Is perfection and perfectionism something to strive for, or reject? Reformed perfectionist Sarah Lang gives her take.
“Perfectionism is a search for fault, not a search for perfection.”
When I first heard this quote about eight years ago, it really struck me, because it’s so true and I’d never really realised it before. It made sense: because perfection is impossible to achieve, there’s always a gap between ‘what is’ and ‘what could be’ – and perfectionists tend to look at that gap rather than the (probably very good) job they’ve done.
Psychology Today – a U.S-based media organisation and news site with a focus on psychology and human behaviour – notes in an article that “perfection, of course, is an abstraction, an impossibility in reality”.
“Perfectionists,” the article goes on, “set unrealistically high expectations for themselves and others. They are quick to find fault and overly critical of [their own] mistakes.”
The article also outlines what perfectionism can lead to. “Perfectionism is a trait that makes life an endless report card on accomplishments or looks. When healthy, it can be self-motivating and drive you to overcome adversity and achieve success… While those in its grip desire success, they are most focused on avoiding failure, resulting in a negative orientation… expecting others’ affection and approval to be dependent on a flawless performance.” My perfectionism wasn’t quite that ‘extreme’, but perhaps it was bordering on it.
I think I became a perfectionist because I grew up trying to get my father’s approval, which was often withheld. I was never as good as my older sister, who unlike me didn’t push to go to parties from age 15. (My mother relented if I paid for taxis and wine myself, and my father stopped speaking to me for some time.) I wanted to prove I could socialise, work a 15-hour-a-week cleaning job, and still do well at school. I did. I also wanted to look, if not perfect, closer to it, hence my on-and-off dieting began.
At university, getting anything less than an A-minus for a course disappointed me. I’m still annoyed I only got a B-plus for my course ‘The Novel,’ because novels are a passion of mine. I did two degrees, rather than one degree and a one-year postgrad journalism diploma, partly because I wanted to be as perfect as possible when it came time to get a job.
When I got my second journalism job – as editorial assistant for North & South magazine, juggling admin and writing – I was out of my depth. I would rewrite any story over and over, looking for weaknesses – and I was green at writing, so there were plenty.
After I’d established a successful freelance journalism career, I still felt like a bit of an impostor. That’s why I rewrote stories so many times, and why, after I handed one in, I’d wonder if I should have further improved it.
Tennis star, fashion designer, activist and mother Serena Williams has talked about perfectionism. “I think it’s really important to realise that no day is going to be perfect,” she said in an interview. “For me, that’s really hard because I strive for perfection, and I feel like everything I do has to be great and has to be perfect, because I am a true perfectionist. But that’s impossible.”
Nicole Kidman is another perfectionist. Director Jane Campion said, about working with Kidman, that “she can be quite murderously challenging in her perfectionism”. Actor Jeremy Strong from TV series Succession (if you haven’t watched it, watch it) also affects colleagues this way.
Letting go of perfectionism doesn’t mean you won’t do a good, or even excellent, job. Published in the June 2022 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, a study found excellence and perfectionism overlap, but also differ in important ways.
An article about the study in Psychology Today explained that aiming for excellence can be better for you than aiming for perfection. “Excellence or ‘excellencism’ may be defined as a ‘tendency to aim and strive toward very high yet attainable standards in an effortful, engaged, and determined yet flexible manner’… Excellence is associated with more positive outcomes, such as better academic performance and more life satisfaction.”
Saying no to perfectionism isn’t easy, especially if it’s been ingrained for a long time, but there are steps you can take to help change your mindset over time. ‘How to Let Go of Perfectionism’ – a medically reviewed article in mental-health information-and-news website Psych Central – has some tips.
One: “Become aware of your negative self-dialogue. Harsh and critical self-assessments reinforce perfectionism and procrastination.”
Two: “Practice self-compassion. When we are compassionate with ourselves, our fear of failure is not exaggerated. Mistakes are understood as being a natural and normal part of learning and life.”
Three: “Take the time to examine whether your goals and expectations are attainable. If they are not, give yourself permission to change them.”
Four: “Break goals down into smaller steps.”
Five: “Examine your irrational fears of failure with a professional.”
I didn’t have steps like this in front of me, but about eight years ago I managed to do what would count as Step One and Step Two, having heard the aforementioned quote (“perfectionism is a search for fault, not a search for perfection”). I realised perfectionism wasn’t working for me and just wasn’t bloody necessary. I slowly but surely reformed. I changed from a perfectionist to a hopeful “excellentist” (when I can) and sometimes a ‘good-enough-ist’.
My goal with this story? To revise it once, rather than multiple times. It definitely won’t be perfect, but you know what? That’s absolutely fine.