“People call me a perfectionist, but I’m not. I’m a rightist – I do something until its right.” – James Cameron
Perfectionism has always had a bad rap in our society. The mere mention of the word elicits bleak visions of weary and worn-out individuals who are painstakingly trying to reach seemingly impossible standards. It comes as no surprise that perfectionism is the next leading cause of depression, besides genetics, according to several studies done by mental health professionals.
There is so much baggage attached to the word perfectionism that I was initially hesitant to use it in this piece, but I decided to go ahead, as it was the only way I could emphasize my perspective on it. You see, I perceive perfectionism to be a double-edged sword. We can either use it to cause pain and damage, or we can wield it like a skilled Samurai soldier to produce grace and success.
Whenever I reflect on the positive manifestations of perfectionism, I think about all the amazing inventions, artwork and scientific discoveries that have been made over the ages. The splendor of the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City comes to mind. So do recent modern inventions such as the iPhone. I can imagine Beethoven and Mozart spending hours at the piano, creating their seminal symphonies.
The truth is that none of these marvelous creations would have existed if those past luminaries were not being led by a relentless drive for perfection in their passions. If we can find a way to separate the wheat from the chaff of perfection, we too can produce great work through these inclinations. Having high aspirations is not a weakness. On the contrary, it is the force that can propel us to perform our best.
If we desire to be in the top 5-10% of our profession or vocation, in today’s competitive world, it’s essential that we stay at the top of our game and be exceptional. You can’t ascend to impressive heights if you’re blasé and half-hearted in your efforts towards reaching a challenging goal. It takes courage, dedication, consistency and, most importantly, an unabating drive for excellence and high standards.
Now here’s the tricky part: there exists two sides to the perfectionist’s coin, which usually go hand in hand with an individual’s personality make-up. Research has shown that each of these two dimensions of perfectionism has a different impact on our performance, as well as our mental and emotional health.
The first dimension is called “perfectionistic strivings”, which involves setting high standards and pursuing those standards. This is the positive aspect of perfectionism that results in greater intrinsic motivation, effort and higher life satisfaction.
The second dimension is known as “perfectionistic concerns”, which represent the darker aspects of being a perfectionist – worry, disappointments, feelings of failure and falling short, and concern about what other people think about us. All these negative propensities result in feelings of stress, anxiety, depression and several negative emotions.
The key to dealing with this dichotomy of perfectionism is learning how to hold onto our high standards while taking effective measures to lower our “perfectionistic concerns”. In other words, while we are in the pursuit for excellence, we continually keep our insecurities and negative thinking patterns in check.
I’m well aware of the perils of being a perfectionist, having been plagued by its shadow side in my younger years. I was considered to be inflexible in my ways and nit-picky when I worked with others. Over the span of my personal growth, I realized that it came from a place of hurt and feeling inadequate.
Once I was able to find the root cause for my pain, I could heal, let go and allow things to take their natural course. I still continue to put my best foot forward in everything I do but I’ve learned how to loosen my grip, release my worries and surrender the outcome to a greater power.
Through my personal experiences, I’ve become intimately familiar with the emotional terrain of perfectionism and I’ve reached the conclusion that if we can remain mindful of this pattern, we will be able to lead rich and rewarding lives. Here are some ideas on how this can be accomplished:
- Accentuate the positive: Most perfectionists are constantly on the go and preoccupied with taking the next step. If you relate to this, it is essential that you slow down and take a breather so that you can acknowledge all the progress and milestones that you have achieved. Occasionally rewarding yourself for all your hard work by taking a spa day or indulging in a healthy treat can prove to be very beneficial. It will be a positive reinforcement for your behavior and also give you a boost of self-confidence.
- Embrace your standards for excellence: Perfectionists have the drive, passion and focus to remain at the top of their game. They have extremely high standards for excellence and possess the tenacity to go after what they want. They only need to learn how to maintain a sense of balance and repose during their conquests, while holding onto their rare and wonderful traits. Manage your anxiety and need-for-speed and you will be well on your way towards your grand vision without losing steam in the process.
- Be conscious of your motives: It’s critical to consider your motive behind your need for perfection. You can do this by asking yourself if you’re being driven by a spiritual quest for purpose, achievement and meaning; or if you’re being led by an ego-driven need to please so that you can be accepted and validated by others. It is critical that we are clear about our intentions because it will infuse our spirit with different energies. When perfectionism comes from a place of self-love and a foundation of self-belief, we will see more positive manifestations of our efforts, but if it stems from insecurities or fear, we will feel like we are swimming upstream and will never be satisfied with our outcomes.
- Acknowledge your vulnerability: At the core of our being, we are vulnerable individuals and we all crave a sense of belonging. No matter how tough or self-sufficient we try to look on the outside, there will always be a significant part of us that wants to be loved and seen for who we really are. A perfectionist, just like everyone else, should accept their vulnerability and be okay with getting support and help from others. They need to silence their inner critic that might belittle them whenever they commit a mistake or experience setbacks. It is essential that they learn to love themselves, no matter what the results of their efforts are. Whether things have slowed down or have fallen short of their expectations, perfectionists should avoid beating themselves up and focus on cultivating self-love and becoming their own cheerleader.
- Be flexible about the journey: Our life path will never follow a predictable and straight route. There will always be ups and downs and plenty of unexpected detours, no matter how carefully we navigate the roads. A perfectionist should certainly hold on to their vision and standards but they should be flexible about the process of getting there. Just like the Tao Te Ching suggests, we should be mighty like water but be malleable enough to flow into any crevice or vessel that it is placed in.
Most creatures on the planet are naturally driven by a positive form of perfectionism. Ants work tirelessly to gather food to feed their colony. Bees fly around flowers every day to find the best sources of nectar. Penguins waddle for miles to find food for their chicks. The only difference between us and them is that they do it for physical survival but we, on the other hand, need to do for our soul’s survival.
The sense of fulfillment that comes from knowing that we tried our best and gave life everything we’ve got is what will ultimately feed our spirit and evolve our consciousness.
All my best on your journey,
Question for you: Do you agree that there is a right way of being a perfectionist? If yes, how would you go about it?
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