Perfectionism has traditionally been seen as a bad thing. A character defect. A “fast track” to unhappiness, depression, and anxiety. The enemy of creativity, innovation, productivity, rainbows, bunny rabbits, grape soda, and all that is good in the world.
So as an alternative, we are encouraged to ease up on those unreasonable standards, let the mistakes go, and accept that coloring outside the lines is not the end of the world.
But anything that sniffs of lowering one’s standards triggers a whole set of alarms in any good overachiever’s head.
What?! Be ok with making mistakes? Pshaw.
Well, the good news is that we may not have to throw out all of perfectionism quite yet. Perfectionism is not as black and white as we may have thought.
Many aspects are indeed associated with the scary not-so-good things we usually hear about. But other aspects of perfectionism are actually linked to positive things and higher levels of performance and achievement.
So…is it possible to make perfectionism work for us?
Two dimensions of perfectionism
In recent years, researchers have begun to take a closer look at the complexity of perfectionism.
There are two main dimensions of perfectionism, each of which appears to have a different effect on not just our mental and emotional health, but our performance too.
One dimension involves having high standards of performance, and striving to meet these standards (“perfectionistic strivings”).
The other dimension is all the worrying we do about mistakes, the disappointment and frustrations of falling short, and fears about what others will think of us (“perfectionistic concerns”).
The problem is that while perfectionistic strivings are associated with positive characteristics like greater intrinsic motivation, effort, and satisfaction with life, perfectionistic concerns are associated with greater anxiety, distress, depression, disordered eating, and more.
If you feel like you can relate to both parts, that’s because they often go hand in hand. The danger with perfectionism is that most folks who are high in perfectionistic strivings are also high in perfectionistic concerns.
Perfectionism and performance anxiety
To parse this out further, a group of Swedish researchers categorized their elite athlete participants into one of the following four groups, to see what kind of impact the various combination of perfectionistic dimensions would have on their pre-performance anxiety.
Group 1: High perfectionistic strivings + low perfectionistic concerns (“healthy” perfectionists)
Group 2: High perfectionistic strivings + high perfectionistic concerns (“unhealthy” perfectionists)
Group 3: Low perfectionistic strivings + high perfectionistic concerns (“pure evaluative concerns perfectionists”)
Group 4: Low perfectionistic strivings + low perfectionistic concerns (“non-perfectionists”)
As you can probably guess, the high/low “healthy” perfectionists in Group 1 had the highest levels of self-confidence, and the lowest levels of anxiety.
Next in line were the non-perfectionist athletes in Group 4, followed by the “unhealthy” perfectionists in Group 2.
The athletes in Group 3, who were low in perfectionistic strivings but highly concerned with avoiding mistakes and the consequence of failure, were most prone to experiencing performance anxiety.
So if you have ever wondered why you’ve done pretty well in auditions where you went in with low expectations, not really caring how things worked out, this might provide some clues.
The holy grail, of course, is to go in with exacting standards and a strong commitment to achieving them, but without being overwhelmed by concerns about what the panel will think or the possible outcomes at stake.
Because all else being equal, the so-called healthy perfectionist is probably going to outperform the non-perfectionist (and good luck getting into a non-perfectionist mindset on command anyway).
Perfectionism and performance
Though what we’re probably most curious about is how these dimensions of perfectionism are related to our level of performance, there actually aren’t many studies which have looked at this.
However, the few that are out there suggest that athletes high in perfectionistic strivings do outperform athletes who are low in perfectionist strivings – both in practice and in competition.
So ultimately, the idea of lowering our standards or perfectionistic strivings is probably not going to help us play at a higher level under pressure. The key lies in finding a way to lower our perfectionistic concerns, while keeping our standards of excellence intact.
How can we lessen our worries, fears about being judged, and doubts about our ability to meet our standards?
1. Change our language
I’m not sure if the word perfectionist is particularly helpful. Even when we’re talking about the “good” kind. With so much baggage associated with the word, I think the difference between striving for excellence vs. demanding absolute flawlessness can easily get lost.
Tal Ben-Shahar‘s word “optimalism” might be a more helpful term. The idea is that while perfectionism is about an all-out effort to avoid failure, optimalism is about relentlessly trending toward the realization of excellence, and rolling with the punches that we will inevitably experience along the way.
2. Target the precursors of perfectionism
Rather than lowering our standards, a more effective course of action might be to question why we feel the need to establish such high standards in the first place. What we are trying to prove, or gain, by beating ourselves up for the slightest perceived “failure?”
Is it a need for acceptance? To be seen and heard and valued?
How can we shift to a place of wanting high standards because we care about and extract great meaning and intrinsic value from the act of honing our craft, as opposed to needing to set and meet these Ã¼ber-high standards so we might one day feel like a valuable and worthwhile musician, colleague, teacher, or human being?
3. Reevaluate our values and definitions of success
What if we defined success in terms that wouldn’t leave room for perfectionistic concerns? Meaning, what if our standards of excellence were so high, that “failure” or falling short of the target was a built-in necessity?
Basketball great Clyde Drexler once argued that turnovers aren’t as bad as people often make them out to be, saying “Show me a guy who’s not turning the ball over, and I’ll show you a guy who’s not doing anything.”
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
Indeed. What if success were defined not in terms of critical acclaim or achieving perfection, but in “daring greatly?”