What's your standard of perfection?
Mine is ridiculously, suffocatingly, constipatingly high.
At school, I was that kid. The one who agonizingly wrote and rewrote her stories until they were perfect. The one who mentally beat herself up for getting only 98 percent – 98 percent! – on a math test. I've skipped parties to polish up reports, sleep to prepare a client presentation and well-paying gigs because I doubted my ability to accomplish the task. In progress assessments at work, I missed the 10 good things my boss said about me and fixated on the one needs-improvement thing. Actually, I didn't just fixate on it. I spent the next three weeks fantasizing about strangling my boss for pimp-slapping my reputation.
By itself, having high standards does not skewer you to the wall of perfectionism. Most people who wish to be successful set very high standards for themselves and they use those standards to propel them to great places. But there's a difference between the pursuit of excellence (good) and the pursuit of perfection (usually bad). What tips the balance is the extent to which you beat yourself up when you poop out.
If you're an Introvert reading this, then you already know what I'm going to say next - that Introverts are far more likely than Extraverts to live in a recurring pattern of "perfect." That we immerse ourselves deeply in things and get ever-so-slightly high from the process of over-achieving. That often, this drive towards idealized achievement is a force of negativity, leaving us frustrated, rigid, scared and self-absorbed. That we're crazy hard on ourselves.
And that makes me wonder: what is it about Introverts that makes us our own worst enemy? And how can perfectionists like you and me find balance?
Perfectionism, a Personality Thing?
There's a school of thought that says perfectionism starts in childhood; that it's a learned behavior caused when children receive approval only when they achieve or accomplish. So, their self-esteem becomes tied to other people's approval. These kids learn they have to spend a great deal of time working at something to reach someone else's ideal, which isn't attached to their own identities. If they fall short, they feel incompetent or unworthy. By this analysis, perfectionism is essentially a form of self-hatred. The perfectionist child believes she cannot be loved for who she really is so she strives to become some unrealistic version of herself.
That sounds plausible enough, right? Except ... I can't relate to this experience. I don't hate myself. I'm fairly sure that my warm and practical ESFJ mother never pushed me to do anything I didn't want to do, she was just happy I didn't break the law and actually liked going to school. And I know for sure that my self-esteem isn't tied to other people's approval because, like most INTJs, the only approval I'm bothered about is my own.
So what's actually going on? Short answer: personality. Turns out, we Introverts are hard wired to be the slaves to success. Where the waters get muddied, is that we're all living in parallel perfectionist universes. We all experience perfectionism in a slightly different way.
Eight Types of Introversion, Eight Standards of Perfectionism
What's your standard of perfection? I'll hazard a guess it looks something like this:
INTJ: You're your own judge, jury and executor - perfectionist in the sense that you set very high standards for yourself. It's easier for you to give yourself grief than to give yourself credit because you can always, always think of a better way of doing something you've already done. With your idealistic head on, you honestly don't see why perfection shouldn't be achievable in every situation and you beat yourself up mercilessly if you miss the mark.
Compared to other types, though, you're not actually that perfectionist. The N and T, your pragmatism code, means you're completely businesslike about the ways and means of achieving an end. Perfectionism can be an inefficient time-waster. If it's getting in the way, you'll set it aside to attain more important goals.
INFJ: You have a similar sort perfectionism to INTJs in the sense that you also set Everest-high bars for yourself. But, being INFJ, you've added your own self-annihilating twist - the placing of excessive importance on the standards that you've imposed. It's like you've taken the standard of perfection rulebook and written every word of it on your soul. The addition of Feeling means you care deeply about what others are thinking or feeling toward you. So, if you miss your own high standards, you are not only letting yourself down, you are letting others down too.
Unsurprisingly INFJs are very sensitive to criticism. The fear of failure or rejection is enough to make you commit the ultimate act of perfectionism – hiding yourself away rather than let yourself be exposed or vulnerable. INFJs are prone to not doing something at all because they're afraid of how it might turn out.
ISTJ and ISFJ: Your perfectionism is tied to a sense of duty – you will give blood, sweat and tears towards a project you're honor-bound to fulfill. You want others to see you as unrelentingly reliable and get deeply upset if you can't do something yourself, without help. This particular brand of perfectionism manifests in being very precise and correct. You can become very obsessed with details and have a tough time forgiving yourself for even a small mistake.
