The Role of Perfection

I’ve always known I was a perfectionist, but I used to love it.

I used to think that being a perfectionist meant that people would always like me, they would think I was a phenomenal worker, and everyone would know that they could rely on me.

I used to think that it meant I was close to perfect. That I was close to becoming that untouchable person that everyone wanted to be.

I used to think that I would never hate being a perfectionist.

The first time someone called me a perfectionist, I was honored. Someone was finally realized that I was organized, careful, and systematic. But being a perfectionist soon turned into one of the aspects about myself that I hate the most. I often find myself restarting my math notes if I do a question wrong, getting frustrated with my peers when they don’t live up to my creative expectations, and I’m known for constantly beating myself up.

Whenever I’m frustrated or unsatisfied, I immediately notice it always has something to do with the fact that a person or situation is different from what I wanted, an idea that I created in my mind that represents “perfection.” It’s remarkable and terrifying, the amount times that my perfectionism has fueled my underlying discontent.

Of course, there are obvious benefits to being a perfectionist, which are amplified in my work in ASB, TACH, and other things I’m a part of. It helps me keep my standards high and reminds me that most of the things I do will be high quality. My perfectionism is constantly pushing me to improve. I am disciplined and detail-oriented; both of which are critical when there is no margin for error.

But I’ve also noticed that it takes a toll on my peers. In ASB specifically, people don’t like helping me with posters because they know that I’m not easily impressed, which makes us both feel bad. I really try to appreciate everyone as much as possible, but my motto is if you want something done right, do it yourself.

Culturally, we treasure perfectionism. Steve Jobs and Martha Stewart are both often noted in their teams’ drive for perfection. However, the impact that a “control freak” can make on the people they’re working with is often undermined. The problem is amplified when perfectionists take their insecurities too far. They set standards that are impossible for anyone to meet and then devalue work that doesn’t meet the impossible standards. It’s an ongoing disappointment.

I’ve read about perfectionism a lot, and it’s consistently broken down into three different kinds:

  1. Self-oriented perfectionism, in which individuals impose high standards on themselves

  2. Socially prescribed perfectionism, where individuals feel others expect them to be perfect

  3. Other-oriented, in which individuals place high standards on others.

It’s most common for people to have a combination of these, with emphasis on one or maybe two if they have all three. However, all of them can prove fatal in partnerships because everyone experiences perfectionism differently. This last year in ASB has been a constant test of my leadership because as a perfectionist, I get upset when people don’t meet my standards, but as a leader, I want everyone to love the program and make it their own. I want everything to be perfect, but as a leader, I need to be flexible, responsive to others’ creativity, and I need to cooperate.

Self-oriented perfectionism is problematic because it can lead to obsessiveness; inefficiency; and a multitude of serious mental health issues that affect attendance, performance, and morale. You’ll often see a perfectionist procrastinate because they’re afraid of failing before they start. Alternatively, they might think of themselves as a victim of unfortunate circumstance, “the only one” who cares/thinks/works enough about getting things “right.”

Socially prescribed perfectionism also threatens any type of partnership. It doesn’t take long for people to buckle under the pressure of unrealistic expectations. It’s hard to ask for help when you believe that it will be interpreted as a sign of weakness or incompetence.

Other-oriented perfectionism may be the worst of all, though. People who have one or more of these types of perfectionists in their midst will face a lack of empathy and forgiveness when they make mistakes. One partner may fear open communication because expressing his real feelings or thoughts will disappoint the other person.

Personally, I have a mixture of all three with an emphasis on socially prescribed perfectionism. My perfectionism is mainly fueled by the fact that I feel inadequate a lot of the time.

I’m not sure there is a balanced approach to perfectionism and after having coped with my own perfectionism, I don’t think I’ll truly ever get over it. It’s just a piece of me.

Lizzie Bromley