Maladaptive Perfectionism: Why to Aim for Excellence Instead

Blog post cover image.

Maladaptive perfectionism is dangerous and has nothing to do with a strife for quality and growth. It is a symptom of deeper issues such as crave for approval, OCD, ADHD, insecurity or other disorders.

Perfectionism is mistaken for excellence. In this article you will learn what is the difference and you should strive for excellence instead.

I have been a perfectionist for long time and suffered from it both in my personal and professional life. Once I understood the downsides and overcame it, I became much more productive and happier person.

Maladaptive perfectionism

I noticed that perfectionism can cause disappointment, anxiety, fear, and self-defense. After a reflection on my past professional and personal experience, it became clear that those negative feelings do not serve my initial goal for perfectionism: become a better version of myself. I used to be obsessed with details, order, and sterility. Something's wrong if I continually feel these negative emotions while having a goal of progress in my mind. Quick research showed that I was wrong about the means of improving myself. Instead of striving for perfection, I should have focused on excellence. Perfection is tied to your self-esteem, while excellence drives your behavior.

6 reasons why perfectionism is harmful

Looking back, I remember multiple times when I felt disappointed when someone would judge my work, when I felt protective, when I did not work on an idea because I thought it's not achievable. I could not find the source for those emotions. My reasoning was that the world does not understand me and value the work I do. It turns out, my goals and the means of achieving them were wrong. If the following symptoms resonate with you, it can be partially due to perfectionism.

1. Crave for approval

Perfectionism can be a way for you to get approval. Focusing on details make you think that your work has higher chances to be approved. I often feel that my work is not good enough and, therefore, I am fixated on perfection as a means to gain respect or appreciation.

2. Feedback makes you defensive

The struggle for perfection makes you invested in the work. The expectation of approval makes you vulnerable. You think that investing a lot of effort will help you avoid criticism or increase the chances of approval. Thus, critical feedback makes you defensive rather than open to new ideas.

3. Critical to others

You think that others should also strive for perfection. Focusing on the perfection of others makes you critical and hinders you from seeing the bright side.

4. Open-mindedness

You see the journey as a straight line. It is hard to be open and see other possibilities. Due to high investment in the process, it is extremely difficult to give up on an idea, even if you know there are better options.

5. Procrastination due to All or Nothing mentality

Perfection makes you procrastinate and spend time and effort on meaningless things. Once you think that the perfect result is not possible, then you might think why bother at all? That stems from the fear of judgment, criticism, and approval. When I think that I cannot do something perfectly, it hinders me from finding another non-perfect, but optimal solution.

6. Feeling guilt

Guilt always wants to remind you that you did not achieve perfection, reinforce the feeling, and make you feel guilty again. It creates an unbreakable cycle. Feel guilt → Strife for perfectionism → Realize that it's not possible → Feel guilt again.

All of the above resonated with me in some form and explained reactions to certain events. Let's see how we can shift our focus from perfectionism to healthy strife for excellence.

How to overcome perfectionism with healthy excellence

Perfectionism is focused on fulfilling the above-mentioned psychological cravings, such as seek for approval. It is fixated on appearance and other's opinions. Excellence, on the other hand, is about the reasons and the results for the task.

The initial goals of perfectionism and excellence are different. The former sets an impossible goal and lead to disappointment and drain your energy. The latter makes you focused on what matters and rewards you with improvement.

Always ask yourself: is what I am doing important to the result or not?

For instance, when you start learning a new skill, focusing on incremental improvement from repetition to repetition can make you better in the long run. My drawing professor, one of the most intelligent persons I knew, used to say that perfection is a never-ending process. I cannot make my drawing perfect, I can only improve it in an attempt to reach perfection.

Instead of focusing on the perfection of one drawing, I should focus on improving my drawing skills. It is different in a way that with my current skills I cannot make it perfect.

When I look back at my previous works I can almost always see what can be improved. It says that I make progress over time, which is a good sign. Practicing and repetitions are more important for experience and skills than fixating on one thing and trying to make it perfect.

You can do it as best as you can, and that's the difference between excellence and perfectionism. Striving for the former makes you focus on improving yourself, while the latter makes you highly invested and vulnerable. A simple question "Is what I am doing adds value or matters to the goal" can help you to guide your efforts in the right direction.

Pareto principle diagram. 80/20 rule.

I like to use Pareto's rule to give priority to essential. The principle says that 20% of your work will add 80% of the final result. The rest 80% of your time is spent on polishing the result.

When I worked on the first version of this blog, I spent around 3-5 months trying to make it perfect. I oftentimes would spend days making little changes to the spacing, fonts, and hovered underlines. As the result, I invested so much time in it that I was burned out and did not even start to write content for it.

Two months ago I decided to start again. In 2 days I designed the blog and started to write the content, the most important part. I spent 20% of my time to achieve 80% of the result.

It was not perfect, but who cares? It was nice and it was enough. I focused on the important things. Of course, during the last two months, I altered the design adding small changes based on the feedback and experience. Making incremental improvements is more valuable than fixating on the design at the beginning and not achieving the main goal.

The speed of completion makes it more fun. Instead of a never-ending process, I can see the result and have a small reward to keep me going.

Final thoughts

This isn't a perfect article about perfectionism, and the good thing is I didn't aim for it. Instead, my goal was to figure out why I always used to feel negatively at my work and personal tasks. I learned to focus excellence which made my life much more productive and fun.

If you consider yourself a perfectionist, try to reach for excellence instead. It will make you positive and healthy in both your life and growth.

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