“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.
This is backed up by studies which claim that perfectionism is the next leading cause of depression, besides genetics, according to several studies done by mental health professionals.
Yet I perceive perfectionism to be a positive trait, if correctly expressed.
Whenever I reflect on the positive aspects of perfectionism, I’m reminded of all the amazing inventions, artwork and scientific discoveries that emerged from the efforts of people who had high standards.
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 luminaries weren’t led by a relentless drive for perfection. 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, its the force that can propel us to perform our best. In today’s economy, it’s also essential.
If we desire to be in the top 5-10% of our profession or vocation, we need to be at the top of our game and be exceptional. You can’t stand out if you’re blasé and half-hearted in your efforts towards reaching a challenging goal.
Now here’s the tricky part: there exists two sides to the perfectionist’s coin, which usually go hand in hand. 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’re 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. Through my personal experiences, I’ve realized that if we can remain mindful, we’ll be able to tap into the positive facets of perfectionism. Here are a few ways you can achieve this:
1. Slow down and take breaks: Most perfectionists are constantly on the go and preoccupied with taking the next step. If you relate to this, it’s 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.
2. Embrace your standards for excellence: Perfectionists have the drive, passion and focus to remain at the top of their game. They have 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 during their conquests. Manage your anxiety and need-for-speed and you’ll be well on your way towards your vision, without losing steam in the process.
3. 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 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’s critical that we are clear about our intentions because it will infuse our spirit with different energies.
4. 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.
4. 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 is what will ultimately feed our spirit.
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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