The perils of perfection

Bev Alderson, through her business Practically Balanced, works with individuals, groups and workplaces, wanting to take a more positive and proactive approach to enhancing wellbeing and in turn achieving greater results. Bev brings a unique and authentic perspective to the work she does, drawing upon her personal experiences, management capabilities and expertise in mindfulness, stress resilience, yoga, nutrition – and more.

In this week’s blog, Bev looks at the adaptive and maladaptive styles of perfectionism and discusses ways to hone in on perfectionism and use it as a skill.

What’s the point of doing something if it isn’t done well – right?

Can you imagine delivering a piece of work to a client that was full of mistakes? How about arriving to deliver a presentation, 20 minutes late and ill-prepared? Or what about the in-laws arriving for Christmas, the house a mess and no food in?

No, me neither!

For those of us with perfectionistic tendencies, the above scenarios are likely to send a shudder down your spine. We perfectionists are highly organised, have high standards and know how to get a job done and done well.  We set the proverbial bar high for ourselves, and for others, and can be relied on to deliver to a consistently high standard.  Qualities that everyone should aspire to … or should they?

Whilst these may seem like admirable traits, those with perfectionist tendencies are more prone to anxiety and stress than their less perfectionistic counterparts, and are not always the high achievers they appear to be.

What is perfectionism?

A textbook definition of a perfectionist is “someone who strives for or demands the highest standards of excellence”.

“Nothing wrong with that” I hear you say, and I concur. However, in reality, it is considerably more complex than that.

Perfectionism comes with both positive and negative aspects i.e. it can be both adaptive and maladaptive. In its adaptive form it can provide the motivation to achieve goals, or complete an activity to a high standard, when needed.

If a job genuinely needs to be done to a high standard, then someone with perfectionistic tendencies is your man, or woman.  If I had to face the operating table, I would want the surgeon to be someone who was a stickler for detail and was aiming for a 110% outcome.

In its maladaptive form, perfectionism can result in striving for unreasonable, and at times unattainable, goals.  It can also come with a high degree of pressure and stress.

Add a dose of maladaptive perfectionism to an event, such as hosting Christmas dinner, and it won’t be long before you find your stress levels, and budget, being unnecessarily blown through the roof!

Maladaptive versus adaptive styles

One way to determine which category perfectionistic traits fall into, is to compare them with maladaptive versus adaptive styles.  Have a read through the table below and highlight the characteristics that are most like you:

Adapted Enns and Cox, 2002

Multidimensional perfectionism scale

Another option is to explore a scale developed by two psychologists, Hewitt and Flett, whose research suggests that there are 3 types of perfectionism: self-oriented, other-oriented and socially-prescribed:

Self-oriented

Those with self-oriented perfectionism hold high standards for performance. They are conscientious and have greater work productivity and career success.

Other-oriented

Those with other-oriented perfectionism are more likely to inflict high standards on others and can have trouble delegating – no one can do it as well as they can of course!

Consequently, they may come across as being overtly judgmental and critical, which can have a negative impact on their working and interpersonal relationships.

Socially-prescribed

As the name suggests, the standards set for this type of perfectionism come from external sources – other people and society in general.

The sense of pressure felt in managing or maintaining perspective, in terms of negative feedback and criticism, and in the ability to measure up, can be considerable.  It has been linked to anxiety, depression and even suicide.

If this scale is an area of interest, you may like to analyse your traits against the multidimensional perfectionism scale.

Perfectionists are less effective

From the outside looking in, perfectionists may appear:

  • well groomed
  • to have immaculate homes
  • highly organised
  • to be excellent at their jobs

The list goes on…

However, they are not always the high achievers they would have you believe they are, or they are perceived to be.

I have heard these characters likened to swans – they may look like they are gliding effortlessly through life but, underneath the surface, they are pedalling like hell to stay afloat.

There are many ways that perfectionism, the maladaptive kind that is, can make one less effective.