For SJs, the negative things are the most memorable things. You thrive on other people's respect and fear that making a mistake will lose you the respect of others. When you get a compliment, you'll feel good about it for a couple of hours but when you get criticized, you'll remember it for the rest of your life. Throw Feeling into the mix, and ISFJs can find themselves living their lives hungry for approval. That makes you very prone to guilt-tripping; you'll push yourself deeper into perfectionism when you're terrified that others will think badly of you for letting them down.
INTP and INFP, our Intuitive Perceivers, have a different experience. On the whole, Perceivers have fewer perfectionist tendencies than Judgers because they want to constantly revise and discover. INPs love the process of exploration more than actually finishing something which, on the surface, does not mesh well with perfectionism which we tend to think of as a single, flawless performance. But actually, flexibility is the root of them being more perfectionist than anyone realizes.
For an INP, perfectionism means buckling in doubt. You lack confidence in your ability to choose the best and final iteration and are haunted by uncertainty that whenever you complete a task, you opted for second best. You ruminate about what could have been, brood chronically about your imperfect choices and experience considerable anxiety at the thought of having to consider something finished. Often, you'll quit before you even begin.
ISTP and ISFP have a reputation for being laid-back and spontaneous and are rarely seen as perfectionists. They'd rather get the job done and soak up the moment than dwell on the rightness of it all. But scratch the surface, and you see that ISPs have a truly subversive experience with perfectionism. That's because they struggle with concrete thinking and have a tendency to do things in extremes. They're a perfect success one moment when things go their way.....and a perfect failure the next when their luck bottoms out. You see this a lot with SP athletes who reach a certain level of performance and then abandon the sport altogether at the first sniff of a losing atmosphere. This glory-in-the-moment perfectionism wreaks havoc on their mood and self-esteem.
So those are the manifestations of introverted perfectionism, but how about some methods for dealing with it?
Don't Worry, Be Crappy
Personality is the gift that keeps on giving and you have about as much chance of overcoming your perfectionist inclinations as you do of shoving an elephant in a fridge. A better idea is to reshape it using the other parts of your four-letter code. Here's the tough love:
INTJs, push out your pragmatic side. I've become a lot more chilled on the perfectionist front since becoming self-employed because the reality is, I get paid the same whether an article takes me two hours or 10 hours to write and the bank manager rules. I may feel really sick at the thought of you guys reading something that I know isn't my best work. But logic says let it be done and get the mortgage paid than obsess about it and be broke.
INFJs, if you swapped lives with your best friend would you call it a failure? Of course you wouldn't. You are more likely to be kind and empathetic to a friend. You'd congratulate her on all that she'd achieved despite the obvious failings. Don't you think you deserve the same level of kindness? Use that crazy insightfulness to appreciate the mountains you've climbed instead of the raggedy steps you took to get there.
ISTJs, structure is your friend. Set time limits for tasks and when the deadline's up, finish what you're doing and put it out there - no excuses. Also, use your Sensing function to take a reality check. Go out in public and observe all the people walking by. 90 percent of them will look miserable, stressed out, unhealthy, harried and broke. This is a reminder that most people never get their lives sorted out. Compared to them, you're already winning.
ISFJ, it takes courage to stand up for yourself especially when you are being guilt-tripped by aggressive personalities. It's okay to want to keep harmony in your environment but you are not a pushover! When you feel yourself getting bogged down in perfectionism, apply the 80/20 rule. Give whatever you're doing 80 percent of your effort, then go have some fun. Your 80 percent is probably still better than most people's 100 percent so everything's good.
INTP and INFP, we all get stuck in our heads but you're in trouble when your ideas are on a constant feedback loop. The solution is not to keep going, it's to get the heck out of there! (Your head that is). Talk to someone. Engage with the external world. Go examine some other part of the unexamined life. Perspective will come.
ISFP and ISTP, when you settle for nothing less than absolute glory, you sometimes end up with er, nothing. So keep trying new things that make you feel empowered. Paint, compose, fix cars, play sports. Use your SP superpowers to power through the tough parts. When you're learning something new, you don't have the time to think about perfect. In fact, it's expected that you'll make a mess of things so you'll be more relaxed about embracing your mistakes.