The psychology of perfectionism is highly complex. On one hand, perfectionism can motivate performance and the delivery of high-quality work; on the other it can cause anxiety and depression.
I’m almost certain you have heard the phrase ‘practice makes perfect’, and it’s likely your parents were the ones who said it (thanks mum and dad). Their intentions were good – no doubt they were simply trying to encourage us to ‘do our best’. The problem is perfection is unattainable, yet from a young age we’re taught to believe it’s the ‘end goal’. In her new book, ‘ish: The Problem with our Pursuit for Perfection and the Life-Changing Practice of Good Enough’, friend and colleague Lynne Cazaly writes “Excellence, quality and continuous improvement are important. But the pursuit of perfection… not so much.”
We are thrust into this world of ‘perfectionism’ from the education grading system, A = perfect, to the intensely competitive and unrealistic world of social media where we post our ‘best bits’ in the hope of getting as many likes as possible. After all, the more likes the more ‘perfect’ it is, right? It doesn’t stop there – society leads us to believe that we need the ‘perfect marriage’ with the ‘perfect family’ and ‘perfect career’ in order to lead a ‘perfect life’. Yet, here we are, still completely clueless as to what the hell a ‘perfect life’ actually is?
What’s interesting is how perfectionism manifests in our daily lives, and yet so many of us are unaware of it. Paul Hewitt and Gordon Flett developed a multidimensional perfectionism scale with three subscales or types of perfectionism: self-oriented, other-oriented and socially prescribed.
Self-oriented perfectionism is defined as ‘imposing an unrealistic desire to be perfect on oneself’. Whether this is the high standard you have set for yourself as a parent or partner, or your obsession with having the ‘best’ body possible – there is no ‘end goal’ when it comes to self-oriented perfectionism, albeit a hell of a lot of self-critical thinking. We can be so hard on ourselves when we are less than ‘perfect’, lose our temper with our partner, don’t make enough time for our kids, or skip the gym for a few days. We create this idea in our mind that we will succeed if we achieve X,Y & Z – anything less is failure.
‘Other-oriented’ perfectionism is defined as ‘imposing unrealistic standards of perfection on others.’ Hence, not only do we set high benchmarks for ourselves – we now expect others to be a certain way in order to ensure our ‘perfect’ lives stay ‘perfect’! Let’s use ‘micromanagement’ as an example, chances are most of us have been micromanaged at some point in our career and it’s highly likely it was a very unpleasant experience. Being told what to do, how to do it, and when to do it isn’t enjoyable – it makes us feel controlled and undermines our abilities and takes away our freedom to make choices, and most importantly, make mistakes, which is essential to growth and progress. It’s actually very easy to become ‘that leader’ who micromanages or ‘that partner’ who demands certain things be done in order to ensure life stays ‘perfect’. It’s not always easy to be okay with failure or be flexible when it comes to wanting a certain outcome. It’s hard to let go of old habits – believe me when I say, the dishwasher doesn’t need to be stacked a certain way for life to be perfect. When we learn to let go and allow others to do things the way they want, we relinquish control and allow others to step into their power.
Socially-prescribed perfectionism is defined as ‘perceiving unrealistic expectations of perfection from others.’ As I mentioned earlier, social media has become a place where we have the ability to showcase our best moments in exchange for the approval of ‘followers’ (likely a bunch of people we don’t even know). Here we may not be living our ‘perfect life’, yet we choose to make it look that way. We create a highlights reel to get the ‘seal of approval’ from people we believe expect it from us. But what are we hoping to achieve through this? Is it acceptance? Do we crave to fit in? Do we want to be seen as being successful? Do we want recognition? Is this simply the adult equivalent of pinning our artwork on the fridge in exchange for a gold star and verbal praise? What is it about human beings that drives us to seek external validation for something to be ‘good’? Is it not enough that we accept it ourselves, or must we always seek approval?
Do we ever stop being perfectionistic? Do we ever stop chasing the idea of a ‘perfect life?’ We could spend hours deliberating and waste huge amounts of time and energy reading self-help books trying to find ways to beat perfectionism. The truth is – we live in a society that feeds perfectionism every. single. day.
Ultimately, all we can control is how much we allow perfectionism to control us.
Until next time,