Let’s explore 5:

  1. Perfectionists procrastinate

Whilst procrastination may seem paradoxical to perfectionism, it is not uncommon for the two to go hand in hand.

The fear of not being able to deliver something to a high enough standard, or being judged critically, may result in those with perfectionistic tendencies running for the hills. One way this can show up is leaving an activity until the absolute last minute.

“I did the best I could with the time I had”

What a perfect antidote.

  1. Perfectionists take longer

It makes sense that if you want something to be perfect it is likely to take longer, than if you are okay for it to be less than perfect. A double whammy to this is, in fear of being judged for taking too long, a perfectionist may hide the amount of time and effort exerted.

“It was nothing” they will say.  Even though they may have burnt the midnight oil to get it done.

Imagine this in a work setting.  A job done to an extremely high standard, in a perceived short period of time, is likely to result in more work being passed their way. Add to this a likely inability to say no or ask for help, otherwise they may appear inefficient or inadequate, and the pursuing pressure and long hours is a recipe for burnout.

  1. Perfectionists avoid things

I’ve heard it said that some people fear delivering a presentation more than they fear death. I used to get nervous before delivering a presentation and would do my best to avoid them. I would sit there in the front row, waiting for my turn to speak, my heart pumping in my chest, a knot in my stomach and a lump in throat – as I sat desperately trying to remember what I had planned to say!

Whilst there can be many reasons for this and ways of tackling it, for me it was rooted in perfectionism. The desire to deliver the perfect presentation, the fear of making mistakes and not being perceived positively, was the primary cause of my excessive nerves.

Once I discovered this, I was able to reset my expectations.  Being okay to be nervous and aiming for 80% saw my nerves diminish considerably.

Not putting your name in the hat for that new job, missing out on participating in a social event, or trying that new hobby can all be seated in perfectionism.

  1. Perfectionists don’t work well with others

No one likes a perfect pants, right?

Put a person with perfectionist tendencies into a group environment and it is likely to be game on. There is nothing like a desire to be, and do the best, to bring out one’s competitive nature.

There is nothing wrong with a bit of healthy competition, but the desire to win shouldn’t come at the cost of overtly criticising, demoralising or dismissing the contribution of others. Whilst some perfectionists think nothing of critiquing others, they are not so good at taking it.  To them negative feedback can feel like a personal attack and one that cuts deep.   Criticise a perfectionist and they are likely to either get defensive, upset, or retaliate.

These maladaptive behavioural traits can also get in the way of progression, particularly up the corporate ladder.  An overtly competitive nature, an inability to prioritise or delegate effectively, and tendencies to micro-manage are not the desirable traits of a good leader. It really is an oxymoron that one of the drivers of a perfectionist is to be perceived highly and yet it can result in the absolute opposite. At their worst, perfectionists can come across as self-serving, controlling, nit-picking, unreasonable, unapproachable, defensive, and generally difficult to work with.  Ouch.

  1. Perfectionists can’t make decisions

Decision making is a life skill and one we all need in order to lead a successful work and personal life.

Perfectionists are generally wary of making decisions for fear of getting it wrong and/or looking bad. Perfectionists are also prone to ‘all or nothing thinking’, which can make it even more challenging to make decisions in two ways:

  1. If a solution is unclear and/or there are many variables
  2. Not budging if they believe they are right

No decision is of course a decision in itself.

So, not making decisions and making decisions are a breeding ground for error and judgement – the stuff that perfectionistic nightmares are made of.

So, to make a decision or to not make a decision. Decisions, decisions!

The causes of perfectionism

We all have things we like to do well, or times where we want to show up as our best self. So, you could say that everyone has perfectionistic tendencies to some degree.

Perfectionism, in its adaptive form, can be a positive attribute, so why does it get out of hand, become maladaptive, for some and not for others? Here are a few thoughts and theories…

Not feeling good enough

We are all good at some things and not so good at others.  The trouble is, when we compare our not so good qualities with someone else’s good qualities, we are always going to see a short fall.

