Being a perfectionist, or what psychiatrists call obsessional, is a double-edged sword in our society. Many competitive situations require hours of effort and near perfect ability, whether it be playing a musical instrument in public, or getting into highly sought after university courses. But perfectionism is often associated with stress, irritability, personal inflexibility and a need to control others.
HOW IT HAPPENS
Perfectionism usually starts in childhood. A child may learn perfectionism from one or both of his or her parents, if they themselves are obsessional about housework, about rules and regulations, about the standards of work and neatness etc. But perfectionism also occurs as a result of early emotional insecurity, with the child’s brain seeking security in the practicalities of a highly organised life to try to compensate for an unstable emotional environment. Children, and adults, may find that getting praised for high standard detailed work is very comforting, and continue to strive for more and more such approval.
Perfectionists are programmed from childhood to put huge amounts of effort, energy and time into producing as perfect a result as possible. Indeed, when asked if they are a perfectionist, the classical response is “I try to be”, as perfectionists are never 100% satisfied with what they have achieved. Being a perfectionist is like an addiction to detail and control, where the person involved gets very stressed and anxious if they cannot get the result they seek, or do the task to the level they would like.
HOW DO I KNOW IF I AM A PERFECTIONIST?
If other people have repeatedly commented that you are preoccupied with detail or that you do things to a much higher standard than everybody else, it is likely you are a perfectionist. If you can achieve these results without feeling stressed and without using huge amounts of time, congratulations on the benefits. However, if you find you are indeed getting stressed, or that tasks take you much longer than other people, you may wish to do something about the problem.
Furthermore, if you say that nobody does things properly, except you, it is very likely you are a perfectionist. Can you delegate tasks to others? Many perfectionists find it very difficult to let other people do certain tasks, knowing that others will not do it as well. However, if we accept that an employee or friend can do a job 80% as well as the perfectionist, having 10 people do that task equates to 800% of what a perfectionist can do at 100%.
It is a subjective opinion as to when a particular personality characteristic changes from being a benefit to being a problem. Any personality characteristic can be seen as being on a scale from zero to one hundred. Being around the middle of the scale is normal, but being at the extreme of the scale will bring problems. Indeed, all personality characteristics in human beings come as a mixture of positives and negatives, the ideal situation being one where the positives are exploited and the negatives are deliberately minimised. Retaining the benefits of being a perfectionist, with minimal complications, will be helped if you understand the multiple manifestations of the personality characteristic, and modify your thinking as appropriate (but be warned that change is hard).
TROUBLE COMPLETING TASKS ON TIME
A major problem for people with obsessional personality problems is trying to get tasks done within specified deadlines. Focussing on all the minute details of a project takes time and energy. Perfectionists have great difficulty accepting that a particular task is done “well enough” as they are driven to attempt to do it perfectly. Moving away from a task and onto the next task is often very anxiety provoking.
In fact, the harsh reality is that putting more and more time and effort into fine details usually gives only a slight extra benefit, at huge cost. An example is completing four questions of equal value in a two hour exam; in the first half an hour, you are going to get most of the marks available for that question. If you spend another half an hour on the same question, you will get extra marks, but far fewer than if you had moved on to the second question. If you spend an hour each on two questions and do not answer questions 3 and 4, you will inevitably fail the exam, regardless of how well you answer questions 1 and 2. This concept that increasing effort leads to relatively little extra gain is also described as the law of diminishing returns.
In the normal tasks of life, there are rare occasions when extreme effort is appropriate to produce a wonderful result. However, being driven by perfectionism and anxiety to put extreme effort into everything leads to exhaustion and intense stress.
Force yourself to stop after a reasonable time on a particular task, even though you know you could do it even better with more time and effort. It will feel very uncomfortable in the beginning, but tell yourself you are acquiring a new skill in life, namely the ability to consciously allocate your time, rather than having your time eaten up by your perfectionism and associated internal anxiety.
EMOTIONAL COMPLICATIONS OF PERFECTIONISM
Physical symptoms: Working very hard and working long hours, because of an anxiety-driven urge to do everything to extremely high levels, leads to exhaustion, anxiety and irritability. Indeed, many people who get frequent headaches, migraines and other physical symptoms, are victims of anxiety and perfectionism, with tension headaches in fact being the most common type of headache people get.
Depression is more common in perfectionists than in non-perfectionists. In many cases, the continuous stress under which they place themselves eventually causes depressive illness.
Perfectionism can also cause major problems in relationships. The perfectionist man or woman cannot understand why others close to them do not do things in the same way as the perfectionist, or to the same level of detail. Their reaction is often one of telling their partners, family members or friends that they are not doing things properly, or tidily enough, and then attempting to force those around them to do things their way. They are usually well meaning, and very anxious if things are not done their way, but they are perceived by others as critical, never satisfied “control freaks”, apparently overly concerned with what the rest of the population regard as irrelevant details and minor issues.
