[Article] What’s wrong with being a perfectionist?

My friend called in for a cup of coffee and a chat and found me doing the ironing. I made coffee and she pulled up a kitchen chair as I resumed my work. Although she was telling me her latest news I noticed her watching closely as I transformed a crumpled heap of fabric into an immaculate, crisp white shirt.

“You’re good at ironing.” It was as much a question as a comment.

I excused my ability to execute this mundane household task with such precision and finesse: my Mum taught me when I was young, I was a keen dressmaker in my twenties, the window-dressers in my retail career showed me…

Why not just acknowledge the compliment?

Instead I made it a fault:

“I’m so good at it, it takes me ages. I used to have to pay someone to do it badly for me!” It’s kind of a joke. Or is it?

The real truth is, I’m a perfectionist. Almost whatever I do I want to do well. Really well. Perfectly, in fact.

And it was never an issue until I started joining personal development programmes in my thirties. There I learned that perfectionism is regarded as a disorder. It attracts pitying glances and patronising comments. I played the game and pretended I wanted to rehabilitate.

But I never really changed in that respect. I learned a lot about myself and about what drives me. I discovered how to manage my emotional reactions and respond to other people’s. But secretly I still wanted to be perfect.

So, for all the other un-reconstructed perfectionists out there and everyone else who didn’t even realise it’s supposed to be a bad thing, here’s my guide to the ups and downs of being a perfectionist.

It’s a problem being a perfectionist if:

  • You obsess over small details and never feel that a job is actually complete
  • You can’t get started on a job because you’re anxious about getting it – not wrong – just not perfect
  • You get annoyed with other people who don’t share your desire for perfection
  • You constantly feel that nothing you do is good enough

It’s okay to be a perfectionist if:

  • It makes you keen to learn and practise new skills
  • It motivates you to work hard and do your best
  • You enjoy the results – high quality output and a sense of satisfaction
  • You feel proud of your achievements

You see, the thing I realised recently is that the idea that Perfectionism is a Bad Thing is born of the belief that nothing can ever be perfect. Therefore seeking perfection is a waste of time and energy and creates stress.

I hold a different belief. I believe that perfection is attainable. In my opinion, that crisp white shirt is perfectly ironed.

I also believe that it’s good to strive towards unattainable goals. Far better that than slouching towards something you can do with no effort and can derive no satisfaction from achieving.

Those of us who get labelled as perfectionists may sometimes suffer stress because of it. But I’d rather keep my high standards and my drive for perfection than descend into the well of mediocrity that seems to be the outcome of all that well-meaning personal development advice.

  1. Thank you for writing and sharing this! Very much resonates with me. You are right about when being a perfectionist is a problem and when it’s OK. It’s what you do with perfectionism that matters, rather than it being a disorder in itself. Also, you can experience both the problems and benefits of perfectionism at the same time, maybe over the same thing.
    Thinking of perfectionists going undercover and pretending to want to change our ‘problem’ made me wonder about stats, how common is perfectionism? How does it link with models of personality etc, or is it an add on to those?
    Thanks again.

  2. Beautifully written piece, i think i discovered that i present with both pros and cons of being a perfectionist in certain contexts and when the cons seem to win I resort to not caring at all. Can this lead to one struggling to accept failure as feedback especially when it is exposed?

    1. Thank you Thabiso, I think you’re right – a perfectionist can struggle to accept failure as feedback. I suggest a reframe such as, ‘I know more now than I did when I carried out that task’.

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