Wikipedia defines perfectionism as “a personality trait characterized by a person’s striving for flawlessness and setting excessively high-performance standards, accompanied by overly critical self-evaluations and concerns regarding others’ evaluations.” Adaptive perfectionism, carried out in a positive way can drive and motivate people to reach ambitious and stretch goals. But in a maladaptive form, perfectionism – especially when projected in an unfiltered and very critical way to others – can drive people crazy and can destroy new, creative and innovative ideas.
Can we as human beings ever be perfect? Or can we never be perfect by definition?
I cannot offer right or wrong answers, but I’d love to share what I learned so far on my journey. It won’t be perfect, I guess. But I hope it’s something that inspires you to think differently about perfectionism.
We are born with a perfect system – our human body.
We are not born with all we need to know in life.
We all have to learn essentials such as sitting, walking, talking, eating and drinking, writing and reading. Later on, we learn how to drive a bike or a car, and we acquire explicit knowledge and experiences in various areas of interest. At the same time, we will always lack knowledge in other areas. We learn in many different ways, for instance by observation, by repetition, by trial and error, and by mistakes. And the list goes on and on. Remember how you learned to ride a bike. Remember your first photographs or your first pieces of writing. And then, years later: look at what you create now and how you create now. That will be different. Often very different. And that’s good news. It means that learning, development, and growth have happened. And all of that happens in iterations, triggered by inspirations, by conflicts or by a situation that forces us to change. Also, people we meet can shape our lives, and influence or revolutionize our work. But only, if we allow other people to come so close to our heart that these changes can be triggered by them. And that’s the part that has to do with the acceptance of our vulnerability.
Does that sound “perfect”? No, I don’t think so. What bothers me most about the term “perfect” is that it excludes change, growth, and development. By definition. If something is considered to be perfect, how should it ever be advanced to a new level? No way. If something is already perfect, changes can only make it imperfect.
That’s not something I prefer. Not for who I am, not for what I do, and not for my relationships. To be precise, not for the way I relate to the very few people that are really important to me.
I was a perfectionist for many years, when I worked like crazy in a job that meant nothing to me personally, more than ten years ago. Click here for more information. In this consulting era, I was well known for being a perfectionist, especially regarding presentations for client projects. Why was I a perfectionist at this time? From today’s perspective, it’s easy to answer for me. Because I could hide myself behind my “perfectionism shield”. At this time I didn’t accept my vulnerable soul, I didn’t love myself in all aspects as I should. My consulting role at this time didn’t allow myself to be vulnerable. I was paid to function where others already failed. So, hiding my vulnerability was most important to me. And there is no better way than being a perfectionist.
What I learned is now proven by research:
“Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be our best. Perfectionism is not about healthy achievement and growth; it’s a shield.”
— Brené Brown
Striving for our best in everything we do is of course something we should aim for every day. But how we do that, how we strive for our best; that makes all the difference in all aspects of our lives.
The perfectionist way takes you in your entirety pretty much out of the equation. Perfectionism often works like a shield, seeking for acceptance and approval for what we do. Somehow, perfectionism and who we really are – these two elements don’t seem to go along pretty well because I don’t think that we as human beings can ever be perfect, as discussed above. So, being perceived perfectly means almost all the time to hide you being a human being, especially your vulnerable part. Hiding that helps to minimize critic and painful feelings of judgment. The downside is that the perfectionist way doesn’t allow you to grow, to develop your work and yourself to another level in a holistic way. Therefore, you have to be “in”; completely, with all aspects of YOU.
Striving for your best in everything you do should be based on excellence, not on perfectionism.
- Excellence is different from perfectionism.
- Excellence is a virtue.
- Excellence includes the necessity of growth.
- Excellence includes the need to develop different levels of excellence.
- Excellence happens in iterations.
Whenever I publish a blog post, this specific piece of writing, and I have gone through a few iterations. Gathering ideas, doing research, extracting the main idea and the supporting ideas, how to tell the story, and then – the first draft. Often, I walk away from the article at this point and come back a few days later. I have to digest the first draft. Sometimes, I’m still happy with the flow, and a few editing iterations follow. And sometimes, I’m not happy with the first draft, and I have to rewrite the article. Whatever the process is for whatever I publish here, I don’t click the publish button before I’m not sure that I have done my very best I’m able to do at this point.
Is that perfect? No, but it’s the best version I could create at this point; knowing that there is always room for improvement and knowing that I would probably write with a slightly different perspective within a year or two from now. And that’s good news. Because I assume to learn, to grow and to deepen my understanding and my experience. And I expect to have deeper insights the more I have the pleasure to learn and to grow in this human experience that’s called my life.
I’m happy to be able to accept my vulnerability as one of my core strengths. I’m either completely “in” or completely “out” regarding all aspects of my life. I love to strive for excellence in all those “in” areas of my life. Always.
- Perfectionism is not about change, growth and iterations, but excellence is.
- Perfectionism takes “being human” out of the equation.
- Perfectionism works as a shield to avoid judgment, shame and blame.
The pursuit of excellence – that’s what boosts your creativity in playfulness, in acceptance of who you are as a human being and in acceptance of what you do along your journey.