Perfectionism: A Pursuit of the Unattainable?

There are some dreaded questions when it comes to interviews; one being, “What’s your biggest weakness?”. Not wanting to express anything too concerning or jeopardise one’s interview, a popular answer tends to be, “Well, I’m a perfectionist!”. Innocuous on the surface, maybe – to a lot of people, this is a two-layered reply that masquerades as a weakness, while actually illustrating in a more modest form one’s passion, precision, care, and determination.

But how innocuous is it, really? A large-scale review of published research from 1990 to 2019 on perfectionism uncovered some more serious implications. The researchers found that “perfectionism” was most closely associated with the term “disorder”, with “symptoms” being one of the most often discussed issues. What’s particularly concerning, considering perfectionism may be more harmful than we initially thought, is that it has been rising (and continues to rise) since the 1990’s.

Perfection is an ideal, and perfection itself is unattainable. Therein lies the problem. When many people aim for perfection and do not deliver exactly that, it’s considered a failure or waste. By setting our sights exclusively on perfection and not allowing for failure, learning or room for improvement, why embark on such an endeavour in the first place? Settling for nothing less than perfection, therefore, is settling for disappointment, resentment and unfulfillment right from the start. If this were an equation, it simply wouldn’t compute.

That said, it’s how people cope with this incomputable equation that differentiates the ‘maladaptive perfectionists’ and the ‘adaptive perfectionists’. Maladaptive perfectionism, firstly, is the form associated with a host of harmful mental conditions; depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and insomnia, among others. With maladaptive perfectionism, the response to failure in attaining perfection is unforgiving, likely resulting in unconstructive self-criticism and a disproportionately high focus on the negative elements (or imperfections) of one’s attempt rather than the positives. But it is perhaps the motivational drivers that are triggered before even starting a task that distinguishes maladaptive perfectionism. These drivers are termed ‘perfectionistic concerns’, and they include fear of making mistakes, fear of negative evaluations, and fear of feelings of discrepancy between expectations and performance.

Adaptive perfectionism is different. Perfectionistic concerns are no longer the driver behind accomplishing goals; instead ‘perfectionistic strivings’, which involve a self-orientated pursuit of perfection and high performance standards, comprise the motivation to complete a task. The approach is focused on achievement rather than a fear of failure. As a result, this form of perfectionism is much more forgiving in the inevitable face of unattained perfection, which serves to protect oneself against the harmful psychopathological impact of maladaptive perfectionism. In a sense, this form of perfectionism aims not for perfection, but for excellence.

Unfortunately, maladaptive perfectionism is a common trait. So, if you recognise these patterns in yourself, how can you shift from maladaptive perfectionism to adaptive perfectionism?

1. Check whether perfectionist concerns or perfectionistic strivings are triggered whenever you engage in a task or project. If you notice that more perfectionistic concerns show up, consciously implant thoughts of perfectionist strivings into your internal monologue and turn the focus from avoidance of failure into the journey of accomplishment. Repeated conscious tweaks in mindset often lead to habitual and long-term change.

2. Put your ambitions into context. Sometimes it might not be possible to achieve a 10/10 score; this might depend on your mood, obstacles or barriers in your way, or a lack of resources. Aim for excellence instead – whatever a realistic ‘excellence’ may be in those particular circumstances.

3. Let go of things beyond your control. Worry and concern over matters that are beyond your control can quickly lead to resource depletion and fatigue. Take a more pragmatic approach by recognising matters that are in your control, as well as those that are not. Allocating more time to the matters that are in your control will prove more effective and result in a more valuable use of your resources.

4. Practise self-compassion. If you do not achieve your expected result, take a balanced view of positive and negatives instead of just the negatives. For every negative, seek a positive. Outline the learnings you took from the attempt and focus on what could be improved for next time. There are always positives and learning to be found from failed endeavours, no matter how disastrous they might seem.

It is perhaps a more sinister trait than many might believe, yet perfectionism continues to rise. However, we have the awareness and the tools and to recognise unhelpful perfectionism in ourselves and initiate change. Remember that perfectionism seeks to fulfil unrealistic standards rather than high standards, so it may be better to strive for excellence, not perfection.

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