In creative circles, perfectionism is often talked about as a bad thing. More often than not, it is. Perfectionism holds us back from expressing ourselves fully. But that’s not the whole story.
Hello, my name is Fernando, and I’m a recovering perfectionist. Like everyone else I know, I often talk about my perfectionism as a thing I need to “overcome”, something that gets “in the way” of completing work.
In fact, most of the common maladies that befall creative types, from imposter syndrome to writer’s block, are attributed to perfectionism.
So, when it came time to write a series about mastery, it made sense to look more deeply into perfectionism. And, as often happens, the picture that emerged is more complex and more fascinating than we might’ve imagined.
So, is perfectionism bad? Well, it’s complicated.
What Is Perfectionism?
Perfectionism is the belief that what you do has to be perfect to be acceptable. It develops when our self-worth gets tied up in unhealthy ways with the value of the things we make.
Often, perfectionism is accompanied by an inner voice that points out every imaginable fault in what we’re doing or even rehearses the criticism we might face when we finish.
Perversely, this obsession with perfection can hold us back from finishing, or sometimes even starting, creative projects. Every setback, every frustration, gets interpreted as proof we will never attain the perfection we desire.
Perfectionism As Self-Sabotage
Perfectionism is one of the most common forms of self-sabotage. I searched on Twitter, and among my followers there, every mention of perfectionism was negative. It was like reading about a disease that, if caught, will undermine your mindset and everything good about you.
Sometimes, we aren’t even aware we’ve been sucked into it.
So, it’s understandable that most advice in the creative world stops there. Perfectionism is bad. Be realistic, or accept your limitations, just finish and move on.
But maybe that’s not the whole story.
Perfectionist Goals and Self-Criticism
While researching for this article I found myself reading a study called The Effects of Self-Criticism and Self-Oriented Perfectionism on Goal Pursuit. The opening lines instantly made me question everything I understood about perfectionism.
“The possibility of normal and neurotic forms of perfectionism was first suggested by Hamachek (1978), who distinguished normal perfectionistic strivings from more unhealthy aspects.”
Wait, what? “Normal and neurotic forms of perfectionism?” Could it really be that “perfectionistic strivings” can be “normal”? What about the consensus that perfectionism is always bad?
It turns out the literature around perfectionism is pretty substantial. While perfectionism can be associated negative habits – fear of failure, procrastination, and excessive rumination – along with conditions like anxiety and depression, it can also be associated with positive behaviours like agreeability, as well as with higher functioning, deeper satisfaction, greater self-esteem and increased well-being.
To understand the good and bad versions of perfectionism, we need to look at two things that shape the kind of perfectionism we experience: motivations and goals.
Perfectionism and Quality
The positive version of perfectionism arises from internal motivations. It affixes to tangible goals that are at the upper end of what is possible given your current skills or the skills you’re currently acquiring.
This kind of healthy perfectionism usually goes by other names, like the pursuit of excellence, or the concept of Quality we looked at recently. It’s the attention to detail, the care, and focus we associate with mastery in any craft or art-form.
The unhealthy version of perfectionism is driven by external social motivations, like peer pressure, the need to fit in, fear of failure, or fear of losing self-esteem. It obsesses over grandiose and outsized goals at the extreme end or your abilities or depends on skills you have no discernible plan for acquiring.
Because this kind of unhealthy perfectionism is obsessed with unattainable goals, it breeds a lot of unhealthy coping strategies like wishful thinking (I’ll succeed if everything goes right), procrastination (putting off starting, to avoid the pain of not meeting expectations), or seeking excessive validation (I can start when I have enough qualifications or supporters).
Perhaps the worst perfectionistic habit is harsh self-criticism. Many unhealthy perfectionists describe their inner critic as a bully, nag, or troll. There’s a constant, denigrating inner monologue that saps their self-belief, exhausts them by constantly drawing attention to possible criticisms, and, in the end, leads them to wanting to give up.
We shouldn’t underestimate how toxic negative perfectionism can be. When perfectionism is expressed as harsh self-criticism, it undermines us in so many ways.
And it might well be asymmetrical, with the benefits of good perfectionism offering only a limited upside compared with the potential chasm of self-doubt that negative perfectionism can pull us into.
“Taken together, the results seem to suggest that perfectionistic strivings without concerns can indeed be helpful and that self-critical perfectionistic concerns without healthier strivings may be particularly toxic.”
My own journey with perfectionism has been rocky. Sometimes, I feel the thrill of positive perfectionism, accompanied by intense focus on details and a general feeling I can do this difficult thing I’ve set my mind to. More often, the negative perfectionism appears, full of fearful self-talk, and a fear of loss of self-esteem.
It’s this fear of losing self-esteem that’s most debilitating. People talk about fear of failure, but that’s not really it at all. The fear is more like a fear of losing self-worth, of believing the haters and naysayers were right all along.
If any of the negative aspects of perfectionism speak to you, consider talking to someone. Perfectionism isn’t something to be laughed off. The research is pretty clear that when negative perfectionism is present, the effects can be bad. And my experience – from years of suffering with negative perfectionism, and dealing with it more recently in therapy – suggests it takes a lot of work to overcome.
Perfectionism Is A Blunt Tool
The popular concern about perfectionism isn’t wrong. But it’s overly simplistic. It’s a generalisation. And, potentially, a thought-terminating cliché as well.
The conversation around perfectionism has to address our goals and motivations. And also, how we deal with failure. Or to put it another way, what kind of mindset we have.
The unhealthy perfectionist is prone to moralise failure. To take any failure to achieve success as a marker they don’t deserve success. Failures aren’t simply setbacks; they’re statements, as if the universe is telling them they’re unworthy.
Instead of generalizing about perfectionism, we should ask in what direction our striving for excellence is pointing us.
When perfectionism is expressed in a desire for Quality, in tangible goals, which arise from our own internal motivation, then perfectionism moves us in the direction of mastery and fulfillment.
But when perfectionism is expressed in unrealistic goals, reflecting who we think we need to be to be validated, then perfectionism isn’t taking us towards mastery but, instead, leading us in a much less healthy direction.