How to Overcome Perfectionism

If something is worth doing, then it is worth doing well. That is to say that if you’re going to put your efforts into doing something, then you should do it properly and do the best you can do.

This is all very true, and it is certainly a good attitude to life, but if you take it too seriously then it can actually end up being a hindrance. That is, if you take too much time trying to make everything perfect before you finish it then you might find that you end up doing nothing at all. Yes it’s important that you do things well, but they don’t have to be perfect and it’s certainly better to do a shoddy job than to not do them at all in a lot of cases.

If you’re the sort of person who finds yourself spending five hours vacuuming the carpet then you will find that you don’t have much time to do anything else. And by the time you’ve finished vacuuming the whole area, the part of the carpet where you started will be likely to have gathered some dust again. This is one difficulty that the perfectionist might face, but there are many more. For instance, say you’re writing a novel – if you’re too much of a perfectionist then you may well find that you never end up finishing said novel and that you never end up showing it to anyone because you are never happy with it. And a perfectionist is often unlikely to experience somewhat low self esteem for these reasons too – because they are unlikely to live up to their own impossibly high expectations both in themselves and in terms of what they achieve.

The thing is that there is no such thing as perfection. Perfection is impossible to achieve because it is essentially an abstract term and a subjective one. Another saying is that ‘perfection is in the eye of the beholder’ and that means that even if you manage to achieve your idea of perfection, someone else might think very differently. The only time that perfection is achievable is within an imperfect framework. In other words, you can get the perfect score on a test (100%) but then the test itself won’t be ‘perfect’ so really that means very little.

Understanding Perfectionism

So if you’re a perfectionist, how did this come about? Well there are various explanations and depending on your experience and your personality the causes might vary from person to person. If you listen to Freud’s psychodynamic explanation of perfectionism though, then you would describe it as a form of anally retentive behavior. Anally retentive individuals are described as though people who have an obsessive compulsion over small details. They are likely to worry about illness more than others, to worry that they’ve left the cooker on when they go out, and to keep the place incredibly clean and tidy. According to Freud such a personality develops when the child is going through their ‘anal’ stage of development – an anally retentive personality will have become ‘fixated’ at this stage and this will result in their being concerned about mess and illness. This in turn is believed to occur as a result of parents having either too strict a regime when potty training or too relaxed an attitude. If your parents were very strict about how they brought you up in terms of your potty training then this would result in your desire to keep things clean and not make mess, and this would in turn result in an intense eye for detail.

Of course there are other ways that a person can become a perfectionist, and it’s likely to have come from a lifetime of being told to do things properly, and a general conscientiousness. If your brain works in a very logical and ordered way then it may be that you simply find imperfections harder to bear as they represent a lack of order. In some cases perfectionism might also be used as almost a delay tactic, in other words a person might use their perfectionism as an excuse not to show people their work or not to release it. Say you’ve written that book, but aren’t happy with it until it’s perfect – could it really be that the book is ready but you don’t want to risk sending it to publishers and having it rejected?

A Cure for Perfectionism: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

If you find yourself spending too long on getting everything done, or worse not finishing anything, then you will need to change the way you think about your work. Cognitive behavioral therapy teaches us how our thought patterns dictate our behavior and about how we can get into bad habits cognitively that result in a range of psychological issues.

For instance in the case of perfectionism you might find yourself thinking things like ‘this isn’t good enough’, ‘that picture is in the wrong place and it’s really getting on my nerves’, ‘I’ll lose respect if I release it like this’ or ‘everything has to be perfect’. These then result in your mildly obsessive behavior so you need to identify the times you have bad thoughts (CBT encourages ‘listening to your thoughts’ using a technique called mindfulness which is like meditation where you don’t try to clear your mind) and then replace them with more positive ones such as ‘there’s no such thing as perfect’, ‘this is as good as it can get’, ‘if I keep adding to it I’ll lose the rawness of it’, ‘I need to get it out there so that I can get some feedback and make some progress’. One way to do this is by using positive affirmations – say these things out loud and regularly when you are working so that they become habitual thoughts in the same way your perfectionism currently is.

The Alternative to Perfectionism

In business it is said that if you aren’t embarrassed of your first release, then you launched too late. This is of course a slightly sweeping statement and perhaps embarrassment is a little strong. However it is founded on good reasoning – which is that too many people take too long to create something and pour too many resources into a single project which essentially means putting their eggs all in one basket and leaping without looking.

The alternative is to rush out a product and to see how it goes. Of course this could be slightly damaging to a company’s reputation but there are ways to get around this – such as tacking the word ‘beta’ on the end, or giving it only to testers, or selling it very cheaply. However once it’s out there this will help you to understand more clearly whether or not this is a product or service that has legs. If it completely flops then you can stop working on it and move onto something else – no more time wasted making sure that the box has a frilly boarder around the edge.

However if it is successful and seems to do well, then you can set about the process of improving it. You can get feedback from your paying customers/clients and this will be the best source of feedback as they will expect a certain quality after parting with their money. As they give you that feedback you can then use this to tweak your product and service and improve it and that will allow you to create a better project that is tailored specifically to that market. It’s an organic evolution and it is the best way to steer your products to success. Meanwhile you can tweak your actually model of business so that you can find ways to reduce overheads, market to more people, sell in higher quantities etc and that too will allow you to get real time data and adapt accordingly.

The same can be said for lots of other things. For instance to use the book example again, rather than working for years on a book with no idea whether you have a winner on your hand; you can start submitting to agents and publishers now and this will allow you to get feedback again and so change your book and make it better each time. If you never show it to anyone and never try with it, then you’ll never know what you have.

And as for the carpet vacuuming, well again you need to acknowledge that it won’t necessarily ever be perfect. If you vacuum until the carpet is perfect then it won’t ever get finished. Instead think of it as an ongoing project and something you will come back to. Vacuum little and often, and aim to keep it at a constantly satisfactory standard instead of spending hours on it each time and then letting it get dirty again. There’s no such thing as perfection, just an average and a spectrum.

There is no such thing as perfection, so whatever it is your working on will never be finished. The secret is to stop trying to finish it, and instead to just keep adapting it and changing it.

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