Does Perfectionism Lead to Perfection? Science Says No
Everyone knows a perfectionist: The artist who spends hours agonizing over minor details of their paintings, the student aghast at getting an A instead of an A+, or the worker who’s mortified at the slightest mistake. If you’re reading this article, you might even be a perfectionist yourself, but is that trait doing more harm than good?
Some perfectionists are high achievers—after all, you wouldn’t want a surgeon or a car mechanic who wasn’t a perfectionist! But, for most perfectionists, the high standards they set for themselves serve to hold them back.
Since perfectionists have high expectations for themselves, they’re often discouraged and angry at themselves when things don’t go perfectly. This can really harm one’s self-esteem, and many perfectionists hold themselves back in their careers to avoid the negative feelings associated with failure.
So, if perfectionism isn’t necessarily a good philosophy for workers, what is? A realistically optimistic attitude holding that any progress is better than no progress is ideal, as it encourages the worker to try their best even if there’s a chance they’ll fail. In this article, we offer some tips for fighting back against the perfectionist mindset and allowing yourself to be imperfect—as all humans are!
If you’re curious about how perfectionism might be holding you back or want to learn how to step back and formulate a more positive mindset, read on: This article is for you!
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What Is a Perfectionism Trap?
A perfectionism trap, according to experts in psychological counseling, is a way that perfectionism holds you back and stops you from achieving your full potential! In this section, we’ll be detailing six common perfectionism traps and giving examples of how they set you up for failure and discouragement.
As the name suggests, self-perfectionists hold “perfect” as their standard for themselves. People who suffer from self-perfectionism don’t want to make mistakes, display flaws, or fail at anything they do—an impossible standard for any human being to meet!
Unfortunately, self-perfectionists are very hard on themselves as a result of their perfectionism and often have a constant reel of self-criticism playing in their heads. This can really harm their self-esteem—putting yourself down all the time will do that! But, luckily, practicing mindfulness can help self-perfectionists relax—see more on how to do this below.
If you relate to these statements, you might be a self-perfectionist:
- You have low self-esteem—for example, you feel like you dislike yourself, or you would use negative traits like “ditzy” and “incompetent” to describe yourself.
- You feel the need to heavily criticize yourself when you mess up, no matter how minor the mistake—almost like a form of self-punishment!
- You get preoccupied with worrying about how you’ve messed up in the past and spend more time thinking about that than you spend thinking about how to fix the issue in question.
Social perfectionism is a form of perfectionism that focuses on the behavior of others—a big problem since you can’t reasonably control how other people act! Social perfectionists hold the people around them—be they friends, family, or colleagues and subordinates at work—to their standards of perfection and can get very upset when their standards aren’t met.
It’s easy to see how this could harm relationships and drive a wedge between the perfectionist and those they care about. If you recognize yourself in these statements, you might be a social perfectionist:
- You get annoyed or upset when people around you have different views, wants, or needs than your own.
- You’re often dismayed by statements or behaviors that feel rude to you but that others don’t see a big problem with.
- You’ve been described as uptight or “bossy” by your friends or family!
Learning perfectionism is a form of perfectionism that focuses again on the self—in this case, the perfectionist is determined to perfectly learn something! As a result, they become overly critical of themselves during the learning process, putting themselves down when something doesn’t click right away and setting unreasonably high goals for studying and tests.
In fact, some learning perfectionists come to associate learning with stress and unpleasantness. The fact that they’re the ones putting themselves down doesn’t make it any more pleasant!
If you recognize yourself in these statements, you might be a learning perfectionist:
- You get very upset when you don’t get a perfect score on a quiz, test, or project.
- You get frustrated and tempted to quit when you can’t immediately grasp something you’re trying to learn.
- You dislike learning—even if you’re good at it.
People in the “product perfectionism” trap are deeply anxious about any possible imperfections with something they’ve worked on, designed, or created—be it a masterpiece sculpture or just some routine spreadsheets at work!
Product perfectionists spend so much time planning projects that they can get frustrated and throw in the towel before the project ever gets past the development phase. From this, you can see how product perfectionism can pour concrete into the gears of any project or committee—as well as into an individual person’s ambitions and career advancement!
Here’s some statements product perfectionists can relate to:
- When planning a project—and it can be anything—you spend an inordinately long time agonizing over minor details or ironing out minor snags.
- If someone makes a suggestion for how your finished product could be improved, you feel like you’ve personally failed.
- You frequently state that things you’ve made are trash, not good, or not as good as someone else’s—even if other people think they’re great!
Everyone needs role models to look up to, and it’s impossible not to look at what your peers are doing and wonder if you measure up. Trying to catch up to someone you admire is a great way to motivate yourself, but this isn’t what people in the comparative trap are doing.
Instead, they compare themselves to very skilled or extraordinarily accomplished people and beat themselves up when they aren’t hitting the same level. This can stop them from trying new things or more complex projects because they assume others will just do it better.
You might be in the comparative trap if any of these statements sound familiar:
- You think of yourself as unskilled or mediocre because other people seem to be doing much better.
- Other people’s accomplishments make you feel bad about yourself, particularly if you were working toward a similar goal.
- You deal with “imposter syndrome” or feel the success you have somehow doesn’t count.
