How to Stop Being a Perfectionist

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Annabel Candy from Get In the Hot Spot.

“Use what talents you possess; the woods would be very silent if no birds sang except those that sang best.” Henry van Dyke

I once read a job interview tip that recommended if asked what your biggest flaw is, say you’re a perfectionist. The theory was that the interviewer would be delighted at the prospect of all that hard work in your quest for perfection and hire you.

This idea appealed to me at the time and although I never got to use the line I would have if anyone has asked me the question. But today I’ve changed my mind. I’ve been self employed for 12 years so I don’t go to interviews but if I was looking for someone to hire for a job I’d steer clear of anyone who said they were a perfectionist.

I’m a recovering perfectionist because being a perfectionist’s no fun and being friends with a perfectionist or working with one’s not much fun either. The University of Texas even classes being a perfectionist as a mental health problem and a major cause of stress in The “Vicious” Cycle of Perfectionism.

So perfectionism is the enemy. It’s not something you should aspire to or boast about and if you are suffering from perfectionism I hope you’ll be able to recover from it. Here’s why you should avoid being perfect or aiming to create perfection in anything you do:

  1. It makes people unhappy since it’s impossible to achieve perfection or be perfect.
  2. It causes procrastination because striving for the unattainable makes it hard to get started.
  3. It creates self criticism and low self esteem because perfectionists are never happy with what they’ve done.

I have a friend who’s a brilliant illustrator. She’s not rich or famous but I think she would be if she wasn’t a perfectionist. Once her art got featured on the front page of a popular magazine. They asked her to make it a regular gig but she couldn’t do it because she’s pathologically incapable of meeting deadlines. Really. She was too busy making minute adjustments to her work that 99% of people who looked at it wouldn’t even see.

The magazine cover got her a lot of attention elsewhere too and she had people clamoring for her illustrations, but the fear of creating an imperfect picture stopped her from creating anything at all and the opportunities slipped by.

Sadly, perfectionists can’t delegate, meet deadlines, handle criticism or see the big picture. They’re scared of criticism and failure but the only way you can avoid those is by being ruled by those fears and not doing anything. And that’s when you really fail.

Failure is a normal part of growing and improving yourself or your work which includes learning how to handle criticism. As Jonathan Mead says in 10 ways to make time for the important:

“You have to make mistakes in order to grow, don’t let perfectionism paralyze you. If you’re not failing, chances are you’re not trying hard enough.”

How to Stop Being a Perfectionist

First embrace imperfection. It’s totally normal and nothing to be ashamed of! Take pride in finishing things, getting them out there and learning from the process and feedback so you can get better next time. Make a deadline and finish the job. Now move on to something else.

Now understand that being a perfectionist kills creativity and productivity. Keep your standards high but be realistic. Settle for as good as can be in the time available. If people like what you’ve done or you’re still interested you can always come back and improve on it another time.

Finally accept that perfection doesn’t exist. You’ll be happier and more productive for it.

Imperfection rules

People love us for our flaws because they’re what make us interesting and unique. Flaws are what makes a handmade work of art more valuable than a factory made replica.

So if someone asks you about your flaws tell them about your irritable bowel syndrome, mention your extreme political views or share your strange sexual fetishes. Almost anything has to be better than being a perfectionist.

About the author: Annabel Candy writes about self improvement and Internet marketing for SMEs. You can read her blog at GetIntheHotSpot.com or subscribe to the free RSS Feed to stay tuned.

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Comment & Add Your Voice

Robin Dickinson June 8, 2010 at 3:38 pm

For me, imperfectionism is the new black.

As a mad experimenter online (and offline) the fun is in the fact that you can quickly draft up an idea, bang it online, and get immediate feedback.

There’s never been a better time to embrace and nurture your inner imperfectionist.

Love your work, Annabel.

Robin :)

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Annabel Candy, Get In the Hot Spot June 8, 2010 at 4:04 pm

Hi Robin, lol, I love that: imperfectionism is the new black:)Who wants to be perfect anyway or have perfect friends (yawn)I’m going to start sending out a lot more articles. They might not be perfect but my ideas will be out there, not festering in a cluttered “Drafts” folder on my computer.

