The Curse of Perfection

“I’m a perfectionist” is one of the most cliche responses to the interview question: “tell me about one of your weaknesses.”  The trick to answering that question is turning a “negative” into a positive, and you believe that (in business) the pros of perfectionism outweigh the cons.  You hope the interviewer will take that response to mean you focus on the details, you may take extra time to do something well, but it’s because you care about the quality of your work.  Those all sound like positive features for an employee, so maybe this answer saved your interview.

The truth is,  perfectionism can be extremely debilitating.  For example, the fear of not being able to complete a task perfectly, may keep you from getting started at all.  You might not be able to ask for help when you desperately need it, because (a) you feel like not being able to handle it yourself is a failure, (b) you think others will consider you a failure, (c) you don’t think anybody else will/can do it as well as you.

Wikipedia (I know this is not considered a legitimate source, but humor me) defines perfectionists as follows:

Perfectionists strain compulsively and unceasingly toward unobtainable goals, and measure their self-worth by productivity and accomplishment.  Pressuring oneself to achieve unrealistic goals inevitably sets the person up for disappointment. Perfectionists tend to be harsh critics of themselves when they fail to meet their standards.

The goals are unobtainable.  The expectations are unrealistic.  Failure to meet self imposed standards leads to low self-worth, pressure, disappointment and harsh SELF-criticism.  To reconcile these extreme, absolute, unchangeable requirements with real life, our mind creates cognitive distortions, convincing us of something that really isn’t true (or, if like me, you are still in the denial stage… something people are telling you isn’t true).  Some examples of these distortions might be:

  • Anything less than perfect is a total failure
  • If I am unable to anticipate a single issue or catch an error, I am not good enough
  • Feedback regarding my work means I could/should have done better
  • If I am not successful doing everything, I can not be successful doing anything

There are many more examples, but I’m sure you get the point.  Like everything else I have talked about, this is something I’ve struggled with all my life, but there is a more specific reason why I am struggling with it right now.

I have made several large decisions over the last several months.  Life decisions, home decisions, friends decisions, decision decisions.  And true to perfect form, I have been agonizing over them ever since.  I blame myself for how things turned out.  I just can’t seem to let go of what I consider a mistake and try to move forward and make the best of it.  I keep replaying my decisions/mistakes to figure out why I didn’t know better.  I should have known better.  All things point to knowing better.  How could I still make these unforgivable mistakes? 

My therapist says I’m “Monday morning quarterbacking [my] life.”  Of course I think I should have known better in retrospect, now that I have all the information and I know what the other team is going to do, but during the game that is not a realistic expectation.  She says “you are human and humans make mistakes.”  She says all the stuff about having to forgive myself for those mistakes and not holding myself to an impossible standard, but all I can think about is how I will never be able to climb out of this hole I have dug for myself; how my life can never turn out the way I had hoped/thought I deserved, because I have screwed it up beyond repair; how… well, you get the point.

I don’t have a big revelation about how to get through these feelings.  I am told that our feelings and beliefs follow our thoughts and if I reframe these doomy, negative, perfectionist thoughts in a positive way, then I will eventually start to believe and feel my new positive thoughts.  There is supposedly science behind this (that’s a topic for another day) but in the meantime, I just feel like I am lying to myself.  I’ve never been one to consider “fake it til you make it” an acceptable strategy, but apparently that’s the one I need.  So maybe we color it up a little and make it sound more exciting.  And then we do it.  Maybe.

Fake It Until You Make It.

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