How Perfectionism Can Hold You Back

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This blog post was originally posted on recoverywarriors.com on February 29, 2016 and can be found here.

Whenever I’m asked, “What’s your greatest weakness?”, I know that if I answer, “I’m a perfectionist,” it probably sounds like I’m making up a weakness to secretly compliment myself (much like saying, “I work too hard,” or “I care too much.”). However, for those of you like me with a “perfectionistic leaning” (as I lovingly like to call it), if we aren’t aware of how perfectionism can influence us, it has the potential to hold us back. The following is a list of just five ways perfectionism can negatively impact our lives if we aren’t aware of it.

#1: Procrastination.
Say what? Why would a perfectionist, who is striving for perfection, not start working on something right away? Simple: It all boils down to expectations. Perfectionists have high expectations of themselves, right? So, if you procrastinate, you can lower your expectations, and avoid a sense of disappointment or failure.

For example, if you started studying for an exam weeks before, your expectations are bound to be pretty high for your performance. After all, you’re putting in your full effort, so anything less than an “A” may come with some disappointment (especially if you’re a perfectionist). But if you don’t start studying for the exam until the night before, then you’re likely to have low expectations for your performance. If you don’t perform well, it isn’t an insult on your intelligence, because after all, you hardly tried. But if you do perform well, then you’re a genius for being able to pull that off!

So, all in all, perfectionism can sometimes lead people to procrastinate to lower their expectations to protect themselves from feeling a sense of disappointment or failure. The problem with this approach is that it not only robs you of producing your best work, but it also adds undue stress to your plate in the mean time.

#2: Lack of Efficiency and/or Productivity.
Hand-in-hand with procrastination, the high expectations that perfectionists often have can lead to a lack of efficiency or even a struggle to complete certain tasks. For example, you may find yourself taking longer than necessary to do certain things due to getting side tracked perfecting the small details along the way.

My favorite quote to help combat this struggle is: “It is better to do something imperfectly than to not do it at all.” That’s the only reason I have a website, for instance. I could have spent months (or years) waiting to launch it until it was “just right” in my eyes, but instead I committed myself to putting it together in an afternoon and launching whatever content I had at the time, so that I could start moving forward with the purposes it needed to serve.

#3: Indecisiveness.
Since perfectionists tend to be “all-or-nothing”/“black-or-white” thinkers, it can sometimes be difficult for them to navigate through “grey areas,” in which there isn’t necessarily one “right” decision or way of doing something. For instance, a simple task like choosing a paint color for a room might lead a perfectionist to feel overwhelmed by all of the possible options and experience “paralysis by analysis,” in which they feel so overwhelmed by trying to make the “perfect” decision that they end up throwing in the towel and not making a decision at all. Thus, perfectionism can sometimes lead to indecisiveness.

#4: Constant Dissatisfaction.
This point may seem like a no-brainer, but perfectionists tend to be so hard on themselves that nothing they do ever seems to feel “good enough” to them. If your standard for yourself is perfection, the truth of the matter is that you’ll always be falling short of that, since we are imperfect human beings and perfection isn’t truly attainable.

One thing that can help combat this struggle is to base your sense of pride in yourself on the process rather than on the outcome of a situation. For example, if you’re a student, instead of putting your emphasis on the grade you’d like to make (the outcome), practice shifting your emphasis to the effort you are putting into studying (the process), so that no matter what grade you make, you can feel proud of yourself and rest knowing you truly tried your best.

#5: Forgetting the Big Picture.
Has anyone ever told you, “You’re missing the forest for the trees”? It can be so easy for perfectionists to get stuck on tiny details and lose sight of what is most important in the end.

To help maintain perspective, practice taking a step back and asking yourself, “What’s the ultimate purpose of this? or “What’s the end goal here?” to help center yourself on what truly matters. Once you do this, it makes it easier to focus on the things that will ultimately lead you to complete the big picture goal, rather than getting fixated on tiny details that don’t matter in the grand scheme of things.

All in all, if we aren’t aware of how perfectionism can impact us, it has the potential to hold us back from producing quality work, being efficient and productive, making decisions, feeling proud of ourselves, and investing in the big picture. The good news is that if you practice noticing the way perfectionism is impacting you, you can start to catch this mindset in its tracks and consciously work to prevent it from holding you back.

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