In job interviews, there is always that fateful question, “What is your biggest flaw?”
To which I used to answer, “I’m a perfectionist.”
Many people consider a perfectionist to be someone who is focused, who takes care with the details and who strives for excellence. Perhaps that’s what perfectionism meant for me in grade school, but both in college and in the workforce, my perfectionism became a liability.
Perfectionists are complicated people. There are a few of us who can apply the intense standards of perfectionism and walk away with positive outcomes; but many buckle under the self-inflicted pressure. The problem for perfectionists is that we see perfection as something attainable, and failing to reach that standard is an indicator that something is wrong or bad or unworthy inside of us.
In college, the pressure for perfection intensified, not with academics, but as I began to determine the type of woman I wanted to grow into. Heightened social and cultural pressure made it incredibly difficult for me to balance the idea of my perfect self with my reality. The golden ideal of my self-image clashed constantly with the anxiety-ridden girl I truly was.
It took years of introspection and tough confrontations before I could tackle my perfectionism. Today, I still count myself as a recovering perfectionist, and I have accumulated a series of Jedi mind tricks I use when my perfectionism threatens to throw me off balance.
Be Aware of Your Expectations
In my life, perfectionism is the most immobilizing when planning and developing conceptual ideas of my personal future or success. One golden standard will present itself as the only possible outcome in my mind, but it is often beyond my current resources or capabilities. In other words, I set myself up to fail and become fixated on the impossible goal.
I used to think in very black and white terms or failure and success, which turned out to be the source of my worst anxiety. I would set myself up for failure with unrealistic expectations and fear, more than anything, the consequences of failure. It was an exhausting, irrational cycle.
So here’s what I started doing. Once aware of the golden standard that’s bogging me down, I write it down. (I use my iPhone notes application when I’m on the go.)
Best Case Scenario: I am going to throw the best Fourth of July party EVER.
Realistic Scenario: I am going to have a few people over for a barbecue.
Worst Case Scenario: I am going to grab some sparklers and drink Sangria by the pool.
By being aware of my expectations, I realize that each of my scenarios is acceptable; and by being aware of our best case scenarios, or our “golden standards”, we can transform them into goals and establish priorities and plans to help reach them! Woo hoo!
Without priorities, perfectionism can run rampant. A perfectionist’s untamed consciousness can charge the world with a type of static cling that attracts criticism and subsequent dedication to “improvement.” For example, without any set goals or priorities, a perfectionist can become obsessed with trivial things like perfecting a filing system at work, or major things like perfecting a spouse’s spending habits. The perfectionist’s enthusiasm can also burn out quickly without discipline, and potentially rewarding projects can be neglected or abandoned.
As a perfectionist, I had to understand that I have a great amount of focus, energy and dedication; but that in order to be the most productive; I have to establish priorities to keep my energies channeled. Sometimes my perfectionism makes it difficult to encounter imperfect situations, like when dirty dishes and laundry begin piling up at home.
I make chores and cleaning a part of my daily priorities, but right now, my greatest priority is building and maintaining healthy, loving relationships – with myself and others. This involves a lot of patience and generosity (I make a lot of mistakes!), and sometimes it means focusing on other activities, even when chores are clamoring for attention.
Plan your time and include plenty of time in your schedule for rest and relaxation. You may be reluctant to take a break, but your brain and body need rest to operate at the highest caliber. Know that sometimes, you can’t do everything, but you will always make time for the things that are the most important to you. Even if you aren’t a perfectionist, you can look at your schedule and ask the question, “Does my schedule reflect my priorities?” If it doesn’t – guess what? Tomorrow is another day.
Think of Others
My biggest wake-up call as a perfectionist was when I realized my expectations were hurting other people. As a spouse, I was becoming overly critical and increasingly unsatisfied with all of my partner’s attempts to help me find happiness. As a boss, I was alienating my employees and causing them increased stress by demanding high standards with no consideration for their personal motivation or resources.
Today, I spend as much time as possible enjoying the people around me. I realized that my natural instincts to improve people and myself can be – at the very best – just plain rude. However, I also found that if I search for the best qualities in people, I can naturally encourage them to develop those skills and become interested in their success.
Before, as a perfectionist, I couldn’t accept that someone could be better than me. Perfectionism was my personal elitism, and I was too afraid to let go of illusion of superiority that cloaked my insecurities. My attitude changed when I began to rely on others to help me reach my goals. This quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson says it better than I could:
“In my walks, every man I meet is my superior in some way, and in that I learn from him.”
Once I began showing interest in other people’s success and talent, my life instantly improved. My perception was more balanced, my jealousies were squashed, and I was actually inspired by all of the wonderful and creative people I met.
I’m still not perfect, but I’m totally okay with that.
How do you overcome perfectionism? Share your tips in comments!
Photo by DepositPhotos.
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Great article. I too am a bit of a perfectionist with a very vociferous inner critic. Any time I miss perfection I berate myself with attacks and feelings of worthlessness. It’s good to know there are other people out there like me and that it can get better. I’ll have to try that Best Case/Worst Case/Probable Case thing; it seems like a good exercise!
Great article! Although I don’t consider myself a perfectionist, I do set very high, unrealistic expectations in all facets of my life. In the past couple of months, I have learned that this has hurt my personal and professional relationships as well as me happiness. I am adjusting to setting acceptable expectations and especially like how you broke it down to best, realistic, and worst case scenarios. Thank you!