when it comes to perfectionism but as long as the essence is apparent within whatever you’re doing, it doesn’t need 100% perfection. Just 70% is all it really needs for it to be great and the fine tuning can be done afterwards. This way you’re seeing the end result more clearly helping to see potential issues.
The 80/20 rule is a good one to keep in mind – only 20% of your efforts can amount to 80% of the results. Any more than this isn’t going to make a huge difference plus it gives you that leeway to tune up the details at a later date.
3. Actively Ask for Positive Feedback
Feedback is every perfectionist’s worst nightmare and while getting both positive and negative feedback is the ideal, this is something a perfectionist would struggle with already being aware of shortcomings and inadequacies. Therefore, asking for feedback on a regular basis can help counteract this and get the mind used to a balance of opinion.
4. Sort Out the “Must Haves” from the “Good to Haves”
Lots of ideas can be great unless perfectionism is your downfall. Prioritization is key here but a perfectionist can find it hard to leave out ideas that they think should be included. However, this is detrimental to the quality of your work or project and can cause you to fall behind or add extra pressure on yourself.
Before you start any project, make sure you create a list of the ‘must haves’ and the ‘good to haves’. Make the ‘must haves’ an absolute priority and only include the ‘good to haves’ if time allows.
5. Celebrate Small Wins Every Day
A perfectionist’s mindset tends to lean towards the negative so writing down 3 daily achievements can help shift this mindset to one of positivity. Anything small from “I got up earlier than my alarm today” to “I met a new and interesting person” can get the mind thinking of positive aspects and detracts from the negative.
One study explains how this is all down to certain chemicals interacting with our reward system in the brain allowing us to receive the feeling of accomplishment. This feeling motivates us to repeat the process again in order to achieve it. Thinking of positive daily aspects, no matter how small, can literally train your brain to be more positive.
6. Set Realistic Goals
Setting unrealistic goals is a definite trait of a perfectionist and ends up causing feelings of inadequacy because they can be hard to achieve.
Say you’re an actor who aims to become a Hollywood star within a year, or you want to have a successful published book within the next 6 months before you haven’t yet written a word – while this could happen, realistically you’re bound to be disappointed.
Having goals is a wonderful thing but raising the bar too high can create feelings of demotivation and lack. So harvest that desire to improve yourself by all means, but not to the point of making yourself feel less-than.
Learn more about how to set realistic goals here: How to Use SMART Goal to Become Highly Successful in Life
You can’t always extinguish the perfectionist in you (that’s perfectionism) but you can become a ‘healthy perfectionist’. You can do this by always keeping the bigger picture in mind.
Whenever you start drilling into an aspect or detail of your project, ask yourself how much it’ll affect the end result. If it only contributes to around 2%, then you need to let it go. This is an example of opportunity cost where there is potential loss of other avenues or alternatives because of sole focus on one idea.
Stepping back before diving in can save you a lot of time and frees you up to focus on a better result.
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