The “Perfection” Myth

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The Perfection myth

“When you aim for perfection, you discover it’s a moving target.” – George Fisher

Do you know a perfect person; do you have the perfect job, the perfect partner, the perfect life? As a cultural we prize perfectionism, and business leaders frequently insist that their teams are striving for perfection. Too often we wear perfectionism as a badge of honor yet it may be the ultimate self-defeating behavior. Perfectionism often prompts us to focus on self-doubt and failure causing feelings of anxiety and depression. The perfectionist becomes a slave to success.

The characteristic that enables us to survive daily hassles, conflict, change, and pressure is adaptability. Perfectionism rigidifies behavior, curtailing resiliency and adaptability. When the world requires flexibility, perfectionism causes individuals to become narrow minded and uncertain. It also restricts one’s ability to collaborate, cooperate, create, and be open to new ideas. Research shows that perfectionists are made, not born, and this behavior is often learned at an early age.

What does perfectionism look like?

Perfectionists are completely self-absorbed and engaged in an ongoing self-evaluation. Perfectionism creates a source of negative emotion, rather than a source of positive recognition. Psychologist Randy O. Frost, a professor at Smith College, has spent the past two decades researching the dimensions of perfectionism, and has found it looks like this:

Organization: Perfectionists tend to emphasize order.

Competitive: Perfectionists compare their work to others, feeling like they’ve failed if others’ tasks are seen as better.

High personal standards: Perfectionists set very high standards and place excessive importance on those standards for self-evaluation.

Self-doubt: Perfectionists doubt their ability to accomplish tasks, and often times repeat tasks over and over until they’re perceived as perfect.

“Healthy striving is self-focused: How can I improve? Perfectionism is other-focused: What will they think?” – Brene Brown

It’s important not to confuse perfectionism with high personal standards. Frost observed, “Most people who are successful set high standards for themselves, and they tend to be happy.” In the workplace high standards motivate us to be innovative and pursue new vision, and on the gridiron it wins games. Perfectionism is beneficial in certain environments. Self-disciplined, detailed-oriented behavior is critical in professions where there is no margin for error. It is worrying about mistakes that prompt the self-punishing behavior; aiming for perfection creates feelings of frustration and anger.

For many of us, perfectionism is part of our psyche and personality yet it is learned behavior and can be modified or managed. Stop believing that the world is full of perfect people, jobs, partners and co-workers; that is the myth. You may occasionally enjoy a “perfect” moment or day and when that occurs take time to appreciate it.

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