How Can You Cope With Increasing Perfectionistic Demands?
Practical imperfectionism can help reduce the problems of perfectionism.
Posted February 25, 2023 | Reviewed by Vanessa Lancaster
- Perfectionism is a personality trait that sets unrealistically high expectations for oneself and others. It can negatively impact mental health.
- Practical imperfectionism means making room for all imperfections that make us human.
- Practical imperfectionism and recognizing efforts are "good enough," can be an antidote to the unhealthy parts of perfectionism.
“I need to finish this project,” Almira* said, “but I keep reading it over and finding better ways to describe what we’re doing. My supervisor says I’m being overly perfectionistic. I don’t even know what that means.”
Nan* was looking for a chair for her living room. “I can’t find the right one. I spend almost every night online, looking at armchairs, wingback chairs, stressless chairs. I have to keep looking because nothing is exactly right.”
Doug* described himself as an anxious mess. “I feel like I never do anything as well as I should be doing it,” he said. “I don’t live up to my expectations. Everyone keeps telling me I’m doing a great job, but they don’t hold me to high enough standards. I could be doing so much better than I am.”
Perfectionism Takes Different Forms
Almira, Nan, and Doug struggled with perfectionism, although each had a slightly different form. But what would happen if they each embraced their "imperfectness?"
Historically perfectionism has been defined as setting unrealistically high expectations for oneself and others. Perfectionists "are quick to find fault and be overly critical of mistakes." It can, therefore, negatively impact an individual’s mental health.
Perfectionism got worse, particularly in young people, during the pandemic.
Researchers have found that perfectionism and related self-destructive behaviors have increased over the past decades. It got worse, especially among young people, during the pandemic.
But recently, researchers have begun teasing out different aspects of this phenomenon. While some forms of perfectionism diminish self-esteem and increase self-defeating behaviors, some apparently increase self-esteem and satisfaction with oneself and one’s performance.
These differences led one group of researchers to develop something they dubbed “the almost perfect scale,” which measures links between perfectionism, self-esteem, GPA, depression, and worry in college students. The study underscores the complexity of perfectionism.
Burnout and Perfectionism
Another group of researchers studied burnout in workers during the pandemic. They describe burnout as “overwhelming exhaustion, feelings of cynicism and detachment from the job, and a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment.” These feelings seemed higher in people who had what they called “perfectionistic concerns,” that is, constantly preoccupied with perfection, than in people who worked hard to be as good as they could be. This difference seems connected to something I wrote about in a PT blog post eight years ago: worrying about being perfect interferes with our ability to enjoy being “good enough.”
"Good enough" Is Often Better Than Perfect
In the years since I wrote that post, I have continued to see that happiness comes not from perfection but from being as good as you can be at any given moment. In our highly demanding world, it's often hard to remember that even if perfection were achievable, it isn’t lasting. There’s always something else after any achievement. Something more to do. Something more to learn. Something more to achieve.
One of my clients recently dubbed this awareness “practical imperfectionism.”
Practical imperfectionism means making room for all imperfections that make us human. Furthermore, it brings home the reality that imperfections make life interesting. As the psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott pointed out many years ago, imperfections spur us to grow. You might imagine that if everything was perfect if you were perfect and your life was perfect, you’d be able to relax. You’d be content. But would you? Or would you start looking for something interesting, challenging, or maybe even difficult to do?
Practical imperfectionism gives you the opportunity to relax sometimes, even when you haven’t done all your tasks. You can still feel good about yourself even when you haven't completely polished a proposal, found the perfect chair, or done the laundry or the dishes. Sure, it would be nice to have all those things done, but isn’t it also nice to spend some time just reading? Or watching your favorite show or listening to your favorite podcast? Reading aloud to your kids while they’re still young enough to enjoy it? Chatting casually with your teen instead of pushing them to do something to make themselves perfect?
I’m not suggesting that you stop trying to be as good as you can possibly be at whatever tasks you set for yourself. But practical imperfectionism can help you be more satisfied, content, and even more productive. And isn’t that–just perfect?
*names and identifying info changed to protect privacy
Fang, T. and Liu, F. (2022) A Review on Perfectionism. Open Journal of Social Sciences, 10, 355-364. doi: 10.4236/jss.2022.101027.
Spagnoli Paola, Buono Carmela, Kovalchuk Liliya Scafuri, Cordasco Gennaro, Esposito Anna (2021) Perfectionism and Burnout During the COVID-19 Crisis: A Two-Wave Cross-Lagged Study
Frontiers in Psychology VOLUME=11