Perfectionism: usually the go-to trait that people answer with when they’re asked what their weakness is during a job interview. That’s probably because perfectionism isn’t seen as totally negative, so sharing it as your weakness can possibly make you look good to your interviewer. But the truth is that perfectionism can be the biggest saboteur in areas of life where putting in effort is necessary to keep going, such as at work or when learning a new skill.
The good and the bad
Being a perfectionist is used as a typical answer to questions about weakness for a reason: positive interpretations of it exist. The drive to accomplish something to the very best of your abilities and never settle for anything less sounds like a good thing, doesn’t it
Well, it depends. Do you know when to stop? Do you acknowledge that “your best” doesn’t mean “perfect”? Are you overly critical of yourself when your ideal result isn’t achieved, especially because you’re just starting out or the ideal is nigh-impossible to achieve in the first place?
There is a very big difference between being ambitious and being a perfectionist. Depending on your answer to the above questions, you may be a perfectionist. Join the club!…Only after I make sure the club is perfect in every way, of course.
The consequences of perfectionism
Simply put, perfectionism is like trying to hit a star in the sky with a broken bow and arrow while underground and blindfolded… and then hating yourself for not being able to do it. It turns you against yourself and ends with you being demotivated or burnt out.
As time goes by, more people are being affected by the influence of perfectionism in their lives. It makes completing tasks much slower and more inefficient in daily life, including during work. At my old job, for instance, I noticed I was taking a good deal longer to clean up logos and make them transparent than my co-worker. This is the coworker I would compare myself to quite a bit, because he was the “star” among the new employees. In the end, even though I was taking much longer than him to complete the same task, the result was virtually the same. The difference was that he wasn’t so concerned about making every letter perfectly clean when the logo was going to be placed inside a tiny icon anyway. He ended up finishing five icons in the same time it took me to finish two.
As another personal example, I’ve always wanted to be good at art. I even bought a Wacom tablet many years ago to help with my drawing practice. I was still a beginner at drawing, which obviously meant my drawings weren’t going to turn out very good. Yet, every time I tried practicing drawing headshots and they would end up looking a little funky, I would become extremely frustrated with myself. My inner voice would tell me I was a failure, and that I would never get good at drawing like the professionals I admired, so what was the point of even trying?
This mentality would make me hesitant to continue practicing for a very long time. My inner voice would tell me it’s just a waste of time, and I felt like I was somehow letting someone down with every ugly headshot I drew. My eagerness to be a professional artist one day never stopped though, so I would take up practicing again, only to drop it a while later when the voice got to me again. This has been going on for years now, and right now I’m back to practicing. I’m still nowhere remotely near being an expert at drawing yet, but I am most definitely much better at it than I was when I first started out.
Its impact on mental health
Obviously, setting too-high goals for yourself and having a self-punishing attitude when that doesn’t work out aren’t good signs. It might not be a surprise to know that perfectionism makes your mental health worse. It can lead to feelings of never being good enough, procrastination, lack of motivation, anxiety, and depression. In fact, many young people who commit suicide have been described by their loved ones as perfectionists.
Rather than a quirky strength disguised as a weakness, perfectionism can actually be a detriment in one’s life. It goes way beyond simply being ambitious or passionate about something.
How to manage your perfectionism
The good news is that, like many things related to mental health, perfectionism can be managed! Some ways to keep your perfectionism in check include:
Recognizing that perfect doesn’t exist. The concept of perfection is an ideal we create in our minds, but it’s never a realistic goal to set. So if the goal we set is impossible to achieve in the first place, we’re never going to achieve it! But we’ll still feel the bitter disappointment that comes with failing to achieve perfection, so why do that to ourselves? It’s important to set realistic goals, especially if just starting out. Rome wasn’t built in a day
Looking at the bigger picture. Going back to my job and art examples, I would have saved a lot of time and self-deprecation if I took the bigger picture into consideration. Instead of wasting time cleaning a tiny part of a logo that no one will see in the final product anyway, or instead of erasing and redrawing the same strands of hair to get them to be “perfect,” I could have assured myself that a small part possibly being off doesn’t make the whole piece horrible. Focusing on the general instead of the specific can save a lot of time.
Learning to be okay with mistakes. Mistakes are inevitable, especially for beginners, but even professionals make them sometimes. We wouldn’t be human if we didn’t. Making mistakes along the way doesn’t mean the result is a failure. Instead of being overly critical of ourselves when we notice flaws in our work, we can take note of said flaws to improve on them next time while acknowledging that we did our best this time. There is always a lesson that can be learned in “failure!
Not being afraid to try. No one is amazing at something right off the bat; it takes time and effort to get better at anything. It’s very easy to put things off or even avoid them altogether if trying your hand at them the first time didn’t give you the best result. But continuing to try means that you will eventually get it, while never trying means you’ll never get it. Remember that those you see as inspiration didn’t get to where they are now without trying and probably failing a million times!
Be your own good friend. We are usually our own harshest critics; no one is quite as hard on us when we make a mistake or fail at something as we are. Yet, if someone we care about made the same mistake or failed at the same thing, we would be rushing to reassure and encourage them. That kind of supportive attitude is what we need to adopt towards ourselves. Even when the end result isn’t perfect, give yourself credit for the things you did right or liked about your work, and motivate yourself to keep at it, as if you were talking to a good friend of yours.
Perfectionism is a bane that can plague one’s entire life in even the most mundane ways. However, with time, kindness, and patience towards yourself, the cruel critic’s voice within can certainly become less audible as you allow the voice of a friend to take over and stick with you!