In how many job interviews have you offered, “I’m a perfectionist?” It’s a common answer to the dreaded interview question, “What’s your greatest weakness?” I’m sure I’ve said it, because a long time ago, I read somewhere that that would be an appropriate answer. (Now, I would have to answer that my biggest weakness is that I am allergic to bureaucracy.) Usually, the answer “My greatest weakness is that I’m a perfectionist” is meant to turn attention away from any real flaws. To deflect any possible negativity.
Beyond job interviews, perfectionism is trying to serve the same purpose.
It deflects possible judgment by others. It helps you avoid feeling vulnerable around others. It protects you from getting hurt by others.
Notice that all of the above are concerned with how you look to others. All of the effort spent appearing perfect on the outside masks the real you.
Perfectionism is an attempt to keep you one step ahead of shame. As researcher Brené Brown puts it, “When perfectionism is driving, shame is always riding shotgun, and fear is the annoying backseat driver.”
When you go below the surface, perfectionism is not really a strength at all. It often creates more problems than it helps.
It keeps people from really getting to know you.
It stems from – and creates – a lot of anxiety.
It frequently causes procrastination, as you feel paralyzed about starting a project that maybe might not be perfect. And then others will go all judge-y on you.
Or so you think.
Here’s some of the best advice I ever heard: “Don’t believe everything you think.” Certain thinking patterns can lead you right into misery. Even depression and anxiety.
Perfectionism looks all pretty on the outside, but is rife with negative thoughts underneath. Thoughts like, I’m really a fraud. Or, people wouldn’t love the real me. Thoughts like that drive the evil twins of fear and shame that Brené Brown referred to.
In the extreme, perfectionism contributes to suicide.
That bit of data made me hold my breath for a moment.
What would it mean to not be a perfectionist?
You might worry (again, there’s that fear and shame) that you are giving up. That your work will be sloppy. That your kids will be grubby.
That you will have no value in the world.
And worst of all, what would other people think?
Here’s news. For the most part, you are not the center of everyone else’s attention. They will not even notice a lot of the things that you think they will. Even if they do notice, they probably won’t care.
And if they do care – if they go all judge-y on you – then it’s their problem, not yours.
I remember being in a photography class and obsessively hand-painting the little white specks on a photo print. I was going for perfection. Every single white dust speck left on the print jumped out at me and I dotted it with a tiny paintbrush. But I couldn’t possibly touch up all of them, and every single one popped out at me when I looked at the photo. The teacher gave some good comments. I pointed out all the miniscule white specks still there. The look on his face made the point that no one else, in a million years, would even notice what I was obsessing over.
When you get stuck in the details, you lose the big picture.
Giving up being a perfectionist doesn’t mean you have to give up high standards. Shooting for excellence is admirable.
But striving for perfection actually keeps you from getting things done. It can keep you paralyzed in procrastination.
Your perfectionism is holding you hostage. It’s strangling you.
While you are fretting over the perfect color for your business cards, the nonperfectionist has already handed out 50 cards. It’s no wonder, then, that people who excel in their professions are typically not perfectionists. They take risks. They get stuff done, even if it’s not perfect.
You can simultaneously strive for excellence and move forward with imperfect decisions.
Nonperfection ≠ mediocrity. There is good enough. I promise. You will fail at least once in your life. I promise.
You are worthy, no matter what.
You are loveable, despite your perfectionism. I promise.