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The Dangers of Perfectionism

Claude Monet was one of the most well-known painters of his time, painting nearly 2000 works over the course of nearly 70 years. Today, many of his paintings are instantly recognizable, even by those without much knowledge of art theory or history.

In 1908, Monet was set to open an exhibition of his now wildly famous Water Lilies series in Paris. Before the show could open, however, Monet took a knife to fifteen of his own paintings, slashing them so they could not be displayed to the public.

It wasn’t the first (or last) time Monet destroyed his work. Some estimates guess that nearly 500 Monet paintings met the same fate at the hands of their creator.

But why? According to former French Prime Minister Georges Clémenceau, a friend of Monet, the master painter “destroyed canvases in his quest for perfection.”

The perception of perfection

Monet was widely considered to be a master of his craft, and today, his paintings are worth millions. Yet in his eyes, if they were anything less than perfect, they deserved to be destroyed rather than displayed.

Many of us would likely gasp at the thought of these decimated works of art. But, if we’re honest, we might sense a tiny bit of admiration for Monet’s actions as well.

After all, couldn’t you argue that Monet a genius who placed such a high value on his reputation, and who had such impeccable taste, that he refused, point-blank, to release anything other than his absolute best? This sounds like the profile of a modern Silicon Valley success story—someone who would go to shocking lengths to make sure the world only sees what he deems worthy.

Someone who—let’s be honest—the modern world would likely admire. 

Perfectionism today

Today, claiming perfectionism comes off as more of a “humble-brag” than anything else. It’s one of those things you keep in your back pocket for when you’re asked the “weakness” question during an interview.

Interviewer: “What’s your biggest weakness?”

You: “Well, I’m kind of a perfectionist.”

Of course, you’re not trying to say, “Don’t hire me! I won’t ever be able to get anything done because I’ll be too concerned with all the minute details that don’t really matter!” What you’re saying is, “I’m super detail-oriented and make sure that I do things right.”

#Humblebrag.

Perfectionism is one flaw that, for some reason, people seem proud to have. It’s something that we all know is supposed to be harmful, but really, deep down, we think, “Who wouldn’t want to be perfect?” And we let our perfectionist flags fly. 

A common problem

This TED talk about perfectionism is pretty eye-opening in terms of demonstrating how prevalent perfectionism is in today’s world. One statistic shows that perfectionism has doubled in frequency over the last 30 years. And it’s only getting worse.

What’s driving this perfectionism? A better question might be: what isn’t driving it? Many aspects of our society perpetuate the glory of perfectionism.

The school system

The way most American schools work these days definitely lends itself to perfectionism. The grades, the class ranks, the standardized test scores: these things send out a very clear message of right versus wrong, of perfect versus flawed, of “the best” versus “not the best.”

It’s hard to believe that perfection isn’t important when everything you do is measured against a standard of perfection.

The American Dream

The TED talk linked above also discusses how the idea of the “American Dream” lends itself to perfectionism. While this concept of “you can do anything if you work hard enough” can be inspirational at times, it can also lead people to believe that nothing, not even