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Why tackling perfectionism must go beyond ‘letting things go’

Turning to management techniques will help perfectionists use their high-achieving tendencies in a healthy manner.

Why tackling perfectionism must go beyond ‘letting things go’
[Source photo: semenovp/iStock]
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Perfectionists are known for making impressive strides. These high-achievers are often some of our most well known popular culture figures. Martha Stewart, Barbra Streisand, and Serena Williams are all leaders in their fields, with achievements and towering net worths among them.

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Perhaps surprisingly, much of this success can be attributed to perfectionism. All three women are self-described perfectionists, and happy to credit their perfectionism as an integral part of their quest for greatness. Yet each one has a differing view on the subject. In an interview with Oprah Winfrey, Stewart said: “I’m a maniacal perfectionist. And if I weren’t, I wouldn’t have this company.” Meanwhile, Streisand claims “to strive for excellence.” And Williams takes an altogether different tack; in an essay around International Women’s Day, she wrote: “I want to make it clear that perfection is an impossible goal and should never be a true pursuit in life.”

If this sounds confusing, a closer look at perfectionism and techniques to manage it can help bring light to the topic.

A vast and complex topic

Conflicting views on perfectionism are typical. It is a vast and complex topic with various ways to define and measure perfectionism. And even those charged with researching and explaining it don’t always agree on exactly what it is. While most psychologists concur that perfectionism is multidimensional, they remain divided as to whether it has adaptive qualities, with some taking the stance that there are no benefits to perfectionism whatsoever.

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This confusion does little for the rest of us, and the often academic or stuffy language used to discuss perfectionism repeatedly leads us to avoid such “education” and make up our own minds as to its merits. When doing so, those who don’t experience perfectionism will often use its close association with depression, anxiety, and burnout as ammunition to label it “maladaptive,” as something negative to get rid of. But, as with Stewart, Streisand, and Williams, those who do experience perfectionism tend to value it, regarding at least some of its traits as adaptive or positive.

Breaking a vicious circle

The opposing beliefs around perfectionism inspire a vicious circle. When perfectionism is valued, there’s often an unwillingness to consider managing it, leaving perfectionists vulnerable to the mental health issues perfectionism can create. What’s more, these negative connotations are then used to promote perfectionism as something to overcome, a notion that only serves to discourage perfectionists to consider more healthfully addressing their traits.

All of this creates an unfortunate chain of events, one that society needs to break in order to better support the many perfectionists in our lives and workplaces. With perfectionism and depression on the rise, there is no time to waste.

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Meet perfectionists where they are

In considering solutions, appraising the marketing of perfectionism is a good place to start. Of the countless resources on managing perfectionism, the vast majority targets those seeking to let go of their traits. Researcher Brene Brown’s book The Gifts of Imperfection is one example of this. While it’s a great book, it relies on the reader seeing the benefit in embracing imperfection—an unappealing approach for most perfectionists unless perfectionism has caused them significant pain.

This all to say, very few available resources are specifically targeted to perfectionists who actually want to keep, but perhaps better manage, the perfection-touting traits they value. This not only fails to meet most perfectionists where they are (and where they want to be), but also perpetuates the aforementioned vicious circle and results in missed opportunities.

Accentuate the positive

An alternative, perhaps radical, approach would be choosing to focus not on overcoming perfectionism but on enhancing it, or to build on the opportunities adaptive perfectionism offers by addressing the problems that maladaptive perfectionism so often presents. The idea that perfectionism can be “honed” or “refined” may inspire perfectionists to practice managing their traits in healthier, more productive ways, with positive messaging, with phrases like “maximizing the potential” or, yes, even “perfecting” your perfectionism.

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While this may be an unconventional tactic, it could prompt all those previously averse to addressing their perfectionism to come to the table. Moreover, it could encourage new generations of perfectionists to see balancing their perfectionism in a positive light.

A need for change

This new thinking would require complete agreement on the definitions of perfectionism and a willingness to update old, out-of-touch messaging and marketing trends. The posture that perfectionism is in any way positive may be a bridge too far for some, but we must at lean towards this direction to genuinely reach people—otherwise, we don’t help anyone.

I can personally attest to the need for change. For years, I was a proud perfectionist, who had greatly valued my perfectionism, until a heart attack at the tender age of 43 prompted a long hard look in the mirror. Afterwards, with guidance from a psychologist, I completely recalibrated my perfectionism, which has made me much healthier and arguably more successful to this day.

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So, yes, perfectionism needs a makeover, for the benefit of perfectionists and the many others who live or work with them. Imagine what we would achieve should we succeed. What more might Steve Jobs, who was a notorious perfectionist for most of his career, have accomplished with the thought that he could lean into the adaptive aspect of his perfectionism? And what higher stratospheres might Martha, Barbra, and Serena be in today?

Either way, there’s every chance that, like me, they all would have been inspired to enhance their perfectionism sooner. And as my cardiologist would mostly say, you can’t put a price tag on that benefit.


Julian Reeve is a critically acclaimed author, speaker, entrepreneur, educator, and musician, who served as music director for “Hamilton” on its first U.S. national tour. His new children’s book is Captain Perfection & the Secret of Self-Compassion. For more information on Julian’s work, visit his website.

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