“Nobody’s perfect.” Osgood Fielding III from Some Like It Hot
“Practice makes perfect.” Benjamin Franklin
“They say that nobody is perfect. Then they tell you practice makes perfect. I wish they'd make up their minds.” Wilt Chamberlain
Ah, the elusive concept of perfect. We’d all love to meet the perfect person for us. Live in a perfect world. Golf a perfect game.
It’s easier said than done, of course. Striving for perfection can appear: controlling, idealistic, obsessive, unreasonable, compulsive, tactical, strategic, aggressive, rigid, cavalier, bossy, nit-picky, demanding, procrastinating, snooty, self-pitying, overthinking, overreacting, workaholic, micromanaging, touchy, purist, argumentative, whiny… and more.
I’ve often referred to myself as a recovering perfectionist.
However you phrase it, perfectionism can quickly destroy your happiness, whether you’re trying to apply mascara or write a thesis. There are so many insidious ways that perfectionism can creep into our lives that we run the risk of sabotaging what could have been a totally different experience—if we don’t pay attention and actively put it in its place.
Which personalities are prone to perfectionism?
Anyone can adopt perfectionist behaviors, but some personalities are more prone to it, Introverts in particular.
The top perfectionist types are the INTJ and INFJ personalities. NJs have high standards and, as Introverted Intuitives (Ni dominants), will chase impossible heights of perfection. They believe in living up to one’s potential and are constantly thinking of ways to improve the task at hand. They are sensitive about letting everyone else down, not just themselves.
The INTP and INFP personalities revel in the process of creating and, as perfectionists, run the risk of never completing. When you are constantly exploring and revising, how do you ever know when something is done? An INP can be indecisive about the finish line, passionately pursuing excellence in what matters the most to them and unwilling to put anything on display that doesn’t meet their personal standards.
The ISTJ and ISFJ personalities are precise. For SJs, things are either correct or they are not. There is a “right way” to go about things and they are honor bound to achieve it. They aren’t gentle with themselves over anything less than excellence, deeply craving the respect of others and needing to forward a competent image. While determined to achieve, they will choose efficiency over perfection if they must.
Perfectionism: the happiness thief
Identifying the symptoms of perfectionism is easier on the outside looking in. Not everyone realizes when perfectionism has taken over, but there are signs.
Sometimes, a perfectionist has no idea why they are always exhausted or in a constant bad mood. They blame the schedule, the kids, the boss or the weather. It’s unclear why they are being passed over for the promotion they worked so hard to get or why they can never find true love.
Stronger signs might include having nine good reviews but obsessing over the tenth—and only—bad one. Earning straight As in a class and falling to pieces over a B. Working long after the office closes to create a presentation that’s "worthy” of your name at the bottom of it. You refuse to delegate because no one can do it better than you can. You refuse to finish because it still isn’t good enough.
You refuse to do it in the first place if it can’t be done right.
Perfectionist behaviors can get too expensive for a business to tolerate. Consistently frowning at flaws, whether in yourself or others, can cost you the most well-meaning friend.
Anxiety. Depression. Less sleep, more caffeine. It’s inconceivable that we would let others see our mistakes, and so we double down. We simply make sure we have none.
You pay the price of perfectionism in your health and your happiness. This all-or-nothing approach means anything less equals failure. If perfectionism isn’t caught and stopped, the spiraling stress can cost you relationships, careers, and even your life.
Unhealthy perfectionism is running from your own fear—it makes you unhappy. On the other hand, healthy achievement is the pursuit of something—it makes you happy. Can you change your focus?
In order to flourish and realize our positive potential, releasing perfectionism is a huge step forward. The good news is that we can actively reframe our perfectionist tendencies and bring a healthy, contented happiness back into our lives.
Tips for getting the balance right:
Perfectionism may be hard to identify unless you directly ask, “Does this have to be perfect?” Question any answer other than "no.” Get in touch with why you think it does, then step back, take a break, and find some perspective. Perception is not always reality. Visualizing the task in reference to the larger picture will help. We can be so hard on ourselves. If it were your friend in your place, would you insist on perfection?
Ask someone outside of the immediate situation for a grounding observation. If a coworker has been gently attempting to call your attention to it… listen. Is your effort too much or too little aligned with your goal? If you’ve met your goal, you are done. Walk away. If your effort is extra, set a finish line and decide to be done then, no matter what. If too little, acknowledge the procrastination and take one baby step at a time until you’re there.
Learn to get your validation from within, and stop comparing yourself to others. Relationships are about authenticity and vulnerability. Own your flaws as a real part of you and learn to laugh at the hot mess that you can be sometimes. Include messy as part of your "ideal” person. Acknowledge your mistakes instead of beating yourself up over them. Valuing your true self takes the sting out of criticism and empowers you to move forward.
Do you truly have control over the outcome? Sometimes in life we live with unmet goals. If perfectionism is your way of trying to bend the world to your own point of view, it simply isn’t going to happen. If you must keep a spotless kitchen, accept that you do it for you and no one else. It makes you happy, so do it with joy or modify your version of what makes you happy. The only thing in life that we control is our attitude.
Practice makes… good enough! Standards are not achievements. Confusing the two will destroy your happiness. Stretch your achievement comfort zone. Discover what happens if you are five minutes late or hand in the world’s most mediocre report. Find out first hand that you can fail and recover. The world keeps turning. The road to deliberate happiness is having the serenity to accept the things you cannot change, the courage to change the things you can, and the wisdom to know the difference (Reinhold Niebuhr).
“Progress, not perfection.” Alcoholics Anonymous
“To err is human.” Alexander Pope
“Have no fear of perfection—you’ll never reach it.” Salvador Dali