A Guide from a Recovering Perfectionist
“Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving,” advised Neil Gaiman in his sixth rule of writing and David Foster Wallace similarly warned, “If your fidelity to perfectionism is too high, you never do anything.” But while most of us understand the dangers of perfectionism, we still seem to find ourselves falling victim to it.
Calls for perfectionism are all around us. We’re constantly being told that we should be doing more and working harder. As we set high goals and fail to meet them, we push ourselves even more. We’re becoming more expectant of ourselves and more expectant of those around us in a world that’s never been more focused on competition and meritocracy.
It’s easy to rationalize perfectionism by saying that it’s just having high standards. But there’s a big difference in striving for excellence and being a perfectionist. Excellence is pushing for high quality. It’s about improving and doing the best that you can. Perfectionism is trying to meet an impossible level. It causes people to be highly critical of both themselves and others, often leading to high levels of stress and fear of judgement. As Anne Lamott wrote in Bird by Bird,
“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft.”
It also creates a fear-based culture. Perfectionists tend to avoid high-risk activities and procrastinate on anything that they can’t do perfectly. Paralyzed by the prospect of failure, they end up avoiding new experiences and never venturing outside their comfort zone. As April Bryan said,
“Perfectionism is a delusion that can rob one of a very successful, enriching life if not careful.”
People often try to justify perfectionism by saying it gets results, but perfectionists are neither more successful nor more effective. Having perfectionist tendencies may help you ace a math test, but the rest of our lives are very different from high school. In life, there’s rarely one right answer. Most of our decisions are a toss-up between maybe right and probably wrong. We only progress by taking chances, trying something…