There is a particular agony that comes from disliking your own work. What a feeling it is to behold something you made—something you put so many hours into—and to end up dissatisfied. In retrospect, you think, there was really nothing you could have done to prevent it. You thought hard about your project, worked on it, and spent a large amount of time staring at it, hoping it would somehow get better. But it didn’t. So you look upon your work, and despair.
When a person experiences many moments like this, we call it perfectionism. The need to be amazing consumes them, crippling the ability to act and improve. Many artists have talked about the hampering effects of this perspective. “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people,” said writer Anne Lamott, “It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life.” She continues:
Perfectionism is a mean, frozen form of idealism, while messes are the artist’s true friend. What people somehow (inadvertently, I’m sure) forgot to mention when we were children was that we need to make messes in order to find out who we are and why we are here — and, by extension, what we’re supposed to be writing.
Many others have talked of how perfectionism harms creativity. “Perfectionism is very dangerous,” said David Foster Wallace shortly after the release of his 1,000 page Infinite Jest: “because of course if your fidelity to perfectionism is too high, you never do anything. Because doing anything results in–It’s actually kind of tragic because it means you sacrifice how gorgeous and perfect it is in your head for what it really is.”
Wallace was speaking off the cuff in this interview, but where he cuts himself off is interesting. Doing anything results in compromise, he might have said. And with this insight we are closer to the nature of perfectionism. Rarely is anyone persuaded from the habit by being told, “Well, nothing’s perfect.” That’s not new information. Perfection, therefore, isn’t what we talk about when we talk about perfectionism. What’s at stake is something more personal, a syndrome that depends on specific insecurities and personal illusions to survive.
The Cost of Perfection
Perfectionism is a habit, and like any habit it can be tempting to hold onto. But however we might rationalize it, there are considerable hazards to being a perfectionist.
Perfectionism contributes to paralysis, often causing self-doubt and procrastination. In setting impossible standards for ourselves, by hating and criticizing even the smallest flaws in our work, we make it very comfortable to do nothing at all. Perfectionism can make work an agonizing act, and when we put so much negative stress into the act of creating, it will be no wonder when we make excuses for ourselves to delay.
Perfectionism can also lead to an agonizing kind of creative stagnation. It entails not being able to move past a specific imperfection of your work; changing and editing and revising over and over again. Instead of continuing to work on other parts, a single part commands your attention, preventing you from working and growing in other areas. A dedication to detailed, superlative excellence sounds nice in theory, but it often means being stuck in our work, with minimal progress for all the time put in.
Perfectionism not only paralyzes us, it has a way of mocking us, too. Even when we do create something that meets our tough personal standards, we are bound to realize that others don’t care nearly as much as we do. Or, we find that our obsession in satisfying our own standards prevents us from addressing the priorities and concerns of others. This is a costly and infamous blunder in the tech industry, but applies to artists and other creatives as well. A perfectionist, among other things, is a slave to her own, singular taste.
It is easy to understand why perfectionism is hard to get rid of. It appears to be virtuous thing. An advantage over the mediocre competition. The guiding star of our creative growth. It is an important thing to care about quality, to want to create stuff that matters, to hold ourselves to high standards of performance and influence. But perfection takes these noble intentions and often distorts them, harming our work and our spirits in the process.
In empowering our perfectionism we harm ourselves. It will keep us from doing our work, can waste our time, and keep us from rhythms that lead to true education and progress. It makes us stressed, insecure, and can activate a cynicism and ennui that may resemble depression. To deal with something as complicated and ingrained as perfectionism, we have to begin by trying to understand it.
What Causes Perfectionism?
Not everyone agrees on the exact nature of perfectionism. The phenomenon can be difficult to talk about because it rarely stands on its own. It may come from warped self-esteem, fear, disgust, egotism, and more. It is a major contributor, although not the only one, to procrastination. It bears resemblance to a fear of failure, although it’s more meticulous and high-strung than that.
Whatever the hodge-podge may be, almost everyone admits perfectionism harms the spirit, and there are many angles to look at it from.
Author and business consultant Gregory Serrien argued that perfectionism is a symptom of something larger: fear. When dealing with his clients, Serrien encounters many people who have trouble managing their perfectionism. “But on closer look,” Serrien said, “I usually find that on the unconscious level, people are dealing with the fear of rejection or embarrassment in dealing with letting others see their work.” For many people, perfectionism is an extreme response to the paranoia of being judged or dismissed as inadequate.
