Flawless photos. Perfect grades. Ideal essays. Always striving for the best is tough. Life can start to feel like a competition, where only first place is good enough.
Of course, perfectionism can be useful - sometimes. But a lot of the time, it just gets in the way. It makes us anxious to fail, and that makes it hard to get started.
So when does perfectionism become a blocker? And how can we overcome it?
Perfectionism can hold us back at every step of the creative process. Here’s how.
1) It stops us getting started
Have you ever put off a piece of work, not because you didn’t know how to start but because you didn’t know how to start perfectly?
Before we’ve even begun, we fixate on the ideal outcome. We make ‘perfect’ our only definition of success, and we assume every step along the way has to be perfect too.
So we find it almost impossible to get going.
2) It stops us making progress
Despite setting my bar for success at an impossible height, I’ve managed to start. But I’m critical of everything I do, as soon as I’ve done it. So my progress is frustratingly slow.
Perfectionism is an agent of delay. It says, ‘Just do one more afternoon of research… Just make a couple more tweaks to this sentence before you think about the next.’
Perfectionism says, ‘Surely this isn’t as good as you pictured it?’
3) It stops us finishing on time
It’s a myth that perfectionism leads to perfection. A lot of the time, it leads to missed deadlines and frustration. Why?
I tell myself I can’t finish yet because I’m still making this bit right. There are still two days till the deadline, so I should be able to perfect this.
But the deadline always arrives. If starting’s more important than starting perfectly, finishing at all is more important than finishing ‘top’.
Recognise any of this? Don’t worry. There are things you can do to overcome the need for perfection.
Here are just three ideas.
1) Set realistic goals and define success
The fear of failure stops us in our tracks. It happens when we set excessively high standards. But what happens if we lower the bar to a more realistic height?
Then, we can achieve small successes that give us momentum and confidence. What small thing can you try to make a mini achievement you can be proud of?
2) See life events as opportunities to learn
Try not to see a challenge as an opportunity to fail. Instead, see it as an opportunity to learn. There’s so much in the doing and the learning that the winning and losing can’t provide.
Essays, exams, job applications. These are all opportunities to learn. The more we can value them for that, the happier and more relaxed we’ll be.
3) Focus on compassion over competition
Perfectionism can come from competition. We’re told to be better, to work harder, and to finish above our peers. Socially, academically, professionally.
Push back against this comparison culture. Your goals are your own and nobody else’s. See people as human beings to connect and work with, not as rivals to compete against.
And remember you’re a human being too, worthy of the same compassion you’d show to others - so go easy on yourself and be kind to number one.
Don’t over-analyse. Don’t let the myth of perfection scare you. Nobody and nothing is perfect. What matters most is that you start, do your best, and see where it takes you.