Note to Perfectionists: Don’t Try to Improve!

Perfectionists make the error of “trying to improve.” Their motivation is one of good intentions, but as the saying goes, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Perfectionists will try to improve not for an objective reason, that can be proven, but simply for the emotional sake of improving.

For example, “That picture on the wall is crooked. It should be straightened.” This is a

provable fact. If the picture is, in fact, crooked, it should be made straight. This isn’t perfectionism; this is simply reasonable, because it’s objectively provable. If the picture on the wall is, in fact, perfectly straight — and the perfectionist FEELS it should be made better — then you’re talking about irrational perfectionism.

Imagine you prepared a meal for guests. The meal was perfect. All of the guests’ feedback was positive, and you know they were right. Nevertheless, when you plan to make the meal for a different dinner party you think, “It could somehow be improved.” And you set out to improve it. How? That’s never precisely and objectively defined, by your mind. You simply feel that you can, and you must. The end result is that you do something to the original dish that wasn’t necessary — or was even harmful; perhaps adding too much salt. Yes, you achieved change for the sake of change. But you did not move towards perfection. In fact, you undercut your previous success.

Now apply these examples of meals and picture hanging to all of life, and you’ll get the idea.

Perfectionism is based on irrational beliefs. One irrational belief is, “I can and should improve this, regardless of objective proof.” Actually, the burden of proof for improving something should always be on the person insisting that improvement is both possible and necessary.

You can get around perfectionism not by getting rid of your high standards. Why do that? There’s nothing wrong with high standards, and there’s much good about them. But high standards are objective ones. The way to be objective is to say to yourself, “I feel like I can improve this. But can I, really? What objectively needs improving? And is it necessary?”

In the meal example, it would lead to the following: “Everyone loved the meal. I know they were sincere, and I know they were right. I cannot think of a single thing to do differently this time. Perhaps over more time I’ll discover something; I’m not sure. But for now, I’m keeping it just as it is.”

Perfectionists are well advised to tell themselves, “Don’t try to improve.” But there has to be a context for this. Improvement is fine, when you have proof it’s necessary and possible. You might put it in courtroom lingo, as follows: “Doesn’t need improvement until proven otherwise.”

A lot of people say they have problems with self-esteem. What they mean by this is, “No matter what I do, it’s never good enough.” This is a strong indication of perfectionism at work. Somebody who always feels like “it’s never good enough, no matter what” is relying on the nonobjective, purely emotional standards of a perfectionist. It becomes a self-esteem issue when the person doesn’t merely feel that the picture or the meal preparation is never good enough — but that nothing is, including his or her very self. Psychologists are quick to label everything a self-esteem issue, but they never explain for you the underlying cause. I just did — one of the most common underlying causes, at least. And no pill will fix it. You have to fix your own thinking, in this respect. Yes, it takes time and effort, but only you can do it.

Opponents of perfectionism (myself excluded) typically give the quest to strive for excellence a bad name. They say, in effect, ‘Don’t be a perfectionist. Relax your standards.’ This undermines not only the irrationality of perfectionism, but also a rational sense of wanting to do things well, and right. This is completely wrong, and even toxic. Doing things right is a component of pride and self-respect, which in turn foster self-esteem. It isn’t necessary to give up your high standards. What’s necessary is to make sure you can PROVE those standards, and apply them only when it’s rational to do so.