Never Enough – Is Done Better than Perfect?
“I call perfectionism ‘the 20-ton shield.’ We carry it around thinking it’s going to protect us from being hurt. But it protects us from being seen.” – Dr. Brené Brown
Have you ever thought “If only I did X, I would have been closer to perfection”? Most of us have, it is a healthy behavior to strive for greatness and perfection. However, what is the threshold after which this strive for perfection turns into maladaptive perfectionism? As a consensus, perfectionism becomes unhealthy when we always pursue more and never reach satisfaction. Of course, this threshold can differ from person to person but it is important to note that there will always be a limit after which perfectionism does not work to your advantage.
Perfectionism is defined as the constant strive for perfection and the lack of satisfaction with anything less than perfect. The standards of perfection can be set by oneself (self-oriented perfectionism) or by society (socially-prescribed perfectionism) and it can extend to the standards we set for others (others-oriented perfectionism). Perfectionist traits can be measured using the multidimensional perfectionism scale by Robert Frost which contains the following dimensions:
- Excessive concerns over making mistakes
- High personal standards
- Doubts about quality of actions
- Perception of high parental expectations
- Perception of parental criticism
- Preference for organization and orderliness
Do you identify with or recognize some of those to some degree? Many of us do, but what makes this perfectionism particularly maladaptive is the excessive concerns over mistakes and the doubts about the quality of our actions. These concerns consume a lot of our brain power and leave us unable to tend to other things and have been linked to higher levels of workaholism which correlates strongly with poorer employee well-being and burnout.
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Having a tendency to expect highly of yourself and of others, is termed excellence-seeking perfectionism and has some adaptive purposes such that you can use this to your advantage in the workplace (and in life). For example, excellence-seeking-perfectionists rank higher in work engagement which is linked to increased vigor, dedication, and concentration and has been associated with better employee well-being. On the other hand, having a higher tendency to obsess over failure to reach high standards is termed failure-avoidant perfectionism and negatively affects the quality of your job. In addition, failure-avoidant perfectionism is a stronger risk factor for burnout . You can think of this as two steps forward one step back situation. You’re probably wondering why our striving for perfection can sometimes lead to maladaptive behaviors – the next parts will tell you more about this.
Where does perfectionism come from?
Have you ever felt the pain of blame, judgment, or shame as a result of a failure? According to Brené Brown, American research professor, lecturer, author, and podcast host, perfectionism serves as a shield from these feelings. We rely on others to give us feedback on ourselves and our behavior, perfectionism feeds on our need to belong and be accepted by others – for example shame signals that we are not worthy of a connection and hinders vulnerability. Vulnerability is the core of fear and shame, but it’s also the source of joy, creative, and belonging. There is nothing wrong with having high standards, especially of oneself, and it can even lead to a greater outcome. However, when we overshadow the efforts we put in and value the outcome more, we tend to fall toward unhealthy perfectionism. In healthy striving, we acknowledge the situational factors such as time pressure, personal circumstances, lack of resources etc… that contribute to the (un)desired outcome.
Consider this: if you had more time and resources to achieve your goal, would the outcome be any different? Is there a tool, a person, or a thing that would be helpful towards your goal instead of fearing failure and limiting yourself? If so, then the outcome is not entirely a product of your abilities and does not reflect on your effort.
What happens when perfectionism becomes unhealthy?
Perfection is an abstraction and impossible in reality, striving for it can actually lead to procrastination, a tendency to avoid challenges, rigidity in thinking, and overall lack of creativity. When you put too much pressure on yourself, you start thinking that none of the directions you can move to lead to perfection and, therefore, you stop moving. Perfectionism creates perceived limits and boundaries that hinder creativity.
When we are creative, we are often exposed and vulnerable. If we have no guarantee that we will overcome a challenge, as perfectionists, we tend to get scared and shield ourselves from the shame, judgment, and blame of a potential failure. This process is unconscious for most! This fear of failure can go as far as paralyzing perfectionists and stopping them from performing tasks.
Perfectionism comes with a focus on mistakes and errors, even the least important ones. This type of attentional bias is closely linked to fear of failure such that perfectionists equate failure to achieve something to their personal worth (or lack thereof). Consequently, this fear of failure leads to risk-averse behaviors as perfectionists struggle to handle the possibility of failure that comes with taking risks.
How does it work in a society where we emphasize thinking outside of the box? The fear of the unexpected stops most people from making the mistakes that are necessary to a creative journey. If you focus on perfection, you miss out on the journey. Instead, it is recommended to focus on the progress and milestones, and learn from the failures to lead us to an ocutome. It’s fair to say that perfectionism is a barrier to creativity and fosters rigidity in thinking.
Equating failures to personal worth and promoting a risk-averse culture goes against the principles of growth mindset that suggest failures are learning experiences and there is always space for growth. Innovation begins with fearless experimentation, perfectionism is the obstacle standing in the way. In the workplace, a growth mindset is especially important to foster trust, commitment, and innovation.
What’s going on in the brain of perfectionists?
We’ve already established that people show more or less perfectionist traits and that this is reflected in their behaviors. How exactly is this difference noticeable at a brain level? Intuitively, it would make sense that those exhibiting more perfectionism traits would show increased brain activity in parts that are related to error processing. fMRI studies differentiated between perfectionists with high evaluative concerns (pressured by the judgment of others) and perfectionists with high personal standard concerns (pressured by their own judgment). The results of the above study suggested hyperactivity in the anterior cingulate cortex – in part responsible for error processing – of perfectionists with high personal standards. The scans also showed a decrease in activity after the error was made which could suggest room to learn from the mistake. This decrease in activity was not observed in perfectionists with high social standards and suggests that the brain of socially driven perfectionism is less effective in handling errors compared to self-motivated perfectionists.
Strategies to move away from maladaptive perfectionism
Here are some strategies you can implement to steer away from perfectionism:
- Shift your Mindset: Work towards a growth mindset where failures become learning experiences and reward your effort instead of the outcome.
- Adjust your Effort: Consider asking for feedback early in the process, you may just hear that it is “good enough”. Alternatively, feedback will keep you focused in the right direction.
- Create a Checklist: Follow a process with discrete and measurable goals to stop you from obsessing over details.
- Monitor your Progress: Reflect on the things you may have avoided doing due to fear of failure and remember times when you took actions despite uncertainty and it brought you closer to the outcome.
- Perfectionism is the defensive move that has only limited advantages in the workplace such that when we focus on excellence – as opposed to dwelling on or fearing failures – we push ourselves to do better and do more. Perfectionists that are achievement-oriented are working towards growth, challenges, and adaptive problem-solving. However, the line between adaptive and maladaptive perfectionism is thin.
- Perfectionism can also lead to maladaptive behaviors that hinder innovation, commitment, and creativity. This is especially true in a setting like a workplace where high expectations come from ourselves and the people around us. This kind of mental blockage created by fear of failure can be observed in brain activity.
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Brown, B. (2022). The power of vulnerability. From https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_the_power_of_vulnerability, 24(4), 481-491.
Sirois, F. M., & Molnar, D. S. (2015). Perfectionism, Health, and Well-Being (1st ed. 2016 ed.). Springer.
Frost, R. O., & Marten, P. A. (1990). Perfectionism and evaluative threat. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 14, 559-572. Stober, J. (1998). The Frost Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale: More perfect with four (instead of six) dimensions. Personality and Individual Reece, M., & Stacoviak, A. (Hosts). (2020, May 20). Navigating perfectionism [Audio podcast episode]. In Brain Science: Neuroscience, Behavior. https://changelog.com/brainscience/20