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Behind Chronic Indecisiveness: Perfectionism

Part I: The pursuit of perfection paralyzes decision-making.

Key points

  • Perfectionism is the need, or desire, to appear flawless.
  • The pursuit of perfection is one of three major factors behind chronic indecisiveness.
  • Perfectionism is linked to all or nothing thinking, as well as catastrophic thinking.
Pixabay License Free for commercial use No attribution required
Source: Pixabay License Free for commercial use No attribution required

We define perfectionism as the need or intense desire to be–or to appear–flawless. It involves setting extremely high standards for oneself and then setting out to achieve those standards. Perfectionism is based on an inflexible all-or-nothing type of thinking.

Perfectionism has no place for continua. In its most extreme form, you derive no pleasure or satisfaction from your accomplishments unless your internal and external judgments rate you as perfect.

Most perfectionists are too sophisticated to believe that you could be totally flawless. After all, to err is human, and absolute perfectionism leaves no room for this human trait. So, you might tell yourself that you just want to be “as good as you possibly can be.” But this doesn’t insulate you from the desire to be as perfect as possible and the same all-or-nothing way of thinking (“your very best” or “not your very best”).

You may value this way of thinking because it carries the illusion that it is the main reason you succeed. You may think that giving up perfectionistic tendencies will make you unmotivated or sloppy, or mediocre.

However, perfectionism traps you in an evaluation system that focuses on flaws and mistakes. Perfectionists don’t rate themselves on how well they do. They focus on how much they fall below their desired standard.

Imagine taking a test where you get no credit for correct answers but get penalized for every wrong one. You would fret over every answer, worried that even one error would destroy your chances of passing. That is the world that perfectionists inhabit. No wonder decisions become excruciatingly difficult! Leaving no room for mistakes is an awful formula for learning, growing more confident in your decisions, and adding to your repertoire of skills.

We start every new experience as a beginner. Almost always, beginners feel awkward, anxious, and uncomfortable and yet proceed to make choices along with or despite these emotions. And, if you wait to proceed until your awkwardness or anxiety dissolves, you might well wait forever! Here again, your all-or-nothing thinking paralyzes you into non-action and non-choice. Perfectionism naturally leads to paralysis.

Most perfectionists value the effort to be perfect because they falsely attribute their successes to it. When hard-working, well-intended people abandon perfectionism, what happens is not mediocrity but excellence. And a much more joyful experience of any effort. The mean taskmaster of perfectionism makes necessary uncertainties intolerable, takes the pleasure out of learning, and paralyzes you in the face of choices and decisions.

Perfectionism is the enemy of creativity. When you become overly concerned about doing things just right, you become risk-averse and unable to take creative leaps of faith. You are restricted to safe choices.

Perfectionism is also the breeding ground of unrealistic expectations. If you expect yourself to be close to flawless, you will always be disappointing yourself. Making the right choice is burdened with the task of protecting your self-esteem and self-worth. So, you invariably lose self-confidence and put even more pressure on yourself to be perfect next time. Perfectionism leaves no room for self-compassion or for valuing who you are rather than what you accomplish.

Some perfectionists believe they would lose respect without it or that mistakes would have dire consequences for perceiving you. But many studies discover that perfectionistic people tend to be judged by others as more critical, more hostile, and less likable than those seen as non-perfectionistic. This is the exact opposite of the (false) belief that mistakes lower your respect and likeability. So, striving for perfection is both impossible and ill-advised. Others appreciate graciousness, humility, and humor in the face of mistakes.

Since perfectionism is intrinsically linked to all-or-nothing thinking, it is a common partner to catastrophic thinking. Perfectionistic children (and their parents) can view one failed test as starting a cascade of forced choices that will result in academic failure, the inability to get into the “right” college, and the abandonment of their career goals.

Every decision becomes incredibly important since one wrong choice can lead to a collapse in a series of “just right” outcomes required to achieve that perfect result. One patient believed that they would not stand it if they disappointed a friend, which led them to avoid having friends, as the burden they placed on themselves to be a perfect friend was too great.

In extreme cases, small decisions that ought to be simple become agonizing and feel like dangerous risks. One patient–debating whether to train her dog with an invisible fence–imagined that the wrong choice could lead to the dog being run over, her daughter blaming her for the death, and the need to commit suicide to atone for her mistake.

But imagine if you weren’t so demanding of yourself. What if you felt free enough to look at each choice you make as a learning experience? What if you could believe that each mistake you make allows you to learn to do better the next time? What if feeling embarrassed about something was a temporary experience that led to positive change? What if you could focus on the positive aspects of imperfection, as opposed to the catastrophic ones?