Last of all, social anxiety is also a very common type of perfectionism that a lot of people deal with! In this perfectionist trap, the individual is terrified of slipping up socially—so much so that they clam up in social situations or even avoid them entirely.
It’s normal to feel a little shy or nervous when meeting new people or when speaking in front of a group, but socially anxious people go further. They might find themselves having an anxiety attack in any situation where the attention is on them and find any minor embarrassment devastating, assuming that people will remember and judge them for the embarrassing moment forever!
Could you have social anxiety? See if you see yourself in this list:
- You hate speaking in front of groups, formally or casually, and are very quiet around people you don’t know well.
- You spend a lot of time thinking about past social missteps and being angry at yourself for them.
- You find workarounds or make excuses to avoid social situations that make you anxious—even if it’s just a phone call!
How to Stop Aiming for Perfection and Start Aiming for Progress!
If you’re a perfectionist, you probably saw yourself in some of the examples above! So how can you overcome your need for perfection and stop setting yourself up for failure?
If you’re a fan of this blog, you can probably guess that brain training is the answer! Since our brains are so moldable, we can overwrite negative thought patterns and attitudes by practicing positive ones!
The key is to change your mindset from one that favors perfection to one that favors progress—any progress is better than no progress, so even if you don’t think you’d do as well at a task or project as you’d like to, you should try anyway! After all, perfection is impossible to achieve, but progress is within your grasp—as long as you try! In this section, we’ve included some tips for changing your thought patterns around imperfection to help you start moving forward.
If you want to learn even more about how brain training can put you on the road to success, consider checking out John Assaraf’s bestselling guide, Innercise: The New Science to Unlock Your Brain’s Hidden Power. Inside, you’ll find a wealth of brain exercises anyone can use to start training their brain for success today!
Want to learn even MORE about how YOU can take control of your hidden brain power? Join us at the virtual training program Winning the Game of Fear, offered through Neurogym! Book your spot TODAY!
Mindfulness is a great, science-backed technique that can help reduce anxiety—a major problem for most perfectionists! Mindfulness involves being as present as possible in the current moment and not worrying about the future. If you’re a perfectionist who gets into a “spiral” of worrying thoughts about what happens if you’re not good enough, mindfulness can help draw you back into reality!
The internet is full of ideas for mindfulness techniques, but we’ve included a few here. You can practice any of these anytime you start feeling anxious about possible imperfection:
- Notice the present moment. What sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and sensations are you experiencing?
- In a similar vein, notice your thoughts the same way you would notice a bird flying by. “I’m feeling really anxious that there might be a mistake in my presentation for tomorrow.” This can help you separate yourself from how you’re feeling.
- Focus on your breathing instead of what’s worrying you. Take slow, deep breaths—in through your nose and out through your mouth—with the exhale longer than the inhale. This simple exercise will calm you down!
Be Kind to Yourself
In the section on perfectionist traps, you might have noticed that all types of perfectionists are really hard on themselves! They beat themselves up and put themselves down over minor issues, real or imagined, adding even more stress to the situation they’re worried about. Even if they don’t realize it, this can cause perfectionists to hold themselves back in their careers because they don’t feel they’re good enough to go further!
If you’re someone who does this, think about it this way: Would you treat a friend, who made the same mistake you did, the way you’re treating yourself? Probably not! To get over this aspect of perfectionism and start moving forward, treat yourself kindly when you mess up.
Here’s some ideas:
- When you find yourself having a mean thought about yourself, immediately correct it with a kinder thought. I’m not completely incompetent, I just dropped a pitcher—happens to everyone!
- Ask yourself what you would say to a friend worried about the same things you are.
- Take care of yourself physically by eating well, getting enough sleep, and exercising.
- Make time to do something nice for yourself regularly: You deserve to treat yourself to some cake, a bubble bath, or a night out when you’re working hard!
Do a Little “Exposure Therapy”
Okay, we don’t really mean exposure therapy, but you can incorporate similar ideas into your anti-perfectionist brain training! Exposure therapy is a technique used by psychological counselors, in a clinical setting, to help people learn to cope with phobias and other crippling fears by gradually exposing them to the thing they’re afraid of in incremental amounts.
One way to help yourself get over perfectionism is to deliberately allow yourself to be imperfect. When you’re constantly worrying about what will happen when you’re imperfect, you’re reinforcing the neural structures that guide you along that thought pattern. If you allow yourself to be imperfect and see that it’s not the end of the world, you start to create and reinforce neural structures for a more realistic view of yourself instead!
Here’s some ideas for putting this into action:
- If you’re an artist, set a timer for a small project to do some afternoon. When the timer goes off, it’s done, and you’re putting it away—even if it’s not completely perfect!
- Allow yourself to be five minutes late for a nonessential meeting or appointment, but out of respect for others’ time, don’t do this too much!
- Make a commitment to trying new things regularly and don’t beat yourself up if you fail—that’s normal!
Now that you’ve reached the end of our article, you have more knowledge and resources at your disposal to start overcoming perfectionism and start kicking your career advancement into gear! No matter what kind of imperfection makes you anxious, you don’t have to suffer forever because you can take control of your incredible brain power to get on the road to success!
If you’re interested in more science-backed ways to train your brain against anxiety, fear, and other negative emotions holding you back, join us at the live virtual Winning the Game of Fear training session to learn from the experts! Book your spot NOW!