A per­fect storm

Set­ting un­rea­son­ably high stan­dards isn’t a badge of hon­our, writes Katie Byrne

Irish Independent - Health & Living - - WELLBEING -

IONCE spent six months look­ing for a sofa. Fur­ni­ture show­rooms were searched, cus­tom sofa web­sites were scanned and, still, I couldn’t find any­thing that hit the hat-trick of com­fort, style and value. Even­tu­ally, af­ter a half-year of nit­pick­ing and hair-split­ting, a sofa was pur­chased. You would think, with all that fuss, that it now takes pride of place in my liv­ing room. On the contrary, I wish I could send it back...

I’m shar­ing this story be­cause I think it ex­em­pli­fies the great myth of per­fec­tion­ism. There is an ill-founded idea that the per­fec­tion­ist’s metic­u­lous na­ture leads to su­pe­rior re­sults. The truth, how­ever, is that it is more likely to lead to in­de­ci­sion, pro­cras­ti­na­tion and dis­in­cli­na­tion.

There are two types of per­fec­tion­ism. Adap­tive per­fec­tion­ists have high stan­dards but they can make peace with less-than-per­fect. Mal­adap­tive per­fec­tion­ists, on the other hand, have un­re­al­is­ti­cally high stan­dards — and they can’t even con­tem­plate the pos­si­bil­ity of less-than-per­fect.

Brené Brown puts it an­other way in The Gifts of Im­per­fec­tion: “Healthy striv­ing is self-fo­cused: ‘How can I im­prove?’” she writes. “Per­fec­tion­ism is other-fo­cused: ‘What will they think?’

“Per­fec­tion­ism is not the same thing as striv­ing to be your best,” she adds. “Per­fec­tion­ism is the be­lief that if we live per­fect, look per­fect, and act per­fect, we can min­imise or avoid the pain of blame, judge­ment, and shame.”

Per­fec­tion­ism — the un­healthy kind — is no badge of hon­our. The trait has been linked to anx­i­ety, de­pres­sion, ad­dic­tion, per­sis­tent insomnia and early mor­tal­ity.

It ham­pers cre­ativ­ity too. Artists, when star­ing at a blank can­vas and seek­ing in­spi­ra­tion, often re­mind one an­other to “just start” — they can al­ways tweak later. But the mal­adap­tive per­fec­tion­ist can’t work this way: they ei­ther have a di­rect line to the elu­sive ‘muse’, or else they spend vast amounts of time pro­cras­ti­nat­ing.

In­deed, when the late man­age­ment con­sul­tant, Peter Drucker, said: “There is noth­ing so use­less as doing ef­fi­ciently that which need not be done at all”, he was prob­a­bly talk­ing about the per­fec­tion­ists who spend hours draw­ing up colour-coded to-do lists, rather than just get­ting to work.

Per­fec­tion­ists have ex­cep­tion­ally high stan­dards, but meet­ing those stan­dards is an­other mat­ter al­to­gether. They can get so caught up in the de­tail that they lose sight of the big pic­ture.

Worse, in the fu­tile pur­suit of per­fec­tion, they can miss dead­lines, aban­don goals and spend six months search­ing for a sofa that doesn’t ac­tu­ally ex­ist…

Re­cov­er­ing per­fec­tion­ists will prob­a­bly agree with Brown’s de­scrip­tion of per­fec­tion­ism as a “self-de­struc­tive and ad­dic­tive be­lief sys­tem”. How­ever, those still in the mind­set’s in­sid­i­ous grip may not re­alise just how paralysing per­fec­tion­ism can be.

Mis­con­cep­tions com­pound the is­sue. So­ci­ety glo­ri­fies per­fec­tion­ism as some sort of Type A su­per­power, hence the dark side of per­fec­tion­ism often gets over­looked. And that’s where the trou­ble be­gins. “If you don’t man­age to re­frame per­fec­tion­ism as a dam­ag­ing and in­fe­rior mind­set,” writes Stephen Guise in How to Be an Im­per­fec­tion­ist, “the il­lu­sion of its su­pe­ri­or­ity will thwart your de­sired changes.”

In other words, mal­adap­tive per­fec­tion­ists have to start think­ing of per­fec­tion­ism as their fa­tal flaw rather than their com­pet­i­tive edge. Like­wise, they have to learn how to make trade­offs and ac­cept ‘good enough’ from time to time.

Barry Schwartz, au­thor of The Para­dox of Choice, de­scribes per­fec­tion­ists as ‘max­imis­ers’ in this re­gard.

Faced with a choice, the per­fec­tion­ist will thor­oughly ex­plore ev­ery pos­si­ble op­tion, even if the process is te­dious and tir­ing.

‘Sat­is­fi­cers’, on the other hand, will make their de­ci­sion as soon as their spe­cific cri­te­ria are met, and they don’t ag­o­nise over the op­tions that they might have missed out on.

Un­sur­pris­ingly, sat­is­fi­cers tend to be hap­pier than max­imis­ers. “One of the rea­sons that max­i­miz­ers are less happy, less sat­is­fied with their lives, and more de­pressed than sat­is­fi­cers,” writes Schwartz, “is pre­cisely be­cause the taint of trade-offs and op­por­tu­nity costs washes out much that should be sat­is­fy­ing about the de­ci­sions they make.”

The tyranny of choice that the dig­i­tal age of­fers makes be­ing a max­imiser even more chal­leng­ing. If you’re the type of per­son who be­comes over­whelmed by the dizzy­ing ar­ray of op­tions, Schwartz sug­gests spend­ing some time get­ting to know yourself and what you care about. “Think about oc­ca­sions in life when you set­tle, com­fort­ably, for ‘good enough’,” he writes. “Scru­ti­nise how you choose in those ar­eas; then ap­ply that strat­egy more broadly.”

Per­fec­tion­ists also tend to be peo­ple-pleasers, so learn­ing how to as­sertively say no will help you es­tab­lish bound­aries and stop feel­ing like you have to be all things to all peo­ple.

Giv­ing yourself per­mis­sion to make mis­takes is equally im­por­tant. Try adding phrases like, ‘I don’t know’, ‘I got that wrong’, and ‘my mis­take’ to your vo­cab­u­lary, and no­tice how lib­er­at­ing it feels to say them.

Cru­cially, per­fec­tion­ists have to ex­plore their def­i­ni­tion of ‘enough’. Oth­er­wise they’ll con­tinue try­ing to reach the un­reach­able, and no mat­ter how hard they try, it will never be enough.

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