I received a letter from a reader to whom I responded in another local publication. She told me that her boss was a bit of a micromanager, and that she (the writer) felt insulted, i.e., she was taking her boss’ micromanaging personally.
I suggested that perhaps her boss was simply striving for perfection, and though that does have a virtuous ring to it, it is most certainly an impossible goal.
And that’s when the emails began.
Though several people proudly described themselves as “perfectionists,” my experience has shown that the majority of people who claim to strive for perfection do so in order to avoid the emotions that can accompany mistakes or failure. Perfectionism taken to the extreme seems to be less of a quest for excellence and more of a neurotic fear of missteps that might result in painful emotions.
Based on my experience, I’ve come up with a list of 5 examples of misguided self-talk that can contribute to these feelings and anxieties:
(1) “I will look bad in front of others.” In any task, the primary purpose is not to just look good. The purpose is to accomplish the task. If you’re successful, you’ll look just fine. At most, looking good in front of others is a happy side benefit of accomplishment.
(2) “An error is a delay and delays are bad.” Actually, an error simply points out that you didn’t know everything you thought you knew about the task, and that you can now take the time to correct things. Imagine you discovered you were driving in the wrong direction or on the wrong road. That discovery would be disappointing, but the time taken to correct your course is crucial and necessary.
(3) “The end result is spoiled by any disruption along the way.” This is silly. Imagine your plane flight is delayed. It’s upsetting at the time, but once you get to your destination it’s as if you never had the disruption. The two are unrelated.
(4) “Mistakes and problems are as important as success and accomplishments.” Not true. A mistake is a temporary setback. Mistakes are forgettable, other than whatever you learn from them. If a mistake is based on faulty information, you now possess the corrected information. You ultimately gained more out of the mistake than you lost.
(5) “I should have known better.” There’s really no “should” to knowing something. You know what you know. You either know enough to accomplish a certain task, or you don’t. Knowledge is neither automatic nor infallible, and it’s not a moral failure to not know something.
If you’re willing to correct your errors, internalize those corrections and move ahead, then you’re doing just fine. Fear of fallibility is irrational. We humans are subject to error, and we’re also subject to correction. That’s what reason, thinking and observation are for. The only thing “better” would be infallibility. And that’s not going to happen.
The overriding emotion of an irrational perfectionist is a terror of ‘ruining’ everything. A perfectionist feels that if she makes one mistake along the way, everything else will be wiped out. Some perfectionists are control freaks and even dictators. Many others are well-meaning, or at least start out that way. They’re simply trying to be objective and competent, but often arrive at the mistaken conclusion that it’s always a catastrophe to be wrong.
The obsessive perfectionist needs to remind him- or herself that the vast majority of mistakes are not fatal. If you’re still alive and aware of your mistake, then you’re able to dust yourself off, internalize the new knowledge that you obtained from your error, and move on. The neurotic perfectionist cannot or will not do this. Anything less than absolute perfection is morally incomprehensible. He holds himself hostage to these false beliefs, and when the inevitable mistakes do happen, anxiety, apprehension and even anger can result.
Excessive perfectionism and the quest for excellence are not the same thing. People who achieve excellence, learn from their mistakes and develop competence along the way avoid the irrational need for infallibility. Instead, they choose a life where ever-increasing knowledge leads to never-ending improvements. And as a result, they are happier, more peaceful and more competent.
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