Perfectionism: The Disease That Holds You Back Big Time

Everywhere we look we see the façade of perfection, perfection and some more perfection. Add -ism and you’ve got yourself a religion. It just seems like the approach we should all strive for and if we aren’t part of the worship service, some of us may feel inadequate and guilty for not abiding by the impossible and self-burdening commandments of perfectionism (it did make me cringe when I read this sentence again).

The religion of perfectionism is more of a cult rather than something we should see as a source of sound doctrine. Ironically, it doesn’t lead anyone to the salvation many hope for. Perfect body, perfect make-up, perfect work, perfect grades, perfect marriage, perfect home – I hate to break it to you, but none of these outcomes exist in our fallible world and they aren’t conditions we should try to create, because we’ll always fail miserably.

I am careful not to confuse excellence with perfection. Excellence, I can reach for; perfection is God’s business. – Michael J. Fox

I used to be an over-zealous disciple and preacher of such dogma; it even frightened people but it did inspire some people to get their work done through compulsion and not through genuine desire. Fortunately, I was led astray by the realisation, after numerous failures, that perfection is unattainable by anyone unless they’re some sort of divine being or fictional character.

The quest to be perfect is a crippling one. It’s held many people back, killed dreams, ends in disaster, if it takes over one’s mind, and it simply isn’t reachable since Homo sapiens are imperfect. I concede that a bit of perfectionism can help with motivation, nevertheless, I don’t think it should be a major driving force in life. What you find is that we subconsciously realise that we can’t reach standards of perfection but we convince ourselves that perfection is attainable with a constant search for ‘the right’ tools to make perfection happen.

The end result?

You either end up giving into the human tendency to go overboard with bad habits, making perfectionism psychologically destructive, or you end up doing nothing at all, making your plans meaningless. Days go by, months go by, then years and even decades and you still will be in the same place looking for perfection. Isn’t perfection sickening?

A problem with perfection is that it’s standards can change depending on how you’re feeling or how the majority is feeling, and these changes happen often. You then miss the chances to get into worthwhile relationships and opportunities to take your career to the next level and other pieces of the puzzle to create a life of utmost fulfilment. This then leads to the most antagonising feeling of all time, which has haunted many in their most private moments: regret. Perfectionism is counterproductive and, funnily enough, the perfect path to an unsatisfactory and sorrowful life.

The worst thing about perfectionism is that it’s simply your mind playing games; it’s a suffix for fear: fear-perfectionism (okay it’s not a word but you get the point, to be fair it does make a good motto for exactly what you should do with perfectionism).

Your mind works spontaneously and it isn’t tolerant of a rigid environment but it can influence your environment which is where creative power comes from. Creativity, by definition, can never be perfect and answers to no standard. If you conform to other’s people ideals you enslave to unwelcome grief and constant worry. This can lead to suicidal thoughts as a great trigger for suicide is when one feels they aren’t able to live up to perfect standards.

Just as you need some speed to not annoy drivers in the fast lane of a motorway, but if abused it can earn you a speed ticket and even kill, perfectionism is useful to get you started on your journey, but once it consumes you it can cause you to lose control of your life and even kill.

Let’s take a closer look at why we must put a leash on our perfectionist tendencies.

Before we begin, here’s a definition of perfectionism:

striving for flawlessness, accompanied by overly critical self-evaluations and concerns regarding others’ evaluations.

Hopefully, after reading this post you’ll see why perfectionism must be avoided at all costs. Let me try my luck, wish me well.

There is no such thing as a perfect approach to achieving success

Success consists of doing the common things of life uncommonly well. – Unknown

What exactly is the perfect approach to any given task anyway? You can approach the same task multiple times and the ‘perfect method’ may fail painfully every single time. Many of us look for personal trainers to get in shape because they’re, in many people’s eyes, the definition of perfect health. People get inspired and put in the work while they’re with them. Once the trainer goes these people, more often than not, end up back at square one. Answer this: was relying on a personal trainer really the right or perfect approach when most clients can’t maintain the processes, they were supposed to have learnt, to lead a healthy lifestyle alone?

There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in. – Leonard Cohen

You have to tap into your intuition and let your creativity and rationality do the talking, not fear, or trying to reach an intangible standard, especially when it’s someone else’s. You can only find satisfaction by being creative with your own imperfect thought processes. This is what leads to great work you can be proud of because it’s your original work and not the work indirectly created by someone else.

Now, I’m not saying you can’t receive guidance from someone who’s where or has been where you aim to be, but don’t allow outside help or influences to be the gold standard for your life. There’s no right or wrong way in approaching tasks. How can someone else’s so-called perfect standard be the ultimate guide for what you’re supposed to do or who you’re supposed to listen to.