A tenuous sense of self-worth is the marker of a perfectionist, according to Tracy Cutchlow, author of Zero to Five: 70 Essential Parenting Tips Based on Science, who said “The basis of perfectionism is not high standards or an enviable work ethic. The basis of perfectionism is a feeling that you are unworthy of love or acceptance. Perfectionism stems from a need to prove you are worthy. That’s why you are driven to look better, sound smarter, work harder, take on only projects you already know you’ll be good at, or never reveal your flaws.”
From both perspectives, perfectionism is a smokescreen. It is a reflection of, but also a distraction from, an internal fragility we need to address.
Ways to Overcome Perfectionism
Below are some tips for controlling your perfectionism, because simply saying “nothing’s perfect” doesn’t work.
You will probably have to mix and match approaches to find which work best. What’s certain is that the process will take time. As with all character transformations, controlling your perfectionism is serious work that will require daily awareness and effort.
See the big picture. Perfectionism thrives in the minute. It picks apart the faults and imperfections in every little part of your work. Therefore, it can be helpful to expand your purview, looking at the bigger picture instead. Rather than hovering over the little cracks in your work, think of that whole work as being one of many you will produce in your years. Shakespeare’s early Henry IV plays aren’t masterpieces. Rather, they were part of the immature, early work that even the most creative of people must put out to the world to grow.
I can be hard to say why, but we often improve more by allowing our mistakes to find an audience, than by hoarding and obsessing over their inadequacies, waiting to release them when they’re just right.
Produce a lot. It’s a frequent pattern that those who create a lot eventually create better. We’ve written before about how prolific artists like Picasso are tapped into a special creative rhythm. I’m partial to W.H. Auden’s insight, who said, “In the course of his lifetime, the major poet will write more bad poems than the minor.” One’s bad work, when recalled with purpose, can be an inimitable technique for improvement.
Don’t give your negativity a chance. Perfectionism depends on your ability to criticize and doubt yourself to survive. Keep this tendency in check, and you can first do this by keeping it to yourself. Spela Grasic, a marketer at Cheeky Monkey Media, fought hard with her own perfectionism, reflecting, “I learned not to ‘confess’ everything I perceived as imperfection or apologize for things I thought might bother others.” In not habitually apologizing for your little imperfections, you give yourself space to acknowledge and accept them on your own terms. There’s the residual confidence, too, that makes you more likely to try new things on which to improve and grow.
Control the ego. Perfectionism is a strange thing, making us both a little arrogant and insecure. That’s because perfectionism is tied to the ego, which tells us we are in one moment special, and in the next, worthless idiots. A more secure sense of self will anchor you favorably in the world, allowing you to better tolerate all the villainies that life throws at you: things like failure, error, screw-ups, injury, attack, and criticism.
Or as the ancient Greek playwright Menander wrote: “That on which you so pride yourself will be your ruin.” Perfectionism blurs the line between quality of performance and identity, making it perilous to hold on to.
It also pays to keep the “imaginary audience” in check, an egocentric habit typically associated with adolescence. Anyone can get caught up in the idea that our work and our presence are of major consequence, constantly being judged and scrutinized. The truth is that we are rarely paid attention to so closely, and if we expect the sudden applause or vicious rejection of our audience, we will be in both cases disappointed.
Appreciate your mistakes. Dr. L. Michael Tompkins, founder of Straight Ahead Management, encourages a treatment of good old sensitization. He advises his perfectionist clients to deliberately allow mistakes into their work. But if this tactic sounds too extreme to you, mistakes will find their way into your efforts, even if it’s not intentional. And when that happens, it’s worth appreciating them. Have you sent an email with a typo? Good. Now pay attention to what happens. Odds are, it’ll be nothing. Often enough, our imperfections aren’t world-shattering compromises we feared them to be.
Widen your perspective. While the very first tip encourages you to see your mistakes as integral to your growth, this one requires you to merely see beyond yourself. Perfectionism is a solitary and passionate act, and needs to be kept in check with reason. Sarah Lisovich, Senior Editor and Content Strategist at CIA Medical, suggests considering the consequences of imperfection. Lisovich encourages you to ask things like “What is the worst thing that could happen? What is the chance that it will happen? Will this decision or its outcome matter in ten years?” If you answer with honesty, most of these questions will provide you with mild, manageable scenarios.
Perfection, even if it did exist, probably wouldn’t count for much. People would enjoy your perfect work, and maybe even celebrate it. But that is not what fulfillment is, nor is it a tenable approach to happiness. Or, to take the advice of Bertrand Russell: “One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown,” he said, “is the belief that one’s work is terribly important.”