Perfectionism: Helpful drive or treacherous trap?

Do you usually strive to do things as perfectly as possible and without any mistakes? Do you often think, “I’m sure this could be better”? If so, you’re certainly not alone. Many people set pretty high standards for themselves, whether at work, school, or home. Perfectionism can affect pretty much every area of life.

Perfectionism: Helpful drive or treacherous trap?

And it’s true that perfectionism can, in fact, sometimes be a benefit because it comes with a strong drive to work hard. So, say you have an important exam, as a person prone to perfectionism, you’ll likely prepare very well for it. Those who often strive for perfection do tend to perform exceptionally well and reap lots of praise and recognition as a result.

But what’s typically behind this drive to be perfect? Rather than being a reach for success, more often it’s about responding to a deep fear: Fear of being criticized for mistakes. Fear of being rejected. Or fear of just not being good enough.

And who likes to feel inferior? Who likes to be criticized or, worse, rejected? That perfectionist tendencies would be the response to this fear is absolutely understandable. In a sense, perfectionism in these cases, becomes like an armor against a threat. “If I do it as perfectly and flawlessly as possible, they won’t have any reason to criticize me.”


The perfect is often the enemy of the good

While perfectionism may seem like a good strategy, then, it does come with a price. Striving for perfection in everything takes up a lot of mental space and can be exhausting. With the stress and pressure of needing perfection often comes a fear of starting a task because of a pronounced concern about making a mistake. The result is often less productivity despite a tendency toward overwork and denying oneself breaks and time for relaxation. This sometimes also spells increased conflict with others.

For all these reasons, insisting on absolute perfection increases the risk of depression and anxiety disorders.


Shedding the Armor

Sure, setting high goals and ideals can provide direction and motivation but when “I’d like to achieve this goal” turns into “I absolutely have to do this perfectly no matter what,” stress and tension are the likely results. Noticing your tendency toward perfectionism is the first step toward a positive change.

Take a few moments to reflect on these questions:

  • What does perfectionism protect you from?
  • Is this protection really necessary and helpful in the here and now?
  • What is the worst that could happen if you do something well but not perfectly?
  • What is the best that could happen if you do something well but not perfectly?
  • What is actually most likely to happen if you do something well but not perfectly?

You might even want to test out the situation and deliberately do something less meticulously than you normally would and see what happens.

Such a reality check can be quite valuable. Often the fears behind perfectionism develop because of earlier experiences in childhood, and are not necessarily related to what’s going on now. In most cases, then, you actually won’t experience either criticism or rejection if what you do is not completely perfect. And isn’t it true that how well (or not) you perform doesn’t really indicate how much you’re worth?

Taking off the armor of perfectionism can be quite challenging, especially if you have been wearing it for a long time. Consider enlisting the support of a mental health practitioner, if you haven’t already.


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