Mind Matters: Perfectionism

Do you think of yourself as a perfectionist? If your perfectionism mostly helps you in life, keep going down that path. I call people in this category not perfectionists but hard workers with high goals.

When they fail at something, they feel bad for a short period, think about how they could succeed at the next task, and may up their efforts. They try to succeed more than they fail and they feel happy each time they prevail.

True perfectionists, however, do not have such a happy, productive life. They suffer unnecessarily. They agonise over choices, they procrastinate, they criticise themselves, and they sometimes loathe themselves.

At a practical level, they tend to give up on tasks or to never even try. Why try if you are doomed to be imperfect?

You might not be surprised to find out that perfectionism is associated with anxiety disorders, depression, eating disorders, heart disease, and suicide.

Researchers think perfectionism is becoming more common over the decades.

Some people are perfectionistic not only about themselves but about others. These individuals can be hard to cope with when they are a parent or a boss.

A friend of mine in a perfectionist. He sets extremely high standards for himself at work - higher than the company sets for employees like him.

He is highly productive, but he sometimes feels and acts frustrated when he is impeded in his work by a customer or fellow employee. If he does not meet his own standards at work, he feels worthless.

He also has perfectionism directed at others. He wants other employees to be nearly perfect in their work.

He may comment if they make an error. He gives unsolicited advice to his supervisors. One supervisor reluctantly listens. The other has a different response.

When my friend says, "Maybe you could do such and such so we can finish our tasks faster," that boss says, with a laugh, "Maybe you could shut the %#@& up."

Is there a cure for perfectionism? My friend says that it helps him to say to himself: "It is OK. Do the best you can under the circumstances."

When dealing with supervisors who are making a mistake, he tries to say to himself: "It is not my responsibility."

We can reduce perfectionism by changing how we think. Up in our noodle, we have much power over our emotions and behaviour.

John Malouff is an Associate Professor at the School of Psychology, University of New England.

This story Perfectionism in a less than perfect world first appeared on The Canberra Times.