You can only learn from experience so just make a start and tweak things as you go along. This approach has given me peace of mind and the laid-back character that others admire. Always look for ways to improve (this is the only time feedback from others can be useful) and don’t feel guilty for missing ‘the mark’. Accept your circumstances or results and move on to better them by focussing on self-improvement.

At many points in my life, perfectionism hadn’t produced any positive results, even though I put so many hours into the process trying to reach a fixed outcome, which I later found can never be guaranteed. After trying the perfectionist approach, I’m convinced it’s a double-edged sword which seems to do wonders when getting started but later becomes a great inhibitor. It’s like scratching an itch and you keep on doing it because the sensation feels so good but it’s actually causing severe and, at times, irreversible damage to your skin. Don’t look at actions as right or wrong in a situation you’ve never encounter before, seek some wisdom, apply it to your unique case but don’t use it as the be-all end-all for how you conduct yourself. Be original. Don’t be a copycat or, as I like to say, copydog.

Ask yourself what the worst case scenario is and dive in then come out, dry yourself of any impurities to your approach and dive back in again. Get your hands as dirty as possible and be yourself and you’ll soon see that perfectionism is far from enjoyable.

You’re measuring yourself against a standard you can never meet

Have no fear of perfection – you’ll never reach it. – Salvador Dalí

In my own quest to be perfect, during university, perfect work was always measured against someone else’s standard. I hated the fact that I had to measure up to a lecturer’s expectation for an assignment, especially when most of the time the guidelines were ambiguous. I started my university life with crap or unsatisfactory marks for, well, missing the mark. I would be criticised for not doing things the right way even though I would put so much effort into my work and follow the guidelines to the letter. It kept me up late at night, led to me neglecting my health and well-being all in the name of trying to figure out the perfect method to satisfy the assignment criteria.

It got to a point where I had enough and I decided to forget about doing things perfectly and I just focussed on getting things done quickly. I stopped caring about my marks and I just began to spend the minimum of the suggested time needed to prepare for exams and complete assignments. I just got stuff done and prioritised making the process as smooth and efficient as possible. Then something surprising happened: I actually received better marks or maintained the marks I received for, at times, triple the effort. I didn’t beat myself up if I didn’t meet the expectations of my lecturers. I focussed on improving myself, not my marks, and witnessed a knock-on effect.

People started to ask me why I wasn’t in the library often doing 24 hours shifts anymore (I had developed a reputation for this, especially during a time I was up for 3 days straight) and I told them I had improved my processes without letting myself be overwhelmed by the marking criteria. This allowed me to spend the shortest amount of time possible on work and still perform well, many times far above my expectations.

To live a creative life, we must lose our fear of being wrong. – Joseph Chilton Pearce

If you accept that your mind and body has its own creative tendencies when they’re at work, and tap into it, you can achieve high-quality results efficiently and speedily. You stay calm and the worry and doubts fade away. It gives you peace and actual contentment in the fact that you completed a task, or decided to look a certain way, without trying to match a so-called standard of perfection in an environment you have very little control over.

You did what you said you would do, there’s no need to worry about how it will be perceived by others. Why are other people’s opinions even relevant? People are either for you or against you. No-one can tangibly attach themselves to your ideals or desires so why should you worry about what other people think? Answer this question for yourself, without any preconceived notions, and you’ll see why chasing perfection is utterly futile.

Create your own standards, in line with your own personal definition of a meaningful life, take a healthy approach and execute. If things don’t go well, reinvent your standards and try again. Simple. Don’t insult your existence or other people’s existence because of failure. Find comfort in giving your best shot and move on. Sadness and anxiety isn’t ever going to change an unfavourable outcome now and never will.

Overthinking is a child of perfectionism

Striving for excellence motivates you; striving for perfection is demoralising. – Harriet Braiker

Overthinking has been defined as the art of creating problems that weren’t there in the first place. I remember when I  developed the search strategy for my final year dissertation for 6 months during a project length of 8 months (yes, you read that correctly). I remember when I spent 4 weeks on an essay which I could have completed in 48 hours just like other people did in the same time or less and got the same or better marks than I did (I’ll write a post on how to work smart in future).

There was one case where a person started the essay at 6 am and completed it at 1:30 pm to meet the deadline of 2:00 pm and still somehow passed well. See what overthinking caused by perfectionism can do?

