We’ve all heard the eye-roll-worthy response to the classic job interview question to reveal your greatest weakness: “I’m just too much of a perfectionist! I work tirelessly until the project is just right.”
Granted, there are folks that drool over those kinds of replies, hearing it as a commitment to overworking and a willingness to ignore personal needs – the stuff capitalism is built on.
But the wiser and more seasoned interviewer will know that it’s not often the perfectionist who will knock it out of the park. In fact, perfectionism is a huge liability in both work and life. More so, it’s usually a maladaptive coping response to less-than-ideal circumstances in our youth.. Touting our perfectionism as an asset is like waving a flag advertising our childhood trauma.
Perfectionism tells us that we cannot deviate from what is constructed as “ideal” or we will lose safety. Safety in our adult lives might look like recognition, praise, rewards, or stability. These can feel vital today, but the pressing drive to gain them or not lose them usually stems from a different kind of threat early on. It’s one that told us that if we didn’t do it all just so, we would lose our sense of security in the world.
So if perfectionism is a response to feeling a lack of safety and security, how might that show up and negatively affect our impact in the world? Let’s dig in…
You spend more time on tasks with less value. When we are driven by a need to avoid mistakes at all costs, we naturally gravitate towards the tasks where we feel we can’t fail. Those are generally ones we’ve done a hundred times or that come very simply to us. That’s well and good, unless we are trying to expand our skill sets, innovate, or dig into the high-impact work.
You struggle to incorporate helpful feedback. When we have a need to be perfect, feedback is experienced as confirmation of our fallibility. That can feel like a thousand small cuts and lead us to retreat from feedback consciously or unconsciously. We’ll often avoid situations where true feedback could come and if we receive it, our defenses go up so high that we can’t really register how to integrate it into our behavior.
You think the more you work on it, the better it will be. Perfectionists are notorious for over-working things, which leads to at best, a loss of efficiency, and at worst, reducing the quality of the project. Think of most tasks in life like bread dough. You have to knead it, but if you overwork it, it becomes tough and there is no salvaging the hard rock of bread that you are ending up with. When we struggle with perfectionism, we can convince ourselves that just a bit more finessing will lead to a better outcome, but that’s rarely the case.
You undervalue collaboration or the work of others. Perfectionists often claim to recognize the value of working with others, but struggle to do so. While we feel we can control our own process and product, we can’t totally control others and this can feel stressful. Plus, it slows us down! As a result, we might avoid collaborative projects, minimize asking for help from others, and overall devalue the contributions more minds can provide.
You unconsciously stay small in your scope. One of the quotes that has been most meaningful in my own life comes from Aristotle. He said, “If you want to avoid criticism, say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.” To create an impact, you inherently open yourself to the assessment of others. You make room for the possibility of mistakes and failure. It’s a frightening prospect for perfectionists, but the alternative is staying in a bubble that lacks space for your being.
Your creativity gets demolished. Creativity is a process and a skill, and it simply cannot operate in the context of high stress and self-judgment. It requires flexibility and the opportunity to try and fail – otherwise how do we ever develop something new? Perfectionism is poison to the creative process.
You appear frazzled, overworked, or unable to take on new things. We can all name a friend or coworker who consistently looks the part of the stress ball. For a long time, hustle culture had us revere this look. Tides are finally turning, and while we still reward overwork too much in our society, we’re starting to shift. And when we see someone crumbling under the weight of too much, we aren’t inclined to give them new work or opportunities, which means as perfectionists we can miss out on some really cool stuff.
If you recognize that your perfectionism is impeding your impact, it’s time to begin unlearning this way of coping and discover new ways of approaching yourself and your work.