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Greg June 8, 2010 at 4:29 pm

Nice post! An imperfect product or decision is often better than no product or decision.

This post reminds me a lot of the foolish goal of trying to be the best at something. It’s a worthwhile pursuit to try to be YOUR best, but you can’t control what others are doing.

Cheers,
Greg

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Marisa June 8, 2010 at 4:36 pm

I was trying to find the perfect comment to leave you, but alas it doesn’t exist.

I’m sharing this with my fabulous and flawed friends who are not made in a factory! Love the comparison. Art is everywhere.

Marisa

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Bamboo Forest - Tick Tock Timer June 8, 2010 at 4:44 pm

Good post. Perfectionism really can stifle accomplishment. Thanks for the reminder.

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David Payne June 9, 2010 at 1:28 am

I learned how to stop my perfectionism the hard way – through embarrassment, as told in this story.

http://1dayhabit.com/overcoming-perfectionism-an-antidote/

It’s good to have high standards but not to be immobilized by them. I get around in this way: I like to explore and to excel but at my highest standards my ability to perform is inconsistent. If I was expected to perform at this level it would cause too much fear, because the chances of failing and humiliating myself are high.

Instead, I set a lower standard for what I will offer and promise in the public arena. I offer what I know I can deliver robustly, time and time again.

I keep exploring to improve and as I do so my lower standard also gets raised. It’s like R&D for high tech products. You keep developing but you don’t put products into the market place until they are dependable.

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mynde June 9, 2010 at 7:53 am

Loving this. Yay! Perfectionism is a very bad habit. I’m a recovering perfectionist too and it has cost me soooo much. The thing that’s helped me the most, HAVING FUN with it. Discovering it, again! And helping myself see how mistakes can be fun and illuminating. I’ve discovered great things in many of my biggest mistakes.

Ha! Take that perfectionism! :)

Great post! Thank you.

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Kent @ The Financial Philosopher June 9, 2010 at 8:01 am

The perfect is the enemy of the good…

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Eli June 10, 2010 at 12:56 am

I will admit that I suffer from a mild case of perfectionism. It used to be a lot worse, but it’s still there in traces. I’ve been getting better at just letting things be good.

That being said, this article really hit home for me. There are so many things in my life that I never finished because I couldn’t make them perfect.

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Mars Dorian June 10, 2010 at 3:40 am

“You have to make mistakes in order to grow, don’t let perfectionism paralyze you. If you’re not failing, chances are you’re not trying hard enough.”

Best quote, Annabel. I’m also a recovering perfectionist,
and that usually means I have tons of cool projects that never happen ;(

Making a deadline might be the most useful thing. You make a promise to yourself to get the job done and then just ship. You can always improve later.

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Gilbert Van Norman June 16, 2010 at 8:19 am

Perfection has always been my goal. I guess that is why I have yet to locate happiness. Sure I have thought I was happy, only to have things come crashing down and then I have to start over. This is a great article and now I have a different outlook on how things should be, its like living in the now.

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Chris June 16, 2010 at 2:25 pm

I think David Payne (comment June 9 at 1:28am) makes a very profound observation. Having relative standards is a very smart thing.

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Trav June 18, 2010 at 5:15 pm

It all depends on how you define perfectionism. For instance, how do you discriminate between delivering something of an excellent caliber, requiring countless hours of work, and something which is perfect? If I feel that I have made the most of the time and circumstances leading up to a deadline, that I have done the best I possibly can, then what I’ve achieved is “perfect” in the sense that I could have done no better. If consistently demanding behavior of this caliber makes one a “perfectionist,” then I am happy to be one of them.

Of course, I agree that if your standards are debilitatingly difficult to satisfy, you’ve got a problem. But my notion of perfectionism- demanding the highest standard of yourself, at least for the work that truly matters-is defined more by:

-Underscheduling your commitments, so you have the time and flexibility to produce your absolute best work. Doing fewer things better.

-Caring so much about your field/craft/business that you demand the very best of yourself.

Imperfection- in the sense of a state of being that can always be improved- is an inherent part of being human. But if we can shift our thinking and define “perfect” as “the best we are able to do under a given set of circumstances,” then maybe perfectionism deserves another chance.

