I have a secret I’m going to share with you. I’m a bit of a perfectionist. Well, more than a bit, if I’m honest. I’m a lot of a perfectionist. At least, I have been (I’m working on getting better about it, which sounds deeply ironic if you think about it for too long).
In theory, being a perfectionist seems like an awesome thing to be. You care about not just getting things done, but getting them done right as well. You enjoy a high attention to detail. Errors get caught quickly, and rarely get seen by others. Work is generally of an exceptionally good standard. When it gets submitted, there aren’t usually significant changes or edits.
If that was all there was, of course, then perfectionism would be pretty incredible. Work would get done to a high standard on a regular basis. There would be a continued honing of skills and capabilities, refining technique and approach in order to be that much better next time. Excellence would indeed be a habit.
The problem is that it doesn’t actually work that way. Perfectionism is frustrating, it can be debilitating and more often than not it is exhausting.
At its core, perfectionism is a compulsion with performance. There is an innate striving to be exceptional, to deliver work and produce results that stand up to the highest standards. For all that theoretically sounds wonderful, the consequences of sustaining it over time are significant. For most with a perfectionist bent, the reality is that they have probably been keeping it going for most of their lives.
Hidden behind that striving for excellence can be an anxiety of being never quite good enough. There can be impatience and frustration when what gets produced isn’t what was envisioned. At the outset of any activity, there is usually a mental image of what “done well” looks like. That expectation varies, depending upon perspective and depending upon standards. For the perfectionist, the idea of what is “done well” is very often very well indeed. When there is a gap between the vision and the actual result—whether because of circumstance, resources or actual abilities—the reaction is annoyance, resentment and often anger. That anger might be directed inward, but it doesn’t make it any more useful, healthy or productive.
The negative impacts of perfectionist tendencies manifest themselves in a number of ways. There can be resentment and hostility when flaws are found or edits are offered, no matter how helpful, reasonable or appropriate those suggestions might be. There can be irritation and discontent when the expectations of others get shifted mid-stream (or worse, once the work has been completed). There can be intolerance of errors that you make yourself, no matter how reasonable or defensible they might be. Equally, there can be intolerance of errors in others, often accompanied by unreasonable expectations of what others should be able to—or be willing to—accomplish. The consequences can be numerous, and the impacts—personally, as well as on interpersonal relationships—can be significant.
There is, I suspect, an important relationship between perfectionism and impostor syndrome. The essential features of impostor syndrome are a belief of being unqualified and incapable of performing a role, no matter how unfounded this might be or how much evidence exists to the contrary. People with impostor syndrome believe that their accomplishments aren’t the result of skill, but of luck. They are convinced that they have been promoted beyond their competence, and are fearful of the day when they are found out as being inadequate.
Impostor syndrome is essentially based on an irrational view of capabilities and expectations. What makes it seem so unreasonable on the face of it is that those who view themselves as impostors perceive themselves as not being able to perform a role that they are clearly already playing, and performing at a level that others value. For all the objective and external success, they don’t perceive and cannot process it internally. Their self-conception is one of fraud and lack of ability.
The perceptions underlying impostor syndrome might seem unfathomable at first glance. They start to make sense when examined through a perfectionist lens, however. The feelings of inadequacy and inability make perfect sense in a world where they perceive the requirements of the role they are performing as being that much higher. If the view they hold of what reasonable performance looks to them is significantly higher than what they see themselves delivering, then their frustrations and resentments of their performance start to become understandable. Their perception of being a fraud is a product of failing to meet their own inflated expectations, and believing that those around them—or at least those that they are accountable to—share those frustrations.
Let’s follow on with the implications of that for a few more moments. The fear of being “found out” that is at the heart of being a perceived impostor has the implication that once the discovery is made, they will be removed from their position. There is an element of fear and threat here. There is also the potential for relief. If they are found out and fired, that means that both their suspicions will be confirmed, and that the pressure to perform will disappear. There are dimensions of both curse and blessing here.
The reality for many who have a tendency towards perfectionism is that they are unwilling to embark on something in which they cannot be successful, or at least where they cannot meet their own—admittedly often inflated—standards. Rather than doing something to an average or reasonable level of performance, they avoid it entirely. So the almost-hoped-for being found out of the impostor relates to the avoidance temptation of the perfectionist. Both outcomes are a way of keeping from confronting a reality where they are not living up to their own standards.
This has shown up for me in a number of different ways in my journey to here. For example, art has been on the periphery of a great deal of what I have done since I was a child. I took art courses through to university, and even completed university-level courses while I was still in high school. My challenge in engaging in art was that I had a mental vision of what I wanted something to look like, and a technical proficiency at the time that prevented me from fully realizing that vision in what I was producing.
