Plus: Here’s how to stop being such a perfectionist
Perfect is the enemy of good. And unfortunately, it’s on the upswing.
Perfectionism has increased among young people over nearly three decades, according to a recent American Psychological Association-published study of 41,641 American, Canadian and British college students between 1989 and 2016. The more recent cohorts among the 164 samples showed higher levels than their predecessors of self-oriented perfectionism (self-imposed standards), socially prescribed perfectionism (perception of others’ expectations) and “other-oriented” perfectionism (standards imposed on others).
In other words, the authors wrote, these findings indicate “recent generations of young people perceive that others are more demanding of them, are more demanding of others, and are more demanding of themselves.”
But there’s a distinction between rigid, unrelenting perfectionism and healthy striving, clinical psychologist Eileen Kennedy-Moore told Moneyish. The former can yield decreased productivity, for example, and is linked to a range of mental health issues including anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, substance abuse and eating disorders. “I really think perfectionism is a symptom of anxiety,” she said. “It’s the fear of not measuring up … Or fear of failing. Or fear of having their inadequacies exposed.”
To that end, celebrity psychologist Elizabeth Lombardo, a self-identified “recovering perfectionist” and author of the book “Better Than Perfect: Seven Strategies to Crush Your Inner Critic,” prescribes taking the good in perfectionism — a desire for excellence, for example — and rejecting the fear of failure that often accompanies it. “There are a lot of people out there who are proud of being a perfectionist,” she said. “But when you really look at it, they’re proud of striving for success … (not) beating themselves up over every little thing.”
Jersey City-based artist Amy Wilson, 44, still finds a certain “joy” in meeting her self-imposed high standards — but says she’s dialed it back since her 20s, when she made herself miserable. “It’s one thing to make things that are really important to you absolutely up to the standards that you want them to be, and it’s another thing to stress out about every little thing in your life,” she said. “I wasn’t having fun. I wasn’t enjoying myself. I was worrying all the time; I was anxious all the time.” Today, she told Moneyish, she’s more judicious about where she focuses that urge: “I try not to do it in every aspect of my life, and I think that’s been an incredible help.”
Taking a breather helped 49-year-old freelance writer Melisa Wells, whose concurrent gigs doing social media for the site BlogHer and co-producing the Chicago production of “Listen to Your Mother” produced perfectionist-driven insomnia and anxiety. In between projects after a recent move to Knoxville, Tenn., Wells says she’s now “practicing shrugging.”
“You have to keep reminding yourself that nothing is supposed to be perfect — sometimes it’s the flaws that are actually the most interesting parts of things,” she said. “When I’m working on a minor project these days, I just focus on doing my best on it and giving what I can to it. … My best is all I can do, and then I kind of have to let it go.”
If you want your 2018 to be a little less perfect and a little more productive, try these tips from Kennedy-Moore and Lombardo:
Quit ruminating. “Perfectionists tend to ruminate about either the possibility of failure — like ‘What if I screw up? What if they all laugh at me?’ — or the past failures,” Kennedy-Moore said. “Neither of (those) is productive.” Instead, try distracting yourself with something enjoyable and/or shifting toward problem solving: “What can I do about this?” versus “Why does this always happen to me?”
Trace the paths of successful celebs, Kennedy-Moore said, “because pretty much all of them have had moments where they’ve screwed up — the company went under, they were kicked out of school … Life keeps moving and that was just one moment. The only thing that matters is, what are you going to do next?”
Examine your self worth. Is it conditional — “I believe in myself if I look a certain way, if have a certain job title, or if everyone agrees with me” — or unconditional, meaning you believe in yourself because of who you are? “When we base our self worth on external circumstances like that, we’re constantly scanning the environment to determine how we’re going to feel about ourselves,” Lombardo said. Cultivate your sense of unconditional self worth by figuring out what values are important to you and then applying them, she added, “so that need to be perfect at work or elsewhere is minimized.”
Keep context in mind. Think of what constitutes a reasonable effort on your part — taking into account the importance of the task, your other obligations, how you’re feeling and unexpected events, Kennedy-Moore said, and recognize that this is what you could accomplish given the circumstances.
Don’t replay your mistakes. Avoid “pressing on a bruise,” as Lombardo calls it. “Instead of beating yourself up, simply say, ‘Why did I get that outcome?’” she said. “Look into the ingredients that went into the outcome that you don’t want, so you can learn from that … Ask yourself, ‘What can I do next time, and what can I do now?’”
Focus on plans rather than goals. And build on successes, Kennedy-Moore said: “Instead of saying, ‘I’m going to go to the gym every day for three hours,’ think about where you are now and do the next step. ‘I’m going to go on Tuesday and Saturday for an hour’ … Once you’re used to going two days a week, maybe you jump into three, or maybe you say two is good enough.”
Look out for “should”s. “Any time a ‘should’ comes up, that’s a red flag,” Lombardo said. “A ‘should’ is a huge judgment.” If a coworker dumps a heap of work on your desk end of day, for example, there’s no use fuming she “should” have told you before. The remedy may simply be communicating with your colleague or boss about how to handle such situations.
Think of your office slacker. “It’s kinder to yourself to go up from bare minimum — or maybe to accept bare minimum — than to come down from perfectionism,” Kennedy-Moore said. You probably know someone at work or school who turns in “barely adequate” work but does OK, she added. “It’s useful sometimes to say, ‘What would John do?’ and kind of go up from there.”
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