You may have grown up, or spent time, in an environment where the skills you have were not valued.  Or you felt you fell short amongst your siblings or peers. It is this type of comparison to others that can lead to ‘not feeling good enough’ and a perfectionist desire to bridge the gaps.

Comparing ourselves to others can be a positive, in ascertaining desires or identifying opportunities for growth.  But not when it results in the need to judge or criticise others or in striving ‘to keep up with the Jones’

Seeking praise

We seldom receive accolades for simply being ourselves or for giving something a go. We do however receive praise for achieving good grades, getting that promotion, winning that trophy, a fab new outfit or losing a few pounds.

Unsurprisingly, this can result in a perfectionist drive to win, to spend, to achieve – all to get the resulting reward. It also makes sense of why some perfectionists do not enjoy the journey, just the destination.

Avoiding mistakes

We all make mistakes and at times there are negative outcomes and consequences.

What we shouldn’t expect is ridicule, excessive punishment or not being allowed to do things for fear of our messing it up. We can probably all think of a few times when the balance of mistake to consequence was not on par.  For some, this may have happened excessively.

Unsurprisingly, it can result in maladaptive perfectionistic traits such as a fear of failure or the desire to avoid activities or situations that may result in being chastised.

Not feeling safe

What if at any moment a situation may arise that could expose you, as the less than perfect human being that you are? Often stemming from not feeling safe in this uncertain world, many perfectionists are unable to feel at ease unless everything in their life is in order. They will try to control others, how they are perceived and their external environments – all in an effort to feel safely tucked away behind the perfect façade.

Those with controlling maladaptive traits, may implement harsh regimes that they inflict on themselves and others.  They may find it challenging to be vulnerable, or to open up to others, unless they feel they are in very safe hands. If things don’t go to plan, or they feel out of control, they may be quick to anger and can feel badly let down by themselves and others.

Shame

I am not talking about the shame you feel from something you did wrong here, more the unconscious type.  The type that evolves from an accumulation of multiple experiences and leaves you with a deep sense that you have to earn your place and the right to be loved for who you are.

You are unlikely to be able to put your finger on it exactly, but deep within you is a belief that no matter how hard you try or what you achieve you will never quite measure up. When you take a step towards perfect, you feel better about yourself, albeit momentarily.  A step backwards is a personal failure.

The real shame is that the mirage of perfect will forever elude you – no matter how much maladaptive perfectionism you chuck at it.

Antidotes to perfectionism?

Often when I present on the subject of wellbeing, I will tell people that I am a recovering ‘A-Type Maladaptive Perfectionist’, and the reason I do what I do is that I am naturally rubbish at it.  Whilst this is a bit tongue in cheek, there is actually a lot of truth in it.

If perfectionism is a challenge for you then this may be a hard blog for you to read – but know that it is not an easy one for me to write!

There is nothing wrong with wanting some things to be done well.  To achieve a lot and be held in high regard for some of the things you do. But we need to recognise that perfect is elusive and perfectionism is seldom our friend.

Our default mode may be to lay blame at our own door for not being able to always hold the reigns on our perfectionistic traits.  To have to own the fact that some of the challenges we face are self-inflicted.

If you are having regular thoughts about achieving high standards, about how you are perceived and relentlessly striving to achieve unrealistic or unnecessary goals – then you may be in the unhealthy grips of maladaptive perfectionism.

What we need is the ability to hone in on perfectionism and use it as a skill.  To rule it and not the other way around.

  1. Plan your day

Maladaptive perfectionists are very likely to want Rome built in a day.

Start your week/day with a clear idea of what you ‘need’ to achieve by the end of it.  Include your work commitments, responsibilities and what is important to you.

