How To Achieve A Success State of Mind: The Destructive Role of Perfectionism

Understanding the Soul of Excellence

Posted May 24, 2010

Do you know or live with someone who is disturbingly perfectionistic to the point that it really annoys you? Are you perhaps that someone? People who are perfectionistic often think that they do this in the service of excellence. Yet studies have shown that perfectionism is very different from the pursuit of excellence [1]. In fact, perfectionistic people who are successful are successful despite their perfectionism, and not because of it [1]. What causes perfectionism and what can you do about this?

(1) The desire to be perfect: The desire to be perfect is associated with a constant nagging feeling of not being good enough. The problem here, is that even when success does come to perfectionists, it does not lead to increased satisfaction[2]. This is the kind of force that drives the anorexic person or the workaholic. Nothing is ever good enough. People who constantly desire to be perfect are rarely at peace with their own minds. Underneath their ambition, the desire to be perfect erodes the "soul" of their performance. Emotions are rarely perfect, yet they are what fuel the gripping quality of a great singer or the dramatic shot of the tennis player.
Recommendation: Being angry with yourself because you missed the ball is fine as long as this does change into a self-critical perfectionistic mindset. It is does, it will likely affect your chances of success as there are many studies that show that feeling positively about yourself will lead to a greater chance of success [3]. Thus, when you make mistakes, change your mindset from "I suck" to "The next time I do this, I know what not to do and I will focus on doing it the right way".

(2) Fear of failure: Nobody likes to fail-and why should you? A recent study showed that in athletes, there is a difference between (a) perfectionistic personal standards and (b) perfectionistic concern over mistakes [4]. Perfectionistic concern over mistakes is associated with experiencing shame and embarrassment after failure whereas having perfectionistic personal standards was not. People overconcerned about failure and mistakes also feel badly when coached whereas people who want their personal standards to improve do not.
Recommendation: Focus on getting better and not on the mistakes. Understanding the mistakes is important, but your focus and attention should go into getting better. Success orientation (thinking about success) is associated with more success whereas failure orientation (focusing on mistakes) is not [5]. Also, studies show that people who believe in repair feel much better and are able to attend to negative feelings much less than people who do not [5]. Also, studies show that keeping your eye on the long-term goal constantly can distract you from your performance because it creates such distance from your goal. Instead, focus on the short-term sub-goals, especially after "failure" [6].


(3) Fear of success: The desire for success is a deeply-felt feeling at a subconscious level. Along with this desire comes the idea that people will keep on expecting this, that failure will be a disaster and that maintaining the success state will take too much work. This creates a lot of conflict in the brain at a subconscious level, and as a result, people tend to avoid the "success" zone when they fear success. In fact, even when people are successful, they can start to feel like fakes because something about their success feels unbelievable to them [7].
Recommendation: Studies have shown that goal-setting may help take one's attention off of fear of success and onto the goals [8]. Recognize that your success has been partly achieved consciously and partly outside of conscious awareness. If you can't remember how you get there, don't worry. You're not supposed to since much of it is handled by your subconscious mind. Approach you goals slowly rather than avoiding them [9]. Build up momentum at a pace that is comfortable to you. What you think is the "success" state will be very different from actually being there. The view from the top of the mountain is very different than when you are climbing it.

Being preoccupied with being perfect can take your mind away from your success path. Reflect on the impact of fears on your success path, and turn your attention to what's right in front of you so that your brain can guide you to the top of that mountain that it already knows you can get to at your own pace. Success is about being present. Perfectionism is about not being who you actually are. If you are interested in finding out more about "a success state of mind", more insights are provided in my book, Life Unlocked.

References
1. Greenspon, T.S., Making sense of error: a view of the origins and treatment of perfectionism. Am J Psychother, 2008. 62(3): p. 263-82.
2. Mor, S., et al., Perfectionism, control, and components of performance anxiety in professional performers. . Cognitive Therapy and Research 1995 19 p. 207-225.
3. Isen, A.M., A.S. Rosenzweig, and M.J. Young, The influence of positive affect on clinical problem solving. Med Decis Making, 1991. 11(3): p. 221-7.
4. Sagar, S.S. and J. Stoeber, Perfectionism, fear of failure, and affective responses to success and failure: the central role of fear of experiencing shame and embarrassment. J Sport Exerc Psychol, 2009. 31(5): p. 602-27.
5. Bjornebekk, G. and T. Gjesme, Motivation and temporal distance: effect on cognitive and affective manifestations. Psychol Rep, 2009. 105(2): p. 339-60.
6. Houser-Marko, L. and K.M. Sheldon, Eyes on the prize or nose to the grindstone? The effects of level of goal evaluation on mood and motivation. Pers Soc Psychol Bull, 2008. 34(11): p. 1556-69.
7. Masson, A.M., M. Cadot, and M. Ansseau, [Failure effects and gender differences in perfectionism]. Encephale, 2003. 29(2): p. 125-35.
8. Harvey, A.L., Goal-setting as compensation for fear-of-success. Adolescence, 1975. 10(37): p. 137-42.
9. Kaye, M.P., D.E. Conroy, and A.M. Fifer, Individual differences in incompetence avoidance. J Sport Exerc Psychol, 2008. 30(1): p. 110-32.