The right kind of perfectionism drives you toward success; the wrong kind shackles you with self-doubt. To spot the difference, we'll need to investigate the blemishes in both.
Psychologists call the productivity-stifling kind of perfectionism evaluative concern perfectionism: it has self-consciousness at its center, marked by a profound concern for how others see you. As psych writer Alex Fradera reports, this leads to high levels of hassle and distress in people's lives—and the use of avoidance as a way of dealing with problems. Because the evaluative perfectionist is so concerned with making mistakes in someone else's eyes, they put off any tasks that might make those mistakes possible.
Then there’s the positive perfectionism: rather than centering around other people’s perceptions of you, this one is concerned with the way you perceive yourself and your personal standards. According to the research of City University London psychologist Paul Flaxman, this type of perfectionism leads to active coping strategies—finding ways to get things done rather than avoiding them—and making higher achievement. But while having this constructive perfectionism will take you to better on-the-job performance than its avoidance-laden cousin, the hassles and distress remain.
The negative perfectionism is quite intense: As the Wall Street Journal reports, dysfunctional perfectionism is at the heart of depression, anxiety, workaholism, procrastination, and suicide.
"Our research shows that successful perfectionists are successful in spite of it, not because of it," Moving Past Perfect author Tom Greenspon tells the Journal. "If you're worrying more about how you are doing than what you are doing, you'll stumble."
Look again to Flaxman’s characterizing factors: is it the healthier flavor of perfectionism that’s about meeting the standards you set for yourself—or is it the more destructive evaluative thread that’s about the way your colleagues see you? If it's evaluative, then we need to dig deeper.
As sociologist Brené Brown has found, perfectionism has a deep relationship with two words usually driven out of the office environment—shame and vulnerability. As she said:
Wherever perfectionism is driving, shame is riding shotgun. Perfectionism is not about healthy striving, which you see all the time in successful leaders, it's not about trying to set goals and being the best we can be, perfectionism is basically a cognitive behavioral process that says if I look perfect, work perfect, and do everything perfectly, I can avoid shame, ridicule, and criticism. It's a defense mechanism.
The way to untie perfectionism, then, is to be cool with being vulnerable, which Brown defines as uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. As Brown explained, the super successful leaders, artists, and athletes that’s she’s interviewed never saw perfectionism as a "vehicle for success"—rather, it’s an obstacle for getting work done—what with its tendency toward avoidance and dissatisfaction.
As Brown explained, doing great work requires lots of awkward-feeling vulnerability.
"I think as dangerous and daunting and scary as vulnerability can be," she says, "I don't think it's ever as dangerous, daunting, or scary as reflecting back on moments in our lives where we wonder what would have happened."