I’m never pleased with anything, I’m a perfectionist, it’s part of who I am. –Michael Jackson
Raise your hand if you’ve ever listed perfectionism as one of your best qualities. Raise your hand if you’ve ever sighed and said, “I can’t help it, I’m just a perfectionist,” while secretly believing that perfectionism is a good thing. Raise your hand if you’ve ever wished that you were more of a perfectionist.
If you’ve got your hand in the air, this post is probably not directed at you. Chances are, you’re probably not a perfectionist at all. Or, if you are, you may be what psychologists call an adaptive perfectionist. This post is concerned with maladaptive perfectionists, and this is who I’ll be referring to when I use the word perfectionist from this point forward.
You can put your hand down now.
Many people consider perfectionism to mean something akin to ‘striving for perfection’, which is why it has come to be seen as a Good Thing. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Striving for excellence is a good thing. Being a perfectionist is not. So let’s look at the definition of a perfectionist.
The Oxford Dictionary provides the definition:
Perfectionist: A person who refuses to accept any standard short of perfection.
A perfectionist is not a person who wants to achieve perfection. A perfectionist is a person who is dissatisfied with anything less than perfection; a person who believes that anything less than perfection constitutes a failure. Take a moment to think that through. And then think about the start of MJ’s quote: “I’m never pleased with anything”. Does that really sound like a good way to live your life?
There is a large difference between being a High Achiever (someone who strives for excellence) and a Perfectionist.
A High Achiever sees mistakes as learning experiences; necessary failures in order to improve. A High Achiever believes that practice makes perfect. A High Achiever will spend days, weeks, or years honing a particular skill or ability. A High Achiever will actively seek ways to better themself and their results. A High Achievers is driven by the desire to succeed.
A Perfectionist sees mistakes as failures; proof of their own inadequacy. A Perfectionist believes that if something can’t be done perfectly, it shouldn’t be done at all. A Perfectionist will spend days, weeks or years procrastinating or focusing on small, irrelevant details. A Perfectionist will blame themselves and their own incompetence for their perceived failures. A Perfectionist is driven by a fear of failure.
In writing terms, a High Achiever will write, write, write, write, write. She will practice the craft of writing, actively seek out critiques and take them on board (after the customary “you stabbed me in the heart!” feeling has passed), and then write some more. She will realise that her first draft is probably going to be crap. Or close to it. Especially on re-reading it. But she will go back and re-write, edit, re-write some more, and then seek more critiques. A High Achiever will do everything in her power to make her writing as close to perfect as possible.
On the other hand, a Perfectionist will spend ages making sure she’s got the right character name, the right margin settings, the right layout, the right writing program, etc. She will write and then grudgingly ask for feedback, hoping to be told that her work is perfect. If she’s given any constructive criticism (even if most of the feedback is positive), she will fall into a pit of self-loathing and agony, asking herself why she even bothers to write when she’s obviously useless at it. She will re-read what she wrote, realise it’s crap, and delete it. She’ll promise herself that she’ll never write again, and turn her attention to a different hobby – preferably something that she’s already proved to be good at. At some time in the future, she might decide to write again. Rinse and repeat.
A High Achiever’s motto could be: Failure is success if we learn from it. –Malcolm Forbes
A Perfectionist’s motto could be: You’ll never fail if you never try. –Homer Simpson
The surest way not to be perfect is to be a perfectionist.