Although most of us take genuine pleasure in completing a job to some standard of achievement, perfectionists are driven for excellence every time. Perfectionists do not allow themselves to make mistakes and are often on the alert for imperfections and weaknesses in themselves and others.
Perfectionists often view situations with black-and-white thinking; outcomes are good or bad, perfect or imperfect. There is nothing in between, no room for error, and if it cannot be done perfectly, it’s not worth doing at all.
Perfectionists generally only focus on the results of their efforts and are unable to enjoy the process of producing the achievement. Ironically, this relentless pursuit of perfection creates overwhelming anxiety and concern. The fear of failure or rejection if one is not perfect often sabotages the very efforts needed to reach this goal. This fear often manifests as avoidance, procrastination and sometimes even paralyzes the person from attempting to perform at all.
The origins of perfectionism are often are found in childhood. When we were praised after we did something well, we learned that setting and achieving high standards brings external praise. However, if praise only came due to achievements (rather than including personal traits), this may have formed a rigid belief that, “People will only be proud of me if I am successful.”
We also learn to strive for perfection when we have been punished for making mistakes. We may have been told, “How many times do I have to tell you not to make a mess?” We feel bad about ourselves and learn, “People are not proud of me when my work is less than perfect.”
Another way we learn perfectionism is by others modelling it. A common example is children witnessing parents who work very hard in their jobs, often taking their work home, resulting in little time for relaxation or family time. Here we learn the belief, “Succeeding at work is more important than most other things.”
Regardless of the cause, the consequence is that perfectionists believe that the level of standard of their outcomes determines their self-worth and how they feel others think about them. Perfectionists often pour out increasing amounts of themselves in effort to achieve impossible and elusive standards. They feel even more dissatisfied and empty inside not only because the goal is unattainable, but also because the process itself is tainted with negative feelings.
People produce many of their best achievements when they are striving to be their best. High achievers are different than perfectionists. Unlike perfectionists, high achievers accept that making mistakes and taking risks are opportunities for growth and part of being human. As Rumi stated, “O, happy the soul that saw its own faults.”
People who accomplish plenty while staying emotionally healthy tend to exhibit the following behaviors: set standards that are high but achievable, enjoy the process – not just the outcome, recover from disappointment quickly, are not disabled by anxiety and fear of failure, and react positively to constructive feedback.