Why Perfectionism Is Not a Strength

Working as a corporate recruiter, I’ve interviewed hundreds of applicants during my tenure. My role is to ask enough questions to ascertain whether or not someone is the right fit for the role. Among the more frequent questions I’ve asked over the years is “What are your strengths?” The responses have run the gamut from original to outrageous, but there is one response that always makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck when I hear it: “My biggest strength has to be that I am a total perfectionist.”

Not long ago I was in their shoes, going on interviews explaining why my perfectionism is an asset. I’ve made that mistake, so I totally get why it may be perceived as a strength. Perfectionists make sure they do a damn good job. They pay attention to detail. The words mediocre or average are blasphemies. They cannot or will not tolerate anything other than unadulterated perfection. Sounds ideal right? Not necessarily. A perfectionist’s entire belief system is based on unrealistic expectations. The idea of perfection is not only subjective, but it’s incredibly destructive to both ourselves and even others. It took me a long time to come to terms that this characteristic, which has always been second nature to me, is not a strength but a limitation. Here’s what I’ve learned.

1. It’s Bad For Your Health

According to experts, perfectionism can have can have extreme negative effects on both your mental and physical health. Socially prescribed perfectionism, or the idea that you will only be liked or valued if you are perfect, can cause severe stress. We all know what stress does to our bodies and the results can be catastrophic. Measuring your own self-worth based on other people’s perceptions of you is damaging in and of itself without adding the complex layer of perfectionism. Trying to maintain an unattainable level of perfection is like putting yourself in a pressure cooker — eventually all of that internal stress, anxiety and pressure is going to cause you to blow.

2. It Prevents You From Trying

The core ideology of perfectionism is pretty straightforward: either something is done perfectly or it’s not done at all. Perfectionistic thinking is black and white — there is no middle ground. This is a mentality I am all too familiar with and it’s held me back in countless ways. At 30, I admittedly still can’t ride a bike because I gave up after I took my first tumble. I remember my father telling me over and over again “It’s going to take time! No one gets it on the first try.” But I wasn’t having it. No one was pressuring me. No one expected me to pop a wheelie as soon as my training wheels were removed. But in my eyes, if I couldn’t do it perfectly the first time, I considered myself a failure. The outrageously unrealistic expectations I set for myself also caused me to give up on piano, softball, pursuing writing as a career, and who knows what else. Who knows what I could have accomplished if I stopped trying to meet some impractical metric.

3. It Can Make You Inefficient

While avoiding mistakes and working meticulously can be a positive thing, a perfectionist tends to focus too much on even the most insignificant details. This scrupulous way of working can result in spending more time than is needed to complete something. Even “quick hit” tasks such as writing emails or making phone calls can cause the perfectionist to doubt themselves or overthink in hopes to achieve perfection. In today’s society where instant gratification is the standard expectation, delays like this can be seen as ineffective and inefficient.

4. The Burnout Rate Is High

You’ve got to commend a perfectionist for their unwavering eagerness when they begin a project. Perfectionists go all in and they give 200 percent right off the bat. They won’t rest until their job is done. Of course, the job is never done because it’s never good enough. I have spent literally an entire day cleaning my house (I’ve even gone so far as to vacuum my STOVE) only to wind up utterly exhausted and still dissatisfied because it still wasn’t perfect. Living in this constant state of anxiety, striving to ensure everything around you is always in an unrealistic idyllic state, is draining.

5. Self-Love Is Lost

Speaking from my own experience, I used my perfectionism as a way to help me uncover my self-worth. As a child, I was bullied about my weight, the clothes I wore, and my timid personality. I felt the only way I would ever be valued is if I reached perfection through achievements. As I got older, despite having people in my life who made me feel special and loved, I still had this core belief I was worthless. I felt if I could reach this imperceptible level of perfection, if I kept working tirelessly to meet the expectations I set for myself, maybe I’d find the self-love I was looking for. The problem was, the bar I set for myself was limitless — no matter what I accomplished it still wasn’t enough.

Today, I like to think of myself as a recovering perfectionist; someone who was using “perfection” or the idea of it, as a way to avoid dealing with my own internal pain. No matter how spotless your house is or how many accolades you receive at work or in your personal life, you won’t be content until you learn to work on accepting yourself. It’s hard to retrain the way you think, especially when behavior, like perfectionism, becomes so automatic. I try to remember I am no longer that little girl who was made to feel like she was broken. Instead, I am learning to embrace all of the messy, gorgeous, and, yes, imperfect parts of myself. One day at a time, I’m learning to live happily as an imperfectionist.

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