Excellence over perfection

I am releasing the next book in the series Tom’s Ten this week. It is a book of interviews with perfectionists, detailing their life experience and what they found helpful in managing this behaviour. It is not a self development book per se yet it throws up some insightful perspectives and management strategies for any “recovering” perfectionist. Keep an eye on my Facebook page on Thursday for its release at the usual price of $1.99.

In this week’s post I wanted to talk about how perfectionists can benefit from practicing a standard of “good enough” in their area of perfectionism. I write those words on purpose because for many of us perfectionists those words are impossible to speak let alone read!

In reality “recovering” perfectionists will only gradually relinquish their death strangle hold of control. The results are still excellence to the casual observer, yet for the individual it’s akin to fingernails scraping down a blackboard. The level of “good enough” for perfectionists still surpasses many others standards of work, appearance or skill. This is mainly because there is a real anxiety around doing less. We may see it as inferior, even if the outcome is that we actually enjoy what we do or how we look. Don’t get me wrong I don’t think that all perfectionists are miserable, anxiety ridden, obsessive, fabulously well dressed workaholics. But we may have at least one of those things going for us (one can hope!) It is just part and parcel of being a perfectionist that we strive for a standard that is verging on the impossible or at least two levels above our current abilities.

As many perfectionists self worth is tied to the area they obsess over it can be a recipe for personal chastisement. It’s a heady mix of success and accomplishment with self loathing and disappointment. On the outside it seems that we are just smashing life, but under the surface we are driven by fear of failure (or anything less than the best), imposter syndrome and a past filled with learnt negative experience. I am not saying this is all perfectionists, but those I have spoken with in researching my book can confirm some or all of these feelings and thoughts. As with all mental health issues what you see on the outside is not the guts of it. You see success, but they feel anxious, depressed, dissatisfied or unfulfilled.

Those people who kindly contributed to my new book and the subsequent blog post series on perfectionism have insight to share though. Frankly I loved writing this book, learning about these amazing individuals and what they had overcome. Their self development has yielded a few key things to share here and you can read the rest in my book later this week.

  1. Perfectionism is a learnt behaviour Like many things we do in our adult lives, perfectionism is learnt in our childhood experiences. Whether it’s from a parent or school it can easily get out of control as we get older. However, like many undesirable behaviours we can change it with practice, patience and time. Starting with self-awareness and practicing high standards instead of perfection.

  2. Practice safe standards If you are a perfectionist in your work it can be difficult to lower your standards even if the result is excellence. You may not want others to see you doing less, fear of being called out may prevent you from change. Instead you can practice almost perfect/excellent/good enough in your personal time, at home or with friends you trust. In these environments you still have your own inner critic to deal with, but without the added stress of other people’s (supposed) judgement. Once you realise that your world won’t fall apart if you do a bit less it will help you to relax a little.

  3. Voice your inner critic Perfectionism can be driven by an inner critic voice in our minds. This is often supplied by a parent or respected elder that has critiqued us in the past. By speaking these thoughts out loud you can begin to rationalise and deconstruct them with questioning. This voice that may have ruled over your actions for so long may fall apart under a little scrutiny. What you may have thought was good for you was actually someone else’s opinion.

  4. Get help. If you’ve struggled mentally from your perfectionism I’d highly recommend speaking to a professional. Many of us don’t get help until real damage is done and we are falling apart. Treat yourself like a car service by getting a regular check up with a counsellor or psychologist. Nobody wants their wheels to fall off when they are doing 70mph on the motorway.

  5. Get the expectation set first If your perfectionism is at work then ask the receiver of your efforts for a deadline. Confirm what level of detail is required. Too often us perfectionists get caught up in the details, slowing down our work rate, when the big picture is more important. Sometimes you don’t need to produce the crown jewels if a laurel wreath is good enough for the boss.

I’ll round this out by dispelling the falsehood that perfectionism is a great trait to have. BULLSHIT. There I called it. High standards and excellence are certainly beneficial, but perfectionism is not. Certainly it can drive individuals to reach and surpass high standards and success, but that is not all there is to life. Too often the benefit of perfectionism falls to employers or clients, not the perfectionist. Some of the unhappiest and most unfulfilled people I have the pleasure of knowing are perfectionists. Admire high standards, not perfectionism. Don’t let it ruin your life.

Tom :)