Why Perfectionism Doesn’t Work

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Published December 28, 2012

| FOXBusiness

Put your best foot forward. Always try your hardest. Shoot for the moon.  Practice makes perfect.

We were all hit with these idioms growing up, always being reminded to be the best at what we do, but this mindset can backfire in the workplace.

The current labor market has many workers nervous about losing their jobs. After all, there are plenty of unemployed people itching to get a chance and the constant pressure to always be perfect can hurt a person’s productivity. 

If you nose-dive into a long-term funk when your performance outcomes don’t match your expectations, experts say you may be suffering from a preoccupation with being perfect, a trait which can be as much of a curse as it is a blessing.  

For many of us, an interesting love-hate relationship surrounds perfectionism, says Jeff Szymanski, author of The Perfectionist’s Handbook, and executive director of the International OCD Foundation. Perfectionism fuels us to achieve at high levels, but backfires when we are overly critical of ourselves or others.

“Sometimes perfectionism works,” says Szymanski, a self-proclaimed perfectionist. “Sometimes, it just doesn’t.”

Perfectionism can get you into trouble when you become so lost in detail you get mired in one place, claim experts.

An unhealthy or maladaptive perfectionist will focus on a tiny flaw for weeks, explains Amy Przeworski, a therapist and assistant professor of psychology at Case Western Reserve University. A person’s entire identity can be tied to that flaw. For example, a writer might get stuck on the first sentence of a paper or project. “That sentence has to be perfect before the writer can move on—even worse a fear of not getting it right may cause her to abandon the project.”

A feeling of constant dissatisfaction haunts the unhealthy perfectionist, says Richard Winter, author Perfecting Ourselves to Death The Pursuit of Excellence and the Perils of Perfectionism and counseling director at Covenant Theological Seminary. He or she never feels good enough.

That continuum characterizes the unhealthy perfectionist, says Przeworski, who herself tends toward the perfectionist personality trait. More adaptive people might worry about a mistake for an hour but then ultimately they move on.

Maladaptive perfectionists perceive themselves as failures, and obsess over possible negative future outcomes, claim experts. They fret people will not like them if they fail to get everything right and worry they will lose their jobs—even worse, their homes—in the face of simple mistakes like a typo when pressures ratchet-up at work.

Combined, these negative feelings can lead to low self-esteem, anxiety, depression eating disorders and obsessive compulsive behaviors, experts say.

Winter adds that oftentimes it is only when disorders surface or negative events like marriage problems occur that people seek professional help.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), a psychotherapeutic approach which includes exposure therapy techniques, is typically the prescribed approach to combat perfectionism.

Szymanski says CBT engages perfectionists by sparking their curiosity to question whether they’re concentrating on their everyday journey and actions, or just outcomes. “A kind of cost-benefit analysis helps them recognize how and when perfectionism does and does not work for them.

“You don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. The intent is not to rid a person of his or her perfectionism, but rather to help them look for the opportunity to tweak things and evaluate how they can vary their strategy to increase behavioral flexibility.”

Are you a perfectionist?

Take Szymanski’s quiz to find more about perfectionism and use these helpful strategies to begin to check and mitigate any unhealthy perfectionist tendencies:

Define your end-game. Learn how to identify important tasks that require careful work and detail. An informal email to team colleagues requires less preparation than a letter to an important external client. Learning to differentiate your end-game will help you to prioritize and put your actionable tasks in perspective.

Cut your timeframes. Knock five minutes off the time it takes you to put on your makeup; work out 10 minutes less at the gym, suggests Winter.  Chipping away at your timeframe for routine activities helps teach you how to behaviorally move on and avoid getting preoccupied with tasks.

Accept the habits of loved ones. Your child may color outside the lines; your spouse may be messy, but it’s important to adapt to these tendencies—even if they are different than yours, says Przeworski. The asymmetrical coloring may make your youngster develop into a more independent and creative person. Your spouse/partner’s current habits may well be the spontaneous, carefree behaviors that sparked your attraction in the first place. 

Wear different hats. Physicians, people in the military, performers and professional athletes are examples of people with roles that require ultra performance demands which tend to carry over into personal lives. Strive to refrain from bringing this professional intensity into your home life and friendships, suggests Winter.

Make mistakes on purpose. Eliminate a comma, CapiTalize wheRe you sHouldn’t. Przeworski says small errors teach you how to incrementally work up to a healthy outlook and resulting healthy behaviors.  In fact, Przeworski is knitting a quilt and delights in her number of dropped stitches—these deliberate imperfections remind her of the beauty of the piece and its uniqueness.

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