Are you a perfectionist?

I remember back in school, one of the Professors said, “There are always three presentations for each that is done. There is the ideal one in your head – the one you wish you could do. There is one that you are capable of doing – if you could eliminate all other factors. Then, there is that you end up doing – this one is earth bound.

The idea was plausible. On my mind, I quickly applied it to other different life’s scenarios and it seemed to work perfectly. Ever since, I adopted it to all my goals. It saved me a great deal of frustrations and in a way got rid of my perfectionist tendencies.

“A principle is the expression of perfection, and as imperfect beings like us cannot practice perfection, we devise every moment limits of its compromise in practice.” – Mahatma Gandhi

This article is about perfectionism. It walks you through the ideas of perfectionism – what causes it, how it occurs, how it differs from striving for excellence, and positive and negative effects of perfectionism.

To start with, what makes a perfectionist?

Being a perfectionist is a state of mind, as perfection does not exist in the physical realm, but only in your mind. Perfectionist wants the outcome to be the exact replica of what is on the mind, without the slightest differences. It is a fact that, ideas are always shining and sparkling in your head, but once put into action, the results are earth bound, so is everything else under the sun. You can only go so far. Sometimes, the not-so-perfect things are just good enough for a starter, but a perfectionist would never buy such an idea.

Being a perfectionist means setting standards and goals that are either too high or unrealistic. In other words, it implies aiming at achieving the impossible, most of the times.

Perfectionism is a habit, and like any habit, you can be a perfectionist without your awareness. Habits are subconscious, but its effects are not. The effect of your obsession to outcomes is vivid, for instance you can see how it affects your moods, morale, perception, self-esteem, motivation, and others.

How do you know if you are a perfectionist?


Well, you are a perfectionist if you:

  • Fear failure before embarking on a goal. You have  no sense of spontaneity in trying and doing just the best you can. You always want to achieve perfection.
  • See things in black and white. It is either right or wrong, no middle ground.
  • Take too much time refining ideas but still getting unsatisfied. Sometimes the idea ends up boring inthe process and left undone.
  • Lack confidence by having a sense of hopeless inadequacy in your abilities to deliver quality results
  • Attach too much to the outcomes and it becomes personal to the extent of being detrimental
  • Always finish tasks near the deadline due to wasting alot of time over minor and trivial details
  • Measure achievements according to what is in your mind, nothing else matters
  • The ability of self-reproach due to unavoidable mistakes
  • Distrust the ability of others to accomplish goals. You may not delegate tasks to others fearing they won’t deliver to your expectations

There is a thin line between perfection and excellence.

“Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.” – Vince Lombardi

There is a very subtle difference between striving for excellence and perfection, and this difference comes down to how you view the mistakes and accept them.

  • Excellence is giving the best of your abilities and accepting what you deserve in end, not so much what you desire. This means that excellence is a journey of continuous improvements towards ideal results. In the process, you accept failures to fast track your growth towards better outcomes. In excellence, failure is a necessary ingredient towards improvements.
  • Perfection is about getting exactly what you want and not accepting anything less, which is sometimes unrealistic and unachievable. Perfectionist sees either success or failure, and anything falling short to the expected outcome is a failure. Failures impede perfection and are unacceptable. Likewise, inability to attain the expected outcome is painful to an extent of cutting the overall motivation towards embarking on other goals.

In my opinion, the best way to remain focused during the pursuit of excellence is to avoid too much attachment to the results. Take things as they come and understanding that the real outcome is, most times, different from the ideal one in your mind, which is both good and bad, depending on the gravity of the situation. However, no matter the outcome, you always have a chance to improve next time around.

 Potential dangers

1. Procrastination

If a perfectionist finds that he lacks the necessary ability to deliver quality results, then he can easily delay taking simple actions or completely abandon the goal. This result to inaction and the task may go unaccomplished.

2.  Depression

Falling short from the envisioned outcomes  always lead the perfectionist to depression. Perfectionists always take things personally. If they can’t achieve what they want, then fall into serious emotional stress. Depression usually contributes to short life spans for most perfectionists.

3. Inability to meet deadlines

Most perfectionists struggle to meet deadlines due to their tendency of refining ideas too long. They waste time on trivialities and not on major milestones.

4. Lack of Trust

Due to lack of trusting others’ abilities to deliver quality results, a perfectionist may end up unconsciously sabotaging his position by avoiding delegating tasks. This hinders others from having a chance to give their best when engaged in the same activity. A perfectionist feels others may not deliver quality results. This may result to overwhelming duties and tasks piling up.

5. Lack of Perspective

Perfectionists are concerned with small matters in a grand scheme of things. They may lack looking at bigger picture because of focusing on minor details, which at times don’t count in the whole process.

How to get out of this tendency

“The man with insight enough to admit his limitations comes nearest to perfection.” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

  • Be spontaneous and accept failure 

    Try new things more often. When doing the unfamiliar things, you must fail. Accept failures as means to grow, then move on.  This is the best avenue towards becoming anything you want while being able to face the challenges with a positive attitude.

  • Accept criticism

Perfectionists are concerned with the impression they make on others. If you are afraid of failures, then lead to deal with criticism. It is true that, whatever impression you have on your mind is always worse than what the reality. Accept criticism with a positive attitude and don’t let the ego get on the way. When your ego is in control, you are certain to be blinded from the truth.

  • Avoid attachments to the outcome

You are not defined by your results, actually it’s different. Too much attachment to the outcome makes you rigid, if you change that, you see the whole process more clearly. Only then you can grow to a better and ideal self.

  • If you have an idea, think of it and share

If something needs refining, think of it and share. This way you cut down the time to mull unnecessarily over an idea. Other people’s contributions may lead to better results and save you the hustles of procrastination.

  • Learn to deal with self-reproach

Stop blaming yourself for some unavoidable failures. Some things are meant to fail to lead you to better options. Being responsible is to accept the outcomes, learn from it, and do better next time around. Anything more than that is simply harmful.

  • Accept growth

Set achievable goals, take action and improve on simple results. Understand that everything must continually grow. Growth takes place when you refine mistakes and improve on what you do – that is continually becoming the ideal self.

  • Take babe steps

If you find yourself stuck in a situation and can’t deliver the results you aim, then think of it like you are temporarily hindered by lacking the abilities to undertake the activity. Don’t let the situation paralyze you in any way. You must always do the little you can and improve as you go. This may sound childish if you are a perfectionist, but in the end it saves a lot of depressions, frustrations and guess what? At least with simple babe steps, you end up with results than nothing. This eventually breaks the habit of procrastination.

Perfectionism is not always bad

“Aim at perfection in everything, though in most things it is unattainable. However, they who aim at it, and persevere, will come much nearer to it than those whose laziness and despondency make them give it up as unattainable.” – Lord Chesterfield

However, perfection is not totally a bad thing. In fact, most high achievers are perfectionists. They are where they are due to the perfectionist tendencies. This explains that there is a healthy side of perfectionism.

Nonetheless, the differences between the healthy perfectionism and the unhealthy perfectionism are so subtle that sometimes it is easier to cross the line and being unaware.

Below are some of the positive traits of healthy perfectionism:

  1. Produce tangible results
  2. Outcomes stand out with quality
  3. Motivated and always deliver results
  4. Dependable in accomplishing goals
  5. Can excel in any calling with their ability to achieve the best

At the end of the day, perfection is never attained in the physical world but only in your head. Remember, even the universe isn’t perfect, that is why there’s life on earth and you are alive in this very moment. Strive for excellence instead.

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