Are You A Perfectionist?

July 30, 2010

Last week, when I looked through 'How to handle your boss' I spotted a mistake. When I was telling the story of the consultant ENT surgeon I picked a pseudonym, naturally, and later I decided to change it. What I hadn't realised was that I had used the name twice and I failed to change it the second time it appeared. The result was two different names. Damn! 

I confess that I was cross with myself - I like to make sure that there are no mistakes. But I got over it and I thought that you would probably forgive me for it. When somebody pointed it out to me, a few days later, I had another little flurry of annoyance with myself, but again, it passed. 

The word 'perfection' has a positive spin in our society. People often describe themselves as 'a bit of a perfectionist', and we all like to get things right. But there is a difference between having high standards and needing to be perfect. That difference not only affects success, but also mental health, and not in the way you might expect. 

'The paradox of perfectionism is that perfectionists often under-perform in all areas of life. Flexible thinkers, on the other hand - those who say 'I'll aim to do my best, but if I don't achieve it, too bad' - tend to be more successful, happier and more balanced.' 
Professor Steven Palmer, Centre for Stress
Management, London.

What is a perfectionist? 
A perfectionist is someone who is driven not just to succeed, but to be the best in everything they do. In the short term this seems wonderful, they produce good results and succeed. But it can be hard to maintain.


Take someone who gets straight As at school and is used to being at the top of the class. Then they move to university, where all their peers are equally bright, and the task of being the best is suddenly much harder. As they progress through their career, exams become more and more exacting, and career progression more and more competitive. When a perfectionist finds themselves falling short of their ideal, for example when they fail an exam for the first time, they become anxious, their self-esteem plummets, and their performance suffers.

Perfectionists believe that you have to be perfect to succeed, and yet a US study of 34 highly successful insurance agents with a range of salaries showed that the eighteen with perfectionist traits earned on average $15,000 a year less than the non-perfectionists. 

How is it done?
To be a perfectionist you need to apply all or nothing thinking to the areas of your life that are important to you. You either succeed or fail, your work is either excellent or it's awful, you're either competent or useless. The concept of 'good enough' is anathema.

You also find it hard to understand the law of diminishing returns. A perfectionist will keep writing and re-writing a paper, for example, to lift it from 80% perfect to 99% or 100% perfect, and while it might take a weekend to get it to 80%, it might take another three months to get it up to 95%. Meanwhile their colleague has written three good papers.

Your thoughts are full of 'shoulds'. 'I should be better', 'I should be able to do this', 'I should have realised' . On making a mistake you tell yourself endlessly what an idiot you are and that you should have done better.

You also tend to over-generalise. Instead of seeing a mistake as just that, you see it as part of a pattern - 'I'm always getting things wrong', 'I'll never get it right'.

Most of us have perfectionist tendencies in some parts of our lives. Have a look at these statements and see how you relate to them:

  • If I don't set high standards for myself, I am likely to end up a second rate person

  • I set high standards for myself and view any shortfall as failure

  • I set high standards for others and am intolerant of their mistakes

  • I need to be seen as competent and in control of everything I do

  • I value myself largely on the basis of my achievements

  • I assume that others will only value me if I'm perfect all the time

  • If I berate myself for failing to live up to my expectations, it will help me to do better in the future

Strongly agree 2
Somewhat agree 1
Neutral 0
Somewhat disagree -1
Strongly disagree -2

Assess your agreement with each statement and add up your scores. Scores more than zero suggest degrees of perfectionism, up to a maximum of 14.
(Adapted from the Perfectionism Self-presentation Scale, Hewit, Flett and Ediger 1996)

If you think you're prone to perfectionism, consider the advantages and disadvantages of having to be perfect. For example, advantages might be that you do excellent work and succeed in your career. It might mean that people trust you to do a good job, and that you get pleasure from getting things just right. On the other hand perfectionism might make you anxious and impede your performance. It may stop you from trying new things and make you unwilling to take risks. Perhaps it takes the fun out of life, or makes you intolerant of others, and so affects your relationships?

The question is, do the benefits outweigh the price you pay? If not, you might like to try and strike a different balance.

Try this:
1. Think of times when you've done something less than perfectly, and yet nothing terrible happened. Or try making a deliberate mistake, like leaving a spelling mistake on an email, and check how terrible the consequences.

2. To combat all or nothing thinking, start to notice people and situations in your world and ask, is that person all good or all bad? Was my handling of that situation excellent, or terrible? Was today wonderful, or a complete disaster? Is my car pristine, or is it filthy? Is this meal I've cooked excellent or awful? Consider the possibility that there might be an in-between.

3. If you tend to criticize yourself, write the criticisms down, and for each one write a rational alternative to the thought. For example, 'I'm a complete idiot' in response to making an error, might become 'I've learnt my best lessons from making mistakes.'


4. If you like to be in control of everything, try letting go in one area of your life, just a little!

Do let me know how you get on, and
have a good week!

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