This experience is normal, and most of us experience it. We have an outcome that we want, and then we have the outcome that we actually realize. For the perfectionist, not delivering to the level of what is envisioned doesn’t count as a “good try;” it counts as failure. Rather than being pleased with results that didn’t fully measure up to what I was going for, I would experience frustration. I would notice and dwell on the mistakes, the blemishes, and the rough edges.
Over time, my ability to execute improved. I learned new techniques and approaches, I improved my eye and my ability to see what I was looking at, and to translate that into image or form. Even as competency increased, though, so did expectations. It is on some level remarkable that I persisted with art courses once they became an elective. It would have been easy to step away and stop, and yet it was something that I continued with despite often not being completely thrilled with what I produced.
As well as giving up, there is another defence mechanism at play that does the perfectionist no favours. Each of us has experienced procrastination on some level before. For those inclined towards inflated expectations of performance, however, procrastinating becomes something of an art form. The definition of procrastination is to delay or postpone action; to put off getting something accomplished. While that is a description of the behaviour, what it doesn’t acknowledge or address is the motive behind the procrastination.
For many, what underlies procrastination is a desire to avoid doing something that they don’t want to do. Other more pleasurable or enjoyable activities get substituted in its place. For the perfectionist, procrastination is a way of avoiding something not wanted, but in this instance it’s not the action that is being deferred, but the result. Rather than confronting an inability to realize a desired outcome—or the fact that it will take more time and work to accomplish than they would like—the work gets put off, and so does the disappointment.
This is a situation where you can run, however, but you can’t hide. If you are eventually going to do the work, you will ultimately also be forced to come to terms with whether it measures up. This is where procrastination becomes insidious. The very act of delaying creates both an explanation and an out. It becomes a way of rationalizing the result and also of deflecting responsibility for realizing that result. The inner narrative becomes one of blaming failure on a lack of time; the act of delaying sabotages the ability to do a good job, and also provides an excuse for why the result was sub-par.
The final challenge of perfectionism that I want to explore—and what I think is one of the most significant—is that the high standards that are established from the outset preclude any opportunity for experimentation, for exploration and for play. The initial vision of perfection doesn’t allow any room for results that don’t measure up; the expectation is that each effort must fulfill its potential.
Learning to do something—and in particular learning to do it well—requires being willing to experiment simply for the purpose of trying something out. It presumes that initial efforts will be messy and awkward. Practice is by its nature exploratory; you are finding out what works and what doesn’t, and adapting and evolving as you go. That implicitly requires a willingness to try things that won’t work, that will be found wanting and that don’t lead in promising directions. That is a very scary place for any true perfectionist to contemplate.
It was in the need for experimentation that I learned to get past my own perfectionist tendencies, at least for a time. When I discovered the world of theatre in my youth, a door opened up on a whole new world of possibility. I discovered the magic that exists in trying to tell a story to an audience, and I was immediately captivated. My role was never on stage, but instead behind the scenes. Some set design and construction (yet again giving my inner artist an outlet) but more particularly sound and lighting.
This was one of the first pursuits I engaged in that was exclusively mine, and that I did purely for my own pleasure and enjoyment. There were no expectations held by others, no standards that I was supposed to live up to, and no grades that I was being measured by. It was a world of play; serious play, but nonetheless a fun and creative outlet in which to explore. This was where I learned to experiment, to try things out, and to accept the fact that what I did at first might not live up to what I wanted, but that was okay. Good results took time to obtain; they didn’t immediately appear.
I’m not going to say that experience cured my of my perfectionist tendencies. What it did do, though, is highlight a pathway to moving past them. It’s an easy conceit to presume that the perfectionist is simply working towards their own high standards. The overlay of impostor syndrome on top of this provides a different understanding; they are afraid of getting found out by others. Ultimately, the perfectionist becomes so in order to satisfy the expectations of others and avoid disappointment. By elevating their own standards, they are trying to avoid even the possibility that their efforts might be found wanting.
Curbing perfectionism isn’t easy. But doing so depends on a simple and essential truth: make your standards your own, and not someone else’s. Fear of failure, of being found wanting, or of not measuring up all depend upon the perceived expectations and judgement of others. Doing things for their own sake, simply because you value them, is a very different endeavour. Finding your own passion, and pursuing your goals for what they give you and not others, is ultimately how to get past expectation and get to experimentation, to play and to finding satisfaction and enjoyment in what you do. Releasing your inner perfectionist is ultimately about embracing your standards as being truly your own.