Stop measuring days by degree of productivity and start experiencing them by degree of presence. – Alan Watts

After witnessing this phenomenon, I wondered how some people could spend little time on projects and get amazing results, while many of us slave away determined to produce a masterpiece but end up with disappointing results which causes many to give up.

It’s because they realise life isn’t as complicated as most people believe it to be and they have the attitude of just getting work done. If they have time, they may ask for feedback, but overall they don’t attach themselves to outcomes but just ensure the processes, which allow the work to be completed, is in working order.

Having processes in order prevents overthinking and over-complication of things. It’s so simple, it doesn’t take an Einstein to see this. Yet, many people still believe it’s the end of the world if they miss a full stop on an assignment, which isn’t going to matter in the grand scheme of things (this used to be me).

Many people care too much about conforming to certain societal standards and following the latest fads, without actually thinking about why they themselves made their choices or the resulting implications. Many are also pursuing a life where they allow others to pull them away from following their passions, which bring them genuine happiness, because they aren’t, supposedly, living the perfect life. Isn’t this madness when you think about it? All of this is just so restrictive and an overkill when it comes to unnecessary pressure.

Perfectionism is self-abuse of the highest order. – Anne Wilson Schaef

Whoa, perfectionism really does sound like a disease which is actually a trigger for some serious health issues. Overthinking is one of the severe symptoms of perfectionism. If you’re displaying symptoms, take some chill out-medication quickly before you end up with analysis paralysis.

Makes you give into nonconstructive criticism

Perfectionism is the fear of being criticised. – Caroline Myss

The reason why athletes and musicians and others on top of their field show signs of perfectionism is because they’re selling their talent or services, besides obvious passion, to earn a living. They have to keep their fans happy and get the endorsements. Now, this isn’t a bad thing, but if you’re feeling like a useless human being when you’re criticised then you have to reflect and check whether you’re acting for the approval of others or for your own enjoyment.

Where perfectionism exists, shame is always lurking. – Brene Brown

Looking to reach a perfect standard exposes you to the dangers of vulnerability to the negative effects of nonconstructive criticism. These dangers include feeling you let others down, or that you’re not worthy of relationships with other people based on actions certain individuals perceive to be flawed on a subjective basis.

These criticisms come from the innate human desire to satisfy the insatiable thirst for impeccability. Your detractors exist because it’s easier for them to attack you rather than fix their own shortcomings, so brush it off and keep doing what you’re doing… for yourself. You have gifts and talents for the betterment of your life, the environment and the lives of others around you. Show them to the world in all its imperfect glory. Who cares what other people think? We should all be encouraging one another to improve and not put others down because of failure to meet our unrealistic standards.

All writing problems are psychological problems. Blocks usually stem from the fear of being judged. If you imagine the world listening, you’ll never write a line. That’s why privacy is so important. You should write first drafts as if they will never be shown to anyone. – Erica Jong

Perfectionism, being a form of ‘looking for approval from others’, is a flawed way of following passions and takes away from authenticity. This ironically, stops you from producing your best work and can actually push others away from you. It prevents the formation of deep relationships which in turn causes people to resort to unsubstantiated criticism of others from a place of ‘I don’t really know them intimately’. It works like a flowchart which only goes in one predictable direction.

How on earth can you reach the standard of perfection of the person next to you. It’s impossible. You can’t even reach your own standard of perfection because the world and life is forever changing preventing us from manifesting precisely what you want. There’s no such thing as ‘having it all’ – the message which is preached radically in society leading to the unfortunate and prevalent cases of self-entitlement. One day you say something is perfect, the very next day you say: ‘oh no, it doesn’t look good at all’. I don’t know about you, but this mindset can shorten your life severely. This is needless pressure on yourself which eventually leads to inaction and an opening for a chaotic life which taken many a victim.

Can lead to poor control of your life

The problem with perfectionism is that it deludes us into thinking that the more perfect we aim to be the more control we have. This is not true at all. The body likes to go into fight-or-flight mode for no reason making us think there’s a problem when there isn’t one. Obsession over details can lead to poor time management and neglect of our important relationships (lack of contact with friends and family – don’t worry, I was guilty of this when I was an unregulated workaholic).

The pursuit of excellence is gratifying and healthy. The pursuit of perfection is frustrating, neurotic, and a terrible waste of time. – Edwin Bliss

There was one point where I didn’t contact my family for months in the name of trying to perfect my work with unnecessary detail. Between a first and final draft of one assignment, my mark improved by a mere 7% after spending a month, full of all-nighters and sleeping under library tables, to improve it. It really wasn’t worth it – silly me. After receiving that mark, I said never again.

