The Modern Time Crunch

Finding peace in this whirlwind world.

The Perils of Perfectionism Part II

The perils of perfectionism can sabotage even the best, wreaking havoc on health

This is the second in a series of posts in which I'll flesh out the main aspects of this unhealthy pattern of thought and behavior. As I mentioned in my last post, “Perfectionism as a Roadblock to Productivity”, many people procrastinate due to their perfectionism.

Perfectionists often consider their perfectionism an ally and credit it for motivating them to produce work of excellent quality. But more often than not perfectionism is a set of skewed perspectives and assumptions that can undermine our efforts, make our goals harder to attain, and sabotage our emotional wellbeing.

Negativity is a significant feature of perfectionists. Undervaluing themselves and their work, perfectionists often talk themselves into states of despondency over minor flaws in their production. Mistaking high standards for impossible standards, they are setting themselves up for disappointment that will only further discourage them.

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The self-defeating talk and cognitive distortions don’t end there; perfectionists regularly assume that a bad day at an effort means they possess no talent and are doomed to failure. An example would be telling yourself, “I’m a failure as a parent!” when junior brings home a bad grade or ends up in the Principal’s office.

Another example would be castigating yourself for being the world’s most terrible golfer after a lousy day on the links, or assuming you’re a thoroughly hopeless musician after the first few lessons on an instrument prove harder than anticipated.

Artists are notorious for this sort of blind spot; if a story or painting isn’t working as well as hoped, it’s “awful” and they’re talentless. Isn’t it possible that there are good parts worth keeping? Generally speaking, a perfectionist’s lack of dichotomy won’t tolerate this perspective.

Also, perfectionists regularly compare their performance to the greats at their best. This is a common pitfall of high achievers. Did someone you admire achieve more than you by the same age you are now? Then it follows that you must inferior in talent or effort. It’s easy to see how this belief can wreak havoc on one’s sense of pride and agency. We need to be on guard for these pitfalls as we strive for better work and healthier lives.

Perfectionists rarely take extenuating factors into account in these scenarios, such as the relative advantages that other person enjoyed which might account for the difference, that person’s previous failings and hardships, and the unquantifiable element of plain old luck.

Unreasonable goals are a related dimension. The tendency to set such absurd and arbitrary goalposts, and pegging one’s sense of self-esteem to the ability to reach them is a hallmark of perfectionism. When the goal is inevitably missed, the negative self-talk becomes a shouting match and emotional wellbeing is further undermined.

To compensate, the perfectionist will often re-set the unreasonable goals and pledge to “try harder.”

The better route is coolly reassessing the goals versus your resources and then recalibrating the objectives. Looking at the situation with a more dichotomous perspective can help the perfectionist strike a better balance between the ideal and the possible.

In the next post I’ll discuss more hallmarks of perfectionism, their pitfalls, and how to short-circuit them. 

Former journalist James Ullrich is a psychotherapist in Seattle.

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