Posted by: waikatogifted | June 11, 2011

Relentless Perfectionism

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Guest blogger, Dr Lynley McMillan, puts perfectionism under the spotlight. Perfectionism is closely related to her previous topic of workaholism, and affects many gifted children and adults.

Perfectionism, the relentless pursuit of a flawless result, is a psychological knife – it cuts to harm, and it cuts to heal. Let’s look at the harm first – tomorrow we will look at how to harness perfectionism so that it becomes an ally, not a threat.

If you’re human like me, then getting some things right, absolutely right, is a statistical impossibility. Now, getting maths right is generally easy. And getting physics right is sometimes possible. And chemistry. But think about classical music – can we really get that right? The intonation, pace, pitch, interpretation, colour? And how about relationships – is there such a thing as getting it right? Do we really ever get a human interaction right, where there is perfect delivery of a message, both parties 100% delighted with the outcome, everybody understands each other precisely?

From a psychological perspective, trying to get abstract things like people, relationships, and the arts (music, painting, theatre, sculpture) right, is actually self damaging. Yes, you read that correctly – self damaging! How? It’s like asking someone to hold their breath for 40 minutes then sing the national anthem of Jamaica. It’s just not possible. So by trying to get abstract things right, we set ourselves up for failure before we even start.

And that’s where the cycle begins.

  1. First, we expect to do something that is impossible (like please people, or get relationships perfect).
  2. Then we get frustrated with ourselves or others when we can’t get it right.
  3. We also say unhelpful things inside our head when it goes wrong (You dummy! Can’t you learn! What a twit! etc.), which decreases our self esteem and increases our anxiety.
  4. Next time, we are naturally more anxious about getting it wrong, so we are physically tense, full of adrenaline (and other meaty stress steroids) and as a result, much more likely to screw it up.

Ironically, one of two contrasting outcomes occur. Either a cycle of futile pursuit of perfection, or, one of progressively giving up on ever trying to get anything right (psychologists call this learned helplessness).

But, let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water. Join me tomorrow for a look at when to turn the perfectionism switch on, and when to flick it off.

Sneaky note to readers – I’m not convinced that Dr Lynley always dabbles in the arts with her perfectionism mode completely switched off. She has achieved some pretty amazing results. I strongly suspect that you don’t need to get this business of keeping-perfectionism-at-bay perfect! It’s probably another case of near enough being good enough.

Apparently an antique scalpel, but I'm inclined to think it is a mis-labelled paper knife!

Perfectionism - cruel cut or handy tool?

This photo, by Flickr member tortipede, has attribution, non-commercial and share-alike licenses.

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Responses

  1. Thanks for this article Lynley. Looking forward to Part II. From a perfectionist who is also the mother of one!


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