Perfectionism is the wrong strategy for excellence

Perfectionism is a cognitive pattern, with behavioral implications, that maintains many different responses leading to anxiety.

You can think about perfectionism as a problem of strategy, not outcome. Many perfectionists struggle to challenge their perfectionism because they’re afraid that it will lead to dropping their standards. They will no longer be striving for excellence. The most important concept here is: We are challenging the strategies you use to strive for excellence. We are not challenging the idea that you should strive for excellence.

When your strategies for trying to arrive at excellence are undermining your goals, then we consider that perfectionism. The goal is to be on the lookout for anxiety driven behavior that undermines your overall goals, it is not to make your work mediocre.

We’re still striving for productive work. We’re still striving for excellence. We’re just trying to use strategies that actually allow us to get there in the long term. When I’m thinking about clinical perfectionism, I’m going to start with the underlying fears that drive the compulsive behaviors.

There are four main fears that I see most frequently as the drivers of perfectionism. 

The four main fears are:

  • Fear of evaluation
  • Inflated responsibility
  • Intolerance of uncertainty
  • Perfectionism about the “just right” feeling

These should be pretty familiar concepts to those of you that have been with me for a while, but let’s just apply a perfectionistic lens to them.

If your underlying fear is a fear of evaluation — either fear of failure or fear of success — then you might think, “I want perfect performance in order to avoid a judgment, rejection, or the feeling of embarrassment.

If you have this fear and this thinking pattern, then the behavioral manifestations or implications of it would likely show up as checking and rechecking your work, getting reassurance from your co-workers, avoiding tasks, or doing tasks at the last minute. When you are doing tasks at the last minute, you avoid them up to the point where you have to do them, rather than having a priority-based effort that is not contingent on the deadline.

The next fear is inflated responsibility. This thinking for this one is more like, “If I make a mistake, will it harm someone? I want to avoid — I want to be perfect — so that I don’t harm anyone.” This might show up in behavior similar to fear of evaluation. It could be checking and rechecking work, getting reassurance from co-workers or your manager, doing tasks at the last minute, or avoiding tasks altogether.

The difference would be the exposure. For inflated responsibility, you want exposure to the feeling of guilt and to the thinking of the possibility of harm. For fear of evaluation, you want exposure to the feeling of embarrassment and to thinking of the possibility of judgment and rejection.

The next use of perfectionistic strategies is to reduce uncertainty. This might sound like, “If I could just make the perfect decision, then I wouldn’t feel so uncertain.

In this case, my response is, “No, no, no, the decision is inherently uncertain. For most decisions in life, there’s no clear right answer. The more that you try to be perfect the more uncertain you’re going to feel.” The exposure would be to try to see what parts of any given decision are inherently uncertain. Then  do the best you can to problem-solve the things that can be problem solved and let go of the things that you can’t control.

Finally, the fourth form of OCD perfectionism is seeking the “just right” feeling. In this case, exposure is not typically to a fear. People won’t describe any type of catastrophe that they fear. They just want the “click” of a task feeling complete. I’ve noticed that people who experience this tend to feel ashamed of it or experience it as ego-dystonic, especially when it really gets in the way of their life. They might even notice that they have tasks where they either have diminishing returns or they’re not able to execute and complete things in a timely way, because they’re trying to get the feeling of it being complete. They think, “Why do I have to keep going? Even though I really want this feeling, I don’t like it that I have to keep going!” 

A good way to get through this is to validate the skills and the values behind it. 

For instance, people that have OCD tend to value and behave in a detail-oriented, creative, persistent and conscientious manner. It is not OCD that makes you this way. You still have all of these values and attributes without your OCD. That said, you don’t have to do what your OCD tells you to do in order to live these values. In fact, you can get control of these attributes by challenging the OCD when it tells you that you have to finish something to completeness. 

The way to challenge the OCD is to say, “I still am striving for excellence. I still want to be detail-oriented but I don’t have to get the “click” feeling. In fact, waiting for the click or the feeling of completeness is actually undermining my striving for excellence.” 

To review the self-talk:

If your fear is evaluation, then your self-talk is going to sound like, “I want to be embarrassed. I want to live with the possibility of rejection. I’m going to go towards situations where I can see that the chance of rejection is possible.

If your underlying fear is inflated responsibility, you want your self-talk to be, “The feeling of guilt doesn’t mean I’ve done something wrong. I can live with the possibility of making a mistake that harms people in order to live by my values. I want to be able to do this action and live with the possibility that I’m going to harm someone and so even if I have the feeling of guilt, it doesn’t again mean that I’ve done something wrong.

If the fear is intolerance of uncertainty, then you want to live in your decision. Your self-talk will be, “I’m making a decision and I’m living in it. Uncertainty is evidence of my growth, not a problem for me to solve.

If the fear is based on the need for a just right feeling, your self-talk is going to be, “It’s okay for me to have this ‘just right’ urge right now. I’m going to have diminishing returns if I keep going, though. So, it’s an exposure or it’s a value based behavior for me to not get the click.

Generally speaking, perfectionistic work sounds like, “I must do this urgently. I must do it perfectly. I’m not going to stop until it feels just right.”

Productive work sounds like, “I’m going to prioritize based on my values and accept that I have limitations. Just because my mind thinks I can do something better doesn’t mean I have to do it. In fact, it definitely doesn’t mean I have to do it. If my perfectionism makes it hard for me to know when to stop, I’m going to use a conscientious model, which is a person who I respect doing the same type of task. I’m going to use what I know about how they behave as an example for deciding when it’s okay for me to stop. I’m willing to experiment and take risks knowing that I have to accept where I am to get where I’m going next. Rather than avoiding or bracing against feedback, I want collaboration so that I can grow.”