For others, doing things perfectly is a lifelong value, even a cherished value. They do not realize the full downside to the perfectionistic way of doing things. They may be depressed or anxious, and they may want to feel better, but they may want to feel better without giving up their quest for perfection.
There are multiple problems with perfectionism. These are discussed more fully in the chapter available on my website under "handouts."
Here are a few of the problems with perfection as a goal
- It leads to depression in some people
- It can alienate other people from us
- It leads to procrastination in some people
- It is ambiguous, that is it has unclear and confusing goals
- It can lead to focusing on minor details rather than the larger issues of life
- It is impossible to be perfect
Being perfect is ambiguous. As we have seen, it is relatively straightforward for a person to know what being perfect is in the sixth grade. But what does it mean at age 65 when we are retired? Does it mean keeping our lawn trimmed everyday and keeping the weeds out? Does it mean that we are volunteering? Does it mean that we are obeying all the rules? Or does it mean that we are learning which rules to break (as for example during the civil rights disobedience of the sixties). Does it mean that our house looks perfect to visitors or that we are being creative with our time? Does it mean that we keep outward appearances just right so that others will approve of us, or that we will use our time wisely so that we will approve of ourselves?
There are large issues in life, and these can rarely if ever be accomplished perfectly. Perfection is something we can accomplish when we vacuum the house. It is not likely to be accomplished in poetry, painting, volunteering, or even just helping out a friend. It is unlikely that we can write the perfect poem or be the perfect volunteer. The temptation for the perfectionist can be to do the smaller things which can be done more or less perfectly.
Perfectionism can alienate the people around us. When they do not live up to our perfectionistic standards, we may be magnanimous and forgiving--or we may be critical. And even when we attempt to be forgiving and "overlook" any mistake, our impatience with their lack of perfection may show through. This can put people off.
Perfectionism can lead to procrastination. We know that once we take on a project, we will have to do it pefectly. This can make it a daunting task, and we may find it easier to keep putting it off rather than doing it "just right."
Finally, studies have shown that perfectionism tends to lead to depression in many people. When the perfectionist falls short of their perfect goal, they may berate themselves, causing low self esteem and this may in turn lead to depression.
As an alternative to perfection, we can aim at doing things well. We can realize that it is better to be fully engaged in life and trying a lot of things rather than just doing a narrow range of activities where we can be assured of the outcome. There are times to be perfectionistic. Pilots are taught to be extremely thorough in checking over their airplane before taking off, for example. And if I ever have brain surgery, I would prefer my surgeon to be a perfectionist. However, in everyday life, perfectionism tends to detract from our productivity and feelings of well being.