Perfection, the enemy of good mental health
Perfectionism is the belief that perfection should be strived for and that anything less than perfect is unacceptable. We’ve all heard the words, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right.”
Perfectionism involves the tendency to evaluate negatively outcomes and one’s own performance, intense anxiety and avoidance of evaluation of one’s abilities by others, heightened social self-consciousness, recurrent low mood and workaholism.
At adaptive nonpathological levels, it can drive people to accomplishments and sustain motivation to persevere in the face of obstacles and discouragement. In its maladaptive, pathological form, it results in debilitating levels of procrastination as a coping mechanism for overwhelming stress and anxiety. It can take the form of “I can’t start my project until I know the right way to do it,” and self-deprecation when it is used to excuse poor performance or to seek sympathy from other people.
In the workplace, perfectionism is often marked by low levels of productivity as individuals concentrate on small, less relevant details of the larger, more urgent task or project requiring completion, focusing on the trees versus the proverbial forest.
Procrastination seems almost a natural outgrowth of perfectionism in that perfectionists would rather have others say they lacked effort rather than ability. The problem arises when the desire to preserve a sense of self-worth that hinges on the expectations of others leads to such contortions of delay that the stress and guilt of perpetual postponement become incapacitating. However, Dr. Pier Steel, a University of Calgary professor and probably the foremost expert on procrastination, reminds us that perfectionism is not the culprit of procrastination. There can be other forces driving it, including task aversion, impulsivity, distractibility and just plan lack of motivation to achieve. The key to procrastination is that the person believes it would be better to start working on a given task immediately, but still does not start. Regardless, procrastination is a behavioral condition that reflects low frustration tolerance — a perception of negativity or unpleasantness with respect to some aspect of a task that is avoided through diversion. Unfortunately, frustration is a recurrent fact of life that at some point requires the procrastinator to learn frustration tolerance skills in order to function in a healthy manner in the world. In sum, while procrastination is a behavioral condition, in it chronic form, it is likely a sign of an underlying psychological or physical disorder — such as anxiety, depression or ADHD — that can and should be treated with medication and/or therapy.
Peggy Nolen is a licensed professional counselor in Covington. Her areas of focus include depression, anxiety, recovery from traumatic experience and problems with drugs and/or alcohol. She can be reached at (770) 314-5924.