The paradox of perfectionism

A little perfectionistic, just being “normal” perfectionistic, there’s not much wrong with that, you might think? As long as you don’t overdo it and are not too neurotic about striving for perfection.

Here is the deal: that is not true.

Professor of psychology Joachim Stoeber short-circuited the distinction between “normal” and “neurotic” perfectionism early this century. There is only one kind of perfectionism, but, he says: perfectionism is two-dimensional. The first aspect is: striving for unachievably high ideals, called perfectionistic strivings. Note that this is not about high standards or a well-developed sense of quality. It is about striving for unachievable ideals, for flawlessness. Setting the bar so high that you know in advance that you wil not be able to achieve the goal. And should you unexpectedly reach this ideal, then raising the bar a notch higher.

The second aspect is about worrying about the judgment of others or yourself. This is what is called perfectionistic concerns. You can recognize this by that annoying, ever-present little voice in your head that keeps asking, “What will people think?”

That question produces an inner dialogue, whether or not anyone else actually has expressed an opinion or judgment.

Doing only the healthy part?

The question of course arises whether it is possible to cultivate only the first dimension of perfectionism. Just the pursuit of that high ideal, without being concerned with what others think about anything. But that’s not how it works. Perfectionism, Stoeber says, exists only when both aspects are in play. And this has big implications.

The price of perfectionism

In addition to effects on mental and physical health, perfectionism also has negative effects on the quality of work. The focus on perfection leads to an excessive focus on uncertainty and the reduction of it and a fixation on the possibility
that mistakes are made. The cognitive abilities of perfectionists are used primarily for the prevention of change, fretting about possible setbacks and failures. This leads to little brain capacity remaining for thinking about creative solutions and innovations, resulting in a negative effect on problem-solving ability. Also, perfectionists sometimes choose to miss opportunities and chances, fearing they will not succeed. The work that perfectionists do is checked and controlled by them over and over again, even when it is no longer necessary and adds little. The energy that goes into this excessive control is not available for other work.

The perfection paradox

This is the perfection paradox is: the relentless pursuit of the unachievable ideal that is perfection, ultimately leads to a lower result than would be possible. Perfectionism is not good, for no one. Not for yourself, not for your work and results, not for your social relationships. So there is reason enough to start working on letting it go.

This is why I wrote a book about the paradox of perfectionism: The Perfection Paradox. In it you will discover exactly what perfectionism is, what forms it takes, why we think it makes us better and how harmful it is. Plus you will get practical tips for letting go of your own perfectionism. Read more about the book The Perfection Paradox here.

Read blogs like this more often? Browse this website. There is more information like this! Based on scientific insights and practically translated into actions for every day. A different perspective on how you do things and an invitation to make courageous choices. Let me know what you think!

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