Dr. Deb’s Mental Health Vitamin: Excellence, not perfection
By Dr. Deb Wade
GCU Vice President, Counseling and Psychological Services
Are you a perfectionist?
Do you regard anything short of perfection as unacceptable?
Do you get frustrated easily when others seem to have a lower bar for their own performance than “perfect”?
Do you tend to impose your own expectations of performance on others?
If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you must be exhausted!
Perfectionists tend to strive for flawlessness and set high performance standards, accompanied by critical and harsh self-evaluation. In addition, many will tie their own worth to the perfect completion of a task.
Underlying Perfectionism seems to be a set of internalized beliefs that one can adopt about self:
- I judge myself worthy only if I reach perfection in my pursuits.
- I must be thoroughly competent, adequate and achieving in all important respects to be considered worthwhile.
- It would be horrible to be merely “average;” if I’m not 100% competent in all important areas, I’m worthless.
- If I’m not perfect, I may fail and therefore might not be accepted by others.
- I fear disapproval from others if I’m not perfect.
Though perfectionists believe this is a great trait, in reality it can lead to self-defeating thoughts or behaviors, to an overwhelming self-imposed pressure, to a frequent fear of disapproval from others and to a growing sense of inadequacy. Whew! Striving for flawlessness is just plain exhausting!
So what are some characteristics of those who identify as perfectionists? For your consideration …
- Your thoughts and actions are in the extreme. An example: “Since I messed up my diet by eating a piece of pie, I may as well just go ahead and eat the whole thing.”
- You can’t seem to “start” something because you are constantly self-correcting. An example: “I spent three hours on the opening paragraph of my assignment because I couldn’t get the sentence structure just right.”
- You don’t trust that others can do something as well as you would like, so you do everything yourself. An example: “I’ll just clean the house myself so that it looks the way I want it to.”
- You tend to fixate on something that is less than perfect. An example: “Yes, I made all A’s on my report card, but that one A-minus in math is just unacceptable.”
- You rarely give yourself a pat on the back; after all, there’s so much more to accomplish. An example: “Yes, that was a good grade on that assignment, but I have so much left to do.”
But … what if we changed the word, “perfect” to “EXCELLENT”? For example, “I strive to achieve excellence in all that I do.”
You see, excellence is attainable; “perfect,” by its very definition, is not. Sure, one can reach a desired goal in perfect fashion, but expecting all undertakings to realize perfection can only lead to a sense of personal defeat. For perfectionists, the only alternative to “perfect” is often failure.
But let’s examine excellence:
- It is the quality of being outstanding in your pursuits
- It is the confident pursuit of highest quality when you believe in what you’re doing.
Now THAT feels good! And notice that, in striving for excellence, self-worth is NOT tied to its accomplishment. Being outstanding and exhibiting confidence are qualities to admire!
These are also qualities that will bring a positive sense of achievement and therefore will ignite a feeling of personal satisfaction and energy. And … as a bonus … that satisfaction and energy are contagious to those around you!
The other reality about the pursuit of Perfectionism (besides its exhaustive chase) is that it often results in Procrastination. A perfectionist often has much difficulty even starting a task. Why? Because attaining perfect is not possible … so why start?
The thought that perfectionists often harbor is, “I feel unworthy, ill-equipped and can see failure looming, yet I must try to be perfect in all that I do.”
But … when one has EXCELLENCE as his/her goal, one can confidently begin pursuit – knowing that the goal is in sight and the achievement or accomplishment is attainable!
My suggestion? Seek a standard of excellence in all pursuits; set the bar high – but accomplishable – so that you are proud of your achievements. Then bask in the positive feelings you will have upon the completion of your pursuits! After all, you have attained excellence!