Perfectionism – Is it a strength or a weakness?

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Recently a reader wrote this to me, “I am still bothered when people call me a perfectionist. In school, people call my daughters perfectionists too. The inference is, you are wrong to work so hard on a project getting all the details right. Why can’t you be mediocre like the rest of us?

In sports, we are allowed to be perfectionists — that’s called the motivation to win. A coach who doesn’t win (makes mistakes) can be fired. As a woman not in sports, my same drive is seen as a negative. So the next time someone calls me a perfectionist, I am going to respond: “Yes, I see myself as someone who is motivated to win.””

What does it mean when others label you a perfectionist? Is it a compliment? One of the definitions in the dictionary for perfectionism is “A propensity for setting extremely high standards and being displeased with anything else.” As the writer points out this is acceptable in sports. Isn’t that what the Olympics are all about?

Yet the writer says that others see perfectionism as something negative. Like all strengths there can be a point at which it does in fact become a weakness.

A person may perform the functions of a job with a vision of the “perfect” way to perform or the “perfect” outcome of the work. If perfecting the work and progressing toward that standard gives someone pleasure and energy then it is healthy for him/her to continue.

The problem arises if the person starts to think of nothing else. He/she starts to exclude everything else in his/her life then it might be time to question the perfectionism. In fact to me the word perfectionism connotes that sort of obsessive behavior. My dictionary did not state this however but that might be what those addressing the reader are feeling.

Similarly if a person is working on a project and trying to get a “perfect” outcome, he/she can work at it and change their methodology sort of like a scientist with an experiment. If it starts to take over the person’s life then again the person has to question whether this is really what he/she wants to do.

The answer might in fact be that that is exactly what that person wants to do. At least then it is a conscious choice. You have to want to change the perfectionist pattern in order to do something about it.

I have known people who never finish a project or even are afraid to start something because they fear it will not be perfect. If this happens then he/she really has to decide what is more important getting something done or getting it perfect. This decision can be paralyzing and is often the root of procrastination.

Finally the reader says that people call her daughters perfectionists too. With children there is always the possibility that they are working toward someone else’s standard and not their own. Do they want to continue working on the project or skill? Is there some outside threat that makes them anxious about their performance?

We have all heard about stage mothers and parents who want their children to excel at a sport. Encouraging them to do these things is wonderful. Forcing them to do them perfectly is not.

One danger in being a perfectionist is demanding it in others. It is the person themselves who decides if the standard is worth working toward. (It is an individual’s choice.) Setting perfection as a standard for someone else is not fair. Children whose parents set perfectionist standards for them often later in life feel that they are not good enough. (My father was never satisfied with my getting an A. He wanted me to get an A+. I found that really difficult to live up to.)

Talented people are often labeled perfectionists. They could be scientists, great sports figures, or performers who devote all their waking hours to working on a problem or perfecting their craft to the exclusion of everything else. And who is to say that a life so far out of balance wasn’t just right for them? The next time you are working on something that is consuming most of your time because you want it to be perfect, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What would I rather be doing?
  2. What parts of my life am I ignoring?
  3. What is it about this project that takes precedent?
  4. What and who are my priorities?
  5. Am I living a life that takes my priorities into account?

If you have a sense of dissatisfaction with your life as it is, it is up to you to change it. Working with a coach can help you clarify what your priorities are. The coach can then help you plan a way to make your life reflect your priorities. I’d love to be your coach. Call me at 781-598-0388 or email me at asparker@asparker.com

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