From Madonna to Mozart, perfectionism has been the driving force behind many of history's greatest achievers. However, perfectionism isn't just a penchant for perfection - we all want things to go as well as possible in our lives. No, true perfectionism is a very real and constant need to reach the highest standards, even if the cost is detrimental.
So, what are some of the defining characteristics of a perfectionist? Perhaps the main one is that perfectionists are never complacent. They see things in black and white. There's never any 'that's close enough or 'that'll do': there's only failure or perfection. A perfectionist will only gain temporary satisfaction and self-worth from the latter. As such perfectionists spend their lives on that never-ending, exhaustive quest.
Of course, there are also those that harness their perfectionist tendencies the right way. Perfectionism can be a fantastic tool, particularly when it comes to our work. Whether you're an artist, a chef, or deal with numbers, it can be hugely advantageous, and many employers see it as an asset. But when does perfectionism in our personal and professional lives become a problem?
The symptoms of negative perfectionism:
• It leaves you feeling inadequate: Whether they consciously acknowledge it or not, behind every perfectionist is a solid belief that they're not good enough. In fact, they often believe that they're extremely flawed.
Consequently, they're always striving for the opposite with lofty achievements and sky-high standards for themselves, trying to 'earn' some short-lived self-worth. But when you strive for complete perfection as regularly as a perfectionist does, there will inevitably come a time when you don't achieve what you'd hoped. This can be catastrophic to a perfectionist's self-esteem - as black and white thinkers, it damages their self-worth dramatically, given that it was never built to last in the first place.
• It makes you less efficient: Ironically being a perfectionist can make you less efficient, and also less effective. Perfectionists don't just want to do things perfectly: they want to wait for the 'perfect moment' in which to do them. This can make them big procrastinators, while their obsession with the smaller, less important details can also make them miss the bigger picture altogether. Again, this can lead to more failures and disappointments, which destroys their self-esteem while perpetuating the perfectionist mindset.
• It leaves you stressed, exhausted and anxious: Perfectionists live under the watchful eye of the biggest critics, the pushiest taskmasters, and the most aggressive standard setters - themselves. Striving for perfection can consciously or subconsciously become a stressful 24-hour job, which naturally leads to mental exhaustion and anxiety. The perfectionist's answer to this? Work harder, achieve more, and reach that plateau of perfection - where they'll feel content and worthy forevermore. Of course, that plateau doesn't exist at all, because when you're a perfectionist the satisfaction gleaned from achieving something is often short lived.
• It ruins relationships with yourself and others: As well as being detrimental to your self-worth, being a perfectionist can obliterate relationships. While some perfectionists reserve their extremely high standards for just themselves, others impose them on other people. Whether that's silently or vocally, it often leaves the perfectionist feeling constant disappointment with partners, friends, and family members - which can of course damage relationships over time. What's more, a poor work/life balance, which many perfectionists are guilty of, can also be detrimental to these relationships.
How to harness perfectionism:
Striving to be better is what makes us grow, so it's important to remember that perfectionism isn't necessarily a bad thing. And of course, when paired with talent and passion, perfectionism can create incredibly positive things.
What separates self-damaging perfectionism and productive perfectionism all boils down to why you're striving for perfection in the first place. If it's because of an almost neurotic need based on your self-worth, it will only ever leave you feeling inadequate in the long run. On the flipside, if it's to become better at your work, better at a skill, or better as a person, then it can be beneficial - so long as you don't get bent out of shape when it doesn't work out.
Being a healthy perfectionist relies on several rules:
• Know when and where to draw the line: Be a realist and acknowledge the task at hand for what it is - don't obsess over perfection at the expense of potentially sabotaging it.
• Be mindful of time: A perfectionist's work is never done, so you have to set time limits. If you don't, it can go on forever.
• Be mindful of the bigger picture: While details can be important, it's the bigger picture that really matters and where the bulk of your focus should be. Think of your task like painting - when you view one in an art museum, do you look at each and every brushstroke, or do you stand back and look at the image as a whole?
• The most important thing: accepting mistakes and imperfection
While accepting imperfection goes against every fibre of a perfectionist's being, it's vital if you want to function to the best of your ability in life. When you're constantly perfecting things, it means something else is being overlooked - whether that's the bigger picture, or another task entirely. It's not a productive way to live. It's important to accept, and even embrace imperfection. Because without it we'd never grow.