Many of us would consider ourselves perfectionists, and we’re generally taught that this is a problem or fault rather than an advantage. Very often, this tends to be true. For example, while I was completing a writing course, I was instructed to just freely pour my thoughts onto paper without editing or revision. However, I found my perfectionism did not easily allow me to do this. Sensing that I was making error after error, it was nearly impossible not to hit the backspace button and fix my mistakes before moving on. I would become very uncomfortable with the writing process, unwilling or unable to proceed until I fixed my errors.
Perfectionism can totally be a problem for many people.
Having extremely high expectations of oneself creates negative feelings around failure, which in turn can create issues like procrastination. For anyone who doesn’t know what procrastination is (you’re rare these days, friend), this is where you put off doing something that you know you should be doing. Many times the reason behind this boils down to a fear that it will not be done perfectly enough. You may feel like you can’t handle the failure or the barrage of negative emotions that you know are generally associated with it. Procrastination is one beast that has an ability to shipwreck your dreams, if you let it. Deep set procrastination is a sign that perfectionism has gotten the best of you.
Taking massive amounts of time to complete a task can be another issue for some perfectionists. Generally, if this is not caused by procrastination, it is because you’re at the finishing stage but you just can not seem to get your work perfect enough to consider it ‘complete’. Being unable to send out work because it doesn’t measure up to your personal, impossible standards is a key way in which perfectionism can bite you in the behind.
Many people find that perfectionism plays into their self esteem issues. Naturally, any time someone holds you to high standards and you can not reach them, you may start to lose faith in yourself. You may beat yourself up. Your self image takes a dive. This is an understandable human reaction but it requires believing in a false premise; that perfection is attainable.
Exactly how high are the standards of a perfectionist?
In the real world, perfection is a standard that simply doesn’t exist. It’s an imaginary concept because there is no single instance of anything in this world that does not have some imperfection, no matter how slight. If you are what I’ll call at this point a lifestyle perfectionist (one who allows perfectionism to take the driving seat in your life), you are reaching for the impossible.
Consider what the standard of perfection really is.
Take a really great painting, and show it to five different people. You may think this painting is absolutely perfect, and the person standing next to you may point out what he believes to be an error. Now, if you disagree with him, it’s only because your idea of perfection is different from his. For humans, perfection is a subjective concept. It is different for each individual, and that’s one reason why it is impossible to reach.
So is perfectionism a bad thing, in and of itself?
Not necessarily. It’s okay that we have an inner drive towards achieving perfection. In fact it can be a good thing, because it can drive us to our own betterment. It has the ability to push us to improve ourselves and our lives, and no one could really consider that a negative thing. The problem occurs when we let it be the boss of us. When you stop working to turn around and condemn yourself because you have not attained the one thing that no other person on earth, aside from Jesus Christ himself, has attained, then you are judging yourself to an impossible standard and you’re letting perfectionism be master over you. We can use perfectionism as a tool to improve our work, but when it becomes The Measure By Which We Judge Our Success, we have a problem.
How do we use perfectionism as a tool while ensuring that it doesn’t overcome our lives?
If you know you have a problem in this area, try this little visualisation exercise. I want you to picture yourself lifting perfectionism out of your brain and place it into a ‘mental toolbox’. It can look however you want it to look; my perfectionism looks like a banana (it is an impossibly perfect banana, of course).
Now close your eyes, imagine yourself reaching up into your head, and pluck your perfectionism out. Next, place it into your toolbox alongside all the other mental tools that you have, and close the lid. You have envisioned yourself putting your perfectionism tool in the right place, and you’ll know where to find it if you need it, but you will no longer allow it to insert itself into everything you do and every thought you have.
I know it seems silly but if you actually visualise yourself doing the exercise above, you’re sending your brain a pretty powerful message. The tool of perfectionism is useful and helpful when used with discretion, but it isn’t that big of a deal that it deserves to take up prime real estate in your brain or have such a large say in how you feel about your work or yourself as a person.
In order to allow personal perfectionism to help us but not hinder us, we need to keep it in its place in our lives. It should not be the filter through which you put every task or activity you are considering doing. It should not be supervising your work every moment. Use it as a tool; pick it up when you need it to see what needs improvement, or where you have improved since last time (oh joy!) and then put it back down while you get back to work.
But what do I do about these mistakes?
Mistakes make us better at what we’re doing. You should be viewing them with a measure of gratefulness rather than with fear. If you think about the first time you ever sat down to the art table, whatever your medium may be, and created something, was it perfect? I highly doubt it, and it is likely you’ve come a long long way since then. Why? Because making mistakes draws your attention to ways you want to improve your work. If you don’t see your mistakes, you have no idea of the true standard of your work and you have no scope for further improvement.