5 Subtle Mistakes Perfectionists Make

How perfectionists trip themselves up.

Posted Apr 17, 2019

Source: Unsplash

Being a perfectionist can help you succeed but it can also sometimes result in shooting yourself in the foot. The following are five subtle ways this can happen. Not every perfectionist will display every pattern, but if you're perfectionism-prone, you'll probably relate to several of these. When you know what your self-sabotaging habits are, you can alter them. The first step to change is becoming mindful of your default thinking patterns and the ways these sometimes trip you up.

1. Putting off pleasure until the perfect opportunity presents itself.

Perfectionists can miss out on opportunities for fun and excitement by perennially waiting for a perfect opportunity that rarely comes. Here's an example of this: This past weekend I found myself considering using my miles and hotel points to cover a trip to Hawaii. I'd ideally like to use them for a trip that's two weeks, but right now I can only do a one-week trip.  It's psychologically hard to push the button on a less than perfect option, even knowing that I been putting this trip off for two years already waiting for a mythical ideal time.

2. Low tolerance for lack of perfect consistency and reliability.

Experiences that are imperfect really bug a perfectionist, often disproportionately so. At the risk of this being a very bougie example, I have a family member who avoids buying avocados because she finds sometimes getting rotten ones distressing. Trying so hard to avoid any bad ones makes the buying experience stressful to the point she tends not to attempt it. She misses out on an experience she likes (eating avocados) because she's so bothered by the times it doesn't meet expectations.  

3. Basing your decisions on the way you think the world should work, rather than how it actually does.

As pointed out above, perfectionists are often very bothered by things that aren't as they should be. They can find themselves making decisions based on how they think something should work rather than how it does in reality. Let's say you think a policy is unfair. You could work within the policy, as it stands, to get the best outcome you can, given the reality of the situation. However, a perfectionist who thinks the rules are unfair might stubbornly resist doing whatever is in their own best interest. If there isn't an opportunity to make a perfect decision or they've missed that window, they might hold out and make no decision, to their own detriment.

This pattern can have social manifestations too. For instance, if you think someone is not being fair to you, you might stubbornly resist making the best of the situation, even if it results in misery for you or getting less of what you want.

4. Being unwilling to try things that might not work or that only work some of the time.

This is a similar principle to #2 but a slightly different manifestation. Perfectionists sometimes get so frustrated by the times a strategy doesn't work, they overlook that overall it's worth attempting

For instance, a couple of years ago I called to try to reduce my internet bill when my initial new customer rate ended and my monthly fee jumped. I only got offered a $5/month off promotion that time, so it barely seemed worth it to call again. However when I eventually called back, this time I got offered a $20/month off promotion. The prospect of being disappointed by a poor offer or poor result can put the perfectionist off too easily in situations in which attempting the strategy is likely to be beneficial and worth it overall.

5. Pursuing opportunities that objectively are not worth it.

Many people get some satisfaction from completeness, for example, squeezing the last little bit of toothpaste out of the tube before discarding it (in my household we cut the tubes open to get the last little bit out). This tendency to prefer completeness is often harmless. However, one problematic way this can manifest is that it can lead the perfectionist to pursue opportunities that aren't objectively worth it in situations that feel incomplete. For instance, you've tried to resolve a customer service situation but were unsuccessful. Perhaps you tried live chat or some other easy method but the rep wasn't helpful. You know it makes sense to give up on it now, but you're driven to get the resolution you want, even though the issue was minor and the time you'll spend isn't worth it. (See this article for more on this point, particularly the section about sunk costs.)

Perfectionists are often driven to "sweat the small stuff" by either extreme conscientiousness or by their dislike for unfairness or incompleteness. This often results in becoming mentally overloaded, and there is a large opportunity cost.  It's easy to overlook more important things that need taking care of while you're correcting minor issues.

Did these points help you understand yourself or a loved one?  Pick whichever point you related to the most and come up with a game plan for spotting when the thinking pattern occurs and choosing alternative action.