OVERCOMING EXCESSIVE PERFECTIONISM
As mentioned, there are many benefits in certain situations in doing things better than average, especially where there is intense competition. However, every task in life is not a competition, demanding a wonderful standard!
At work, or in studies, if you produce a Rolls Royce version of everything you do, there may well be lots of praise, until it is realised you have been forced to totally ignore other tasks that are also waiting to be done. Excessively detailed tasks can only be done at the expense of ignoring other tasks, or at the expense of your personal life by spending huge numbers of hours working. Phrased differently, while society would like Rolls Royce versions of everything you produce, society can only afford the average car standard, and society wants multiple average tasks completed, not just a small number of high quality tasks. A famous phrase states “perfectionism is the enemy of a good job”. Perfectionists are often dismayed to find that they have put huge effort into particular tasks, but end up getting criticised for what they have not completed on time.
The first task in overcoming perfectionism is to try to do things the way most people around you do them, and to cope with the anxiety of not doing things in more detail. In the beginning, this is very uncomfortable, with strong temptations to spend more time and effort on details, but gradually your brain will adjust. The psychological reality is that humans learn from what they do on a regular basis, so forcing yourself to do things at an average to good level (rather than to a perfect level) will sooner or later become accepted by your brain as normal. Relaxation techniques help to cope with the discomfort of change.
In trying to decide what is excessive detail, it is useful to think about whether you would actually pay someone to go to such levels of detail! For example, whether it be a job at work or cleaning the house, we would all pay the average hourly rate for an employee to do these things for us. The crux of the question is whether or not you would think it reasonable to pay the employee even more money to spend even more hours doing the details which you are tempted to do yourself!
It is also useful to see perfectionism as an addiction or drive inside you, and to be very careful not to try to impose this problem onto those who live with you or work with you. Accordingly, if you want to have your house or place of work operating at an unusually high level practically, this has to be your personal choice and your personal effort alone, and is not a valid reason for pressurising other people to do things over and above the community accepted average. Do not become a “control freak”, which inevitably causes friction with others, whom you think you are simply helping !
As people get older, the natural tendency is to become less flexible both physically and mentally. So perfectionism often becomes more rigid. In contrast, some people such as mothers of young children are overwhelmed by the constant demands suddenly placed on them, and are forced to stop being perfectionists. Your world will not crumble if you are no longer a perfectionist !
The ideal outcome is for you to make a conscious choice to do most tasks to an average or good level, while retaining the ability to do some tasks extremely well on the rare occasions when this is important.
OTHER CHARACTERISTICS OF PERFECTIONISTS
Making lists: Some perfectionists spend huge amounts of time trying to exert control over their lives by making complex lists of tasks, schedules etc. Often, this wastes large amounts of time which could otherwise have actually been spent getting some of these tasks done.
Hoarding: A number of perfectionists, but also a number of people who are generally anxious, end up hoarding large quantities of objects. This can be a manifestation of their concern to control material objects also, and an attempt to get security out of owning material possessions to compensate for their internal emotional insecurity. Would you advise a friend to keep so many objects?
Easily offended: Perhaps more than other people, perfectionists are inclined to be intensely convinced of their own point of view. They consider their own point of view as a scientific fact, rather than accepting that they simply have an opinion, which is no more accurate than the opinions of other people. Therefore, perfectionists see those who disagree with their opinions as personally attacking them, and see the opinions of others as having no validity unless there is scientific proof; at the same time, they see their own opinions as unquestionable, simply because they believe them. It is difficult for perfectionists to accept that different people can have different opinions, and that the world is full of shades of grey and uncertain issues, not precise black and white. If this applies to you, try to say something like “I see your point of view, and I will think about it, and I hope you see my point of view”.
Perfectionists are at risk of being offended deeply by the principles and actions of others, where the perfectionist disagrees. For example, borrowing an item and not returning it promptly and in perfect condition may be seen as human nature, but can be seen by a perfectionist as totally unforgivable.
Do remember that all human beings come as a package deal, with faults and good points. If you accept that no one is perfect, then you do not have to strive endlessly to be perfect either. It is good to do things well, but not at the expense of personal exhaustion and stress. We want to interact with content and coping everyday people, not with fabulous achievers who are damaged by their achievements.
Do remember it is better to be quick and relatively less accurate than being too slow and over-detailed. Doing things too slowly is like driving too slowly. As a learner driver, you go slowly; with practice, your brain allows you to do the same tasks at higher speed, Learning to go faster in the normal tasks of life and ignoring details, even with more risk of an error, is what most people believe is the way to get more out of life.
- “Perfectionism is a dangerous state of mind in an imperfect world”, R.S. Hillyer.
- “Have no fear of perfection – you’ll never reach it”, Salvador Dali.