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Niluka Weerasinghe June 19, 2010 at 6:57 pm

Good post. Perfectionism really can stifle accomplishment. Thanks for the reminder

keep writing

niluka

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marund November 29, 2010 at 11:08 pm

but in my industry, all the companies look for are the “perfect” people.

Sorry but its confusing having to hold yourself up to that standard and then people tell you not to be a perfectionist.

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spuff March 24, 2011 at 4:12 pm

Does judging others go along with being a perfectionist? Because I realize that I notice when other people mess up…like I expect them to be perfect too. And I hate it. It’s like poison to my soul.

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JT April 12, 2011 at 9:30 am

^ spuff, I think you’ve made a pretty good observation. I’m a perfectionist and I tend to judge other people’s work or effort quite a bit. I tend to have a difficult time if I’m asked to evaluate something. I know I should be using a realistic standard, rather than my pie-in-the-sky perfect standard, but I find myself unsure of what realistic would be.

I find I’m also incredibly sensitive to criticism. On one hand I want it so I can make things better, but on the other hand, I have a hard time keeping myself from taking it personally.

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phil.drolet@gmail.com October 21, 2011 at 10:20 pm

Hey Annabel- thanks for the piece. I’m sure perfectionism is something any creative person has to fight with to some degree.

Lately I’ve realised that it’s really just a form a form a fear. Fear of inadequacy. It’s not easy putting something we created, a little piece of our soul, in front of other people, because if they don’t like it, it’s akin to them not liking who we are. But we have to build that fortitude.

And to your point of making a deadline, I couldn’t agree more. I generally put on a 2 hour trance music mix when I start something, and just DECIDE that I’m gonna be done my work by the time the music stops. Works every time! :)

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anonymous August 2, 2012 at 10:10 pm

My younger brother showed me this site from being concerned with my mental health. I’d like to imporve myself but I also suffer a fear of people and can’t be open with most things. Your imperfect rules have startled me. I don’t think from a..how do you say.. “perfectionist view point” abotu others, but I can’t help it for myself. I’m truefully terrified of myself because I’m afraid I’ll never be good enough. I’ll never please all the people around me. I just want their acceptance. I used to not be able to sow my friends any art I did, I was too afraid they wouldn’t like it. Since I improved one my art I can now show them it. I have a deviantart.com account and post art their, but I’m still never pleased with thing I draw. I can never talk about personaly matters about myself. I don’t like to share my opinions. And I can’t ask questions. When people ask if I know what something means and I say “yeah” and then they ask me “whats it mean then?” I’m afraid to answer no matter how sure I am. Because I’m afraid of being wrong. If people ridicule my appreace I change it. I want to make everyone happy with everything about me and even when someone is happy with something I do I tell them they shouldn’t be because whatever it is, is terrible. I’m not sure if this is all to do with perfectionism. But I’ve read some stuff and a lot about me seems to be. I also procastinate on most things out o fear of failure. I mean, I can’t even put my name because I’m afraid someone will read this and recongize me. I want help, but I can’t figure out how out how to start.

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Joanna December 6, 2012 at 8:44 pm

Since I started college I have become a raving perfectionist, and it has really hurt me both academically and socially. I am so thankful that your article addresses just how different the fear of failure (i.e. perfectionism) is than not doing work because you’re lazy. As an honors student I work incredibly hard, but my hard work and my intelligence is continually undermined by my inability to be satisfied with and more importantly, DONE with my work. Thank you for properly addressing my concerns in a way no one in my life has been able to do, I really needed to see this.

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Teresa February 24, 2013 at 5:48 pm

I have a new goal… to NOT be perfect, to NOT try to achieve perfection, because in trying to achieve perfection I think I have lost happiness and fun… through trying to achieve the perfect happiness which is all day everyday, but in reality no one can be happy all day every day, and thus I blame the perfectionalist in me for my unhappiness.

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Jamal February 28, 2013 at 7:49 am

It was more helpful reading this article than attending a P.A. (Perfectionist Anonymous) meeting. Mentioning your friends’ (Illustrator) situation really hit home with me. Thanks for taking the time to write this article.

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Valeria Casco June 24, 2013 at 10:09 pm

This is the post I’ve been looking for a long time!

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