Changing things which don’t need changing because of how we feel, without objective and prudent assessment (in other words, a reality-check), can actually lead to a domino effect of continuous changes to the point where you never become satisfied. This a main gateway to lack of control in your life, which then leads to mental breakdowns and dependence on drugs or other substances, which we see among many celebrities, to take people away from feelings inadequacy. I implore you to get rid of perfectionism from your life and be sane.

It’s one of the most severe forms of procrastination

A man would do nothing if he waited until he could do it so well that no one could find fault. – John Henry Newman

I used to find myself regularly putting off important projects because of perfectionism. Perfectionism had led me to excessive attachment to results and not the flair of natural and consistent actions. I was looking for the one-punch knockout at the right moment. It led to indiscipline and an obsession with perfection which then led to serious procrastination.

Once I brought this crazy approach to a halt my results improved with much less effort than exerted in my previous attempts. This was because I prioritised what was important instead of dwelling on minute details which can only be seen by someone else if they literally had my eyeballs inside their eye sockets and my brain inside their skulls. It drastically reduced my fear overtime and developed my confidence. I stopped waiting for the perfect opportunity to get to work and just made a start together with the mindset: what will be will be. I sometimes look back and ask myself why I had delayed things for so long.

The price of perfectionism is costly and has bankrupted many and yet people still pushing for loans to live in a state of conformist bliss where failure and action don’t demand interest on their intentions to live the non-existent perfect life.

The truth is that perfectionism is a time and real success killer! Again, do things for yourself and not for others and find contentment in the process rather than the outcome because the outcome comes, goes and is subject to unexpected change. However, the experience of the process and self-improvement will live with you forever. Start to develop these processes to their maximum potential as soon as possible. Don’t let perfectionism stop you from making a start – perfection doesn’t exist and thinking it does will hold you back until it’s too late!

Continuous improvement is better than delayed perfection. – Mark Twain

Stop delaying your plans looking for the perfect moment and just get out there, tomorrow isn’t guaranteed in the slightest. As soon as I got the idea for this website I took action straightaway and now it’s alive and I’m making a difference in the world I live in. It doesn’t meet the state of perfection forever present in my mind but it’s currently doing its job well. This is all that matters. I will continue to improve it anyway I can especially with the feedback from those of you who share comments.

You can do the same for yourself – once again: just make a start and adapt as obstacles arise. This approach saves me a lot of time away from indecisiveness and I’m guilt-free. Forget about trying to be perfect for things you’ve never done before. Allow yourself to get stuck and from there, build up the needed momentum to reach and maintain a uniquely meaningful life of your own choosing.

Conclusion

I hope you’ve taken in the recurring and destructive themes of perfectionism from this post.

Perfection does not exist. To understand it is the triumph of human intelligence; the desire to possess it the most dangerous kind of madness. – Alfred de Musset

We all have perfectionist tendencies to varying degrees. It helps us to get motivated but since we aren’t actually in full control of our circumstances and the environment, there’s no point in letting it dictate our self-worth, the quality of our relationships and how we express ourselves. Perfectionism is simply a plague if not managed well. Focus on processes not outcomes and you’ll find the consistent and long-lasting satisfaction we all crave. Don’t fall prey to perfectionism’s lure and be liberated with the fact that life is lived happily and simply by working with our imperfect selves.

Non-ideal circumstances? Just get started anyway and tweak as you along, learn from failure and get straight back to winning ways. What are the winning ways you may ask? It’s following your passions your own way, no matter what it takes, and inspiring others to do the same.

How have you given into your perfectionist tendencies? Comment below.

If this post resonates with you why don’t you share it. Maybe the outlook of this message will inspire someone else to start living the life they were born to live.

Image credit: Perfection / maura / Flickr

Showing 2 comments

  1. Oh this is brilliant! Definitely needed to read this. It’s really bad how I can relate to so many of the things you mentioned but I also love it because now I know how to not try to be so perfect with everything in life because that’s just setting myself up for a lot of stress and let downs and feeling disappointed in my self. Be it uni grades or weight loss or any relationships in life, trying to always be ‘perfect’ is only going to make things worse over time because it never really gets you anywhere and well, I can say that from experience. The only thing that happens is that we end up criticising ourselves and start finding flaws in our selves for not achieving perfectionism which is followed by disappointment and not feeling good Enough, no matter how good others might think we are doing.

    Definitely something I’d read again! this was very helpful 😀 Thank you!!

  2. Totally agree Sumayyah. Totally agree. Perfectionism is no good for anyone.

    Thank you for your feedback.

    Hope to hear from you again!

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