Have an A-List and a B-List and a Z-List. Do the A’s first, then the B’s, if you have the time and energy, and keep the Z’s for a highly charged or a rainy day.

Make it a practice to celebrate the small steps you take each day as well as the overall accomplishments.  Also celebrate the things you choose to not do in pursuit of what is important to you.

  1. Evaluate your standards

Once you have an idea of what you are going to get done, then you need to decide to what standard.  Not everything has to be done at 110%.

To help set your standards, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is the standard I set going to enable or compromise my wellbeing and happiness?
  • Are my high expectations going to enable or compromise the wellbeing and happiness of others?
  • Will it actually get me the results I want or are required?

Your idea of perfect may be different to someone else’s and perfection may actually work against you.

I taught a series of ‘how to create or develop your business’ workshops in 2019.

One of the examples I would give, in the area of perfectionism, is to imagine you wanted to join a local yoga class but you felt you were a bit too old, too overweight, too creaky etc.

Which of the following marketing flyers would entice you to join…?

A: The highly professional one depicting images of fit, slim, young healthy folk doing amazing yoga poses, describing how you will be able to stand on your head in 4 weeks?

B: The home printed one depicting images of real people doing yoga with benefits that feel more attainable to you?

You may also like to utilise a perfectionism scale to help you set standards.  I have mentioned this in previous blogs, as it can be a game changer in determining standards and consequences.

Here’s an example based on the delivery of a work project:

Once you get in the habit of setting standards, it becomes a natural practice.  A quick sanity check before commencing something new or when you, or others, find you a tad challenging to be with!

  1. Use your perfectionistic talents

Perfectionism undoubtedly comes at some cost. When you put ‘being and getting it right’ above all else, you are likely to be sacrificing your personal dreams and goals, your relationships, your health, and your happiness.

How about we flip that around and set perfectionist sights on what is important to you and doesn’t impact you negatively instead?

If you want to have dinner with the family at night then working late to clear the inbox and the to-do list is likely to get in the way. If you want to exercise regularly then early starts and late finishes are likely to see you heading for the couch instead. If you want to get out and enjoy some long winter walks then stressing over a spotlessly clean house is likely to keep you at home.

Get clear on what you want.  Put it on your A-List and let little Miss or Mr Perfectionist do the rest.

  1. Say No

It is hard for any self-respecting perfectionist to say no. Sometimes the urge may be strong but when you say ‘yes to your no’ you are inevitably saying ‘no to your yes’.

Like any skill, the art of saying no needs to be learnt and practised. If you catch yourself choosing a non-essential task over what is important to you, try implementing a pause and make what you do next a conscious decision.

  • Is the standard I set going to enable or compromise my wellbeing and happiness?
  • Are my high expectations going to enable or compromise the wellbeing and happiness of others?
  • Will it actually get me the results I want or are required?

You see what I did there?

  1. Be okay to be nothing

Whatever the root cause or your driver, somewhere along the way your self-worth became linked to what you achieve or how you are perceived.

What if you were perfect exactly as you are? If you didn’t need to be anywhere else, have anything else or be anyone else, to be seen as someone in the eyes of this world? Who really cares if your life doesn’t look Instagram worthy?

You matter and are enough exactly as you are – no filters required!

  1. Have fun

Perfectionism is a party pooper, a kill joy and will use every ‘could of’, ‘should have’ and ‘would have’ to stop fun in its tracks – if you let it.

One of the biggest antidotes to perfectionism, I think, is to have fun. Not the type of fun you have to organise or plan for or try and get right. Just the silly sort you do for absolutely no other reason than, well, for the fun of it!

Summary

Perfectionists are highly organised, have high standards and know how to get a job done and done well.  We set the proverbial bar high for ourselves and for others and can be relied on to deliver to a consistently high standard.  Qualities that everyone should aspire too… or should they?

The dark side of perfectionism is not your friend.  It will have you strive for unrealistic goals, chastise you for making insignificant mistakes and try to control your inner and outer worlds.

Perfectionism is both a gift and a burden that needs to be used wisely – to be ruled and not the other way around.


Bev Alderson

Bev Alderson is a Mindfulness, Yoga and Stress Management Consultant who works with individuals, groups and workplaces.

Having spent 18+ years in management in the IT industry, in both the UK and Australia, Bev learnt first-hand the impacts of a high-pressure environment and lifestyle and how, left unchecked, this can negatively impact performance and health.

Today, through her business Practically Balanced, Bev brings authenticity to the work she does, drawing upon her personal experiences, management capabilities and expertise in mindfulness, stress resilience, yoga and more.

Bev completed a Diploma in Yoga with the highly respected Qi Yoga School in Sydney in 2012 and with Sivananda in India in 2015. She also completed a Certificate in Stress Management with the London Centre for Coaching and Counselling in 2014, an ILM with the Stress Management Society in 2014 and a Diploma in Meditation with the British School of Meditation in 2016.


With many thanks to Bev for this blog. If you have any questions regarding the health topics that have been raised, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with Amanda via e-mail or phone:

amanda@cytoplan.co.uk
01684 310099

Amanda Williams and the Cytoplan Editorial Team



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11 thoughts on “The perils of perfection

  1. Wow! This blog resonates. What a powerful message. It’s only now in my early fifties that I can recognise myself as a Maladaptive Perfectionist. The innate anxiety of being the perfect “swan-like”wife, mother, home-maker, memory-maker, friend, employee ( the list goes on…) has been both fruitful and exhausting. Bev thank you for awakening the possibility of having some good old fashioned fun! (Despite this pandemic)

  2. That’s such an interesting article. I wish I had that information years ago! Some good ways to change my thoughts and behaviours suggested too

  3. A wonderful , liberating article. When my daughter was a baby I was aware that a perfect house , good job , sometimes meant more than being with her or in fact my own health needs. But all this time on and that thought has only just reallyresonated and been understood, after reading your article. And it’s not just me. Turns out , its a “thing” . I can now be more self aware and try and move away from those behaviours/patterns. Thank you

  4. Really interesting article. I can identify with the negative side of perfectionism as well as the positive. Being a civilian female in a male dominated job required me to be on my toes at all time. There always seem to be someone that would happily stab you in the back.

    Loved the challenge, achieved a great deal in my career.
    Dreaded retirement. Now 2 years into retirement and the release of pressures has surprised me in that it is wonderful.

    I’ve recently seen a therapist regarding lingering effects of anorexia which I suffered many years ago. Surprisingly poor self image and striving for perfectionism seem to be a root cause of my eating disorder. Two things that linger on and I have to deal with.

    This article has helped me. As I really had not thought about the negative sides of perfectionism. Now I realise that they are quite powerful and dangerous.

    1. Hi Kath,

      Thank you so much for sharing your experience. We’re really glad this resonated with you in a positive way.

      Thanks,
      Jo

  5. While I completely agree with, and understand, all the negative (or ‘maladaptive’ to quote the author) aspects of perfectionism, in my opinion, her article presents very negatively biased and unbalanced approach. She concentrates on the negatives and how to deal with them, which is good. And, yes, she does mentios the positives in one of the charts – but she doesn’t really discuss them or highlight how perfectionists should focus on and develop those positive strengths.

  6. Such an excellent article on Perfectionism!

    It reads like the author is speaking – very natural and all-embracing. Not preachy.

  7. So wish I had been on board with this 35 years ago, trying to be the perfect wife, mother, climbing the career ladder in a male dominated workplace, the person who suffered was myself. It took its toll mentally and physically and only really coming to terms with it all now post retirement.

  8. I came accross this blog as I was procrastinating 🙂 and utterly enjoyed reading it.

    I have this on my wall as a reminder now: ‘You matter and are enough exactly as you are – no filters required!’

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