"The need to be perfect is often driven more by fear of failure or disapproval than the joy of achieving one's goals."
~ Bill Crawford

“The need to be perfect is often driven more by fear of failure or disapproval than the joy of achieving one’s goals.”
~ Bill Crawford

The Addictive Nature of Perfectionism

Perfectionism is an often discussed topic with many suggesting that it is something to be avoided, while perfectionists would say it is simply them striving to be their best. Unfortunately, the discussion often stops there, with both sides believing that they are right. I suggest we go beyond the “who’s right” debate and dig deeper to determine whether we should embrace the concept of perfectionism and/or whether we would recommend it to someone we love.

Of course, the desire to do your best is something no one would argue against. We have all seen people who seem not to care about the quality of their work or efforts, and all recognize that this is not a good idea. The question we must ponder is whether perfectionism is the best alternative to this sort of apathy.

For myself, I come down on the side that suggests that perfectionism is not a good idea, and that there is a better alternative. One reason I do not recommend perfectionism is that it is rarely, if ever, achievable. Mistakes are inevitable, and, therefore, setting our goal as being perfect immediately sets us up for failure. Another reason I don’t like perfectionism as a driver of effort is that it seems to be driven more by the fear of failure than the desire to succeed. Plus, it tends to be addictive. In other words, when we fail to achieve some goal… a good grade, a promotion, the approval of others, etc., we tend to think that we were just not “perfect” enough. This often triggers another round of fear-based striving, and a cycle is created and exacerbated (this perspective is taken from Brené Brown’s books and videos).

So, what is the alternative? I suggest the concept of healthy striving (again, inspired by Brené Brown) is a better choice for several reasons. One, it is more about the process than the outcome. This means that it is an aspect of life over which we have more influence. Two, because it takes the inevitability of mistakes into the picture, and sets us up to learn and improve versus beat ourselves up for not being perfect.

In other words, it actually helps us become better! When we try our best but still fall short of the goal, we can look at that process with new awareness. We can ask the question: “Okay, knowing what I know now, how do I want to do this differently in the future?” From a neuroscience perspective, this means looking at the process of growth from the aware, conscious brain (what I call the “Top of the Mind”) versus the lower, reactive, fear-based part of the brain, and this allows us to make better choices about the future.

As today’s quote suggests, the need to be perfect is driven more by fear of failure or disapproval than the joy of achieving one’s goals, and given that we don’t want to be driven by fear or always trying to attain the unattainable, I suggest that we choose love instead… love of heathy striving, of learning, of seeing life not as a series of goals to be achieved, but a process where we accept the fact that we are human and respond with compassion, forgiveness, and enthusiasm for taking our learning and applying it to the next decision. For, after all, isn’t that what we would recommend to someone we love?

~ All the best, Dr. Bill