Health

Perfectionism is a Self-Sabotaging Trait that is Making Your Life Worse

By Jon Rumens on 26 April 2021

Striving for perfection is preventing you from achieving your best.

We all want to be the best versions of ourselves. When we fail to do something to the best of our ability, most of us hold ourselves accountable and use that as a motivator to improve. That’s a good thing, as it prevents us from settling for less than our best.

But perfectionists take it to the next level. They create ideals and hold themselves to incredibly high standards that are unachievable. No matter what they do, they always fall short and pick out the negative. Because of that, perfectionists rarely think what they do is good enough.

What’s ironic, according to the research of professor Niki Hayatbini (Miami University,) is that perfectionism creates a self-fulfilling prophecy: it stunts our growth and hinders our ability to work. Therefore, it prevents us from ever achieving the incredibly high standards that it sets.

Perfectionism stands in the way of perfection. Rather than striving for an impossible standard, you would be better off accepting your imperfect achievements in all their glory.

The Negative Consequences of Perfectionism

Man at desk undergoing remote work

The goal of perfectionism is to make your life and everything you achieve perfect. Rather than doing so, this logical fallacy (also known as The Nirvana Fallacy)  is making your life significantly worse for several reasons.

It Causes Productive Procrastination

According to Entrepreneur Aytekin Tank, when we obsess over analyzing what’s missing or broken, we can’t make real progress. When a task is done to an acceptable standard, perfectionists waste time on minor details, and their overall productivity suffers.

Perfectionists experience anxiety and stress over unimportant things. Nobody is perfect, and nothing you do will ever be faultless. Rather than moving on when the jobs done, they fixate on the negative.

Clinical psychologist Alice Boyes puts it best:

“Perfectionism is often driven by striving for excellence, but it can be self-sabotaging if it leads to suboptimal behavior like continuing habits beyond their usefulness, overdelivering when you don’t have to, or overthinking every decision you make.”

It Causes us to Avoid Challenges

Niki Hayatbini’s research suggests perfectionism stems from a deficiency in cognitive flexibility. This leads to all or nothing thinking; you either pass or fail, something is either perfect or it’s not. There is no in-between. Perfection is near impossible to achieve. With their cognitive inflexibility, most think that no matter what they do they will fail.

As a result, perfectionism leads to procrastination. When they think something is too difficult or impossible, they decide to put it off until later. Others avoid taking on challenges altogether, as they try to “win by not losing.”  

It’s Damaging to our Mental Health

Rather than appreciating the world as it is, perfectionism tells us to discount reality by comparing it to the “perfect world,” or an impossible standard. That can be extremely damaging to our mental health. Rather than stopping to relax and truly appreciate the world around them, perfectionists are constantly stressing over the imperfections around them.

When they fail to reach impossible standards, they are forced to adopt a number of defense tactics to save themselves from embarrassment. They try to push the task to the back of their mind. In the long run, this leads to a heightened level of stress and worry.

It’s no surprise that the World Health Organization links perfectionism with depression, suicidal thoughts, and a number of anxiety disorders.

How to Battle Perfectionism

Now we know the negative impact that perfectionism has on our life, we can work on combatting it.

1. Stop Ruminating

As we have already identified, most perfectionists are constantly analyzing and overthinking problems, without ever arriving at a solution. According to writer Rebecca Black, ruminating is closely linked with anxiety and is extremely unproductive, so we need to break the cycle.

You can stop dwelling on imperfections by distracting yourself with another cognitively absorbing task. Rather than overthinking or overanalyzing something, once you’ve completed a task, distract yourself with a podcast or go for a walk with a friend. Because, according to Aytekin Tank:

“Spending even a short time on a mundane task can get you out of the negative headspace that leads to obsessing over details.”

Use FocusMe

Distracting yourself can be difficult, especially when you’re absorbed by perfectionism. When you’ve completed a digital task: like a University essay or a work report, we recommend using Blocker Software like FocusMe. Once the task is done, you can block it out, which will prevent you from returning to it and dwelling on the details.

2. Track Your Progress

To overcome perfectionism, you need to fight back against all-or-nothing thinking. Just because something is imperfect, doesn’t mean you have failed. To do so, Black recommends taking a “weekly review” to assess how far you’ve come and the things you have achieved. 

Even if you’ve fallen short of an impossible standard, by reminding yourself of your progress, you can retrain your mind to focus on the positive, rather than dwelling on the negative.

Better still, doing so will enable you to see how your past failings helped you learn from your mistakes. In doing so, you can slowly view failure as a positive – an opportunity to learn something new – rather than a sign that you have failed.

3. Create a Reason to Move On

Given all the time in the world, most of us probably would be perfectionists. We would spend hours on end perfecting that business report or that University essay. But we don’t have all the time in the world, with the deadline fast approaching, we do the best we can in the time available, hand in the finished product and forget about it. As we can’t change it past the due date, dwelling on it would be pointless.

Not every aspect of life is like this. But to prevent yourself from re-working something until it’s “perfect” you might benefit from creating a self-imposed deadline. Set a timer or pencil in a deadline date in your calendar. Whatever you do, just move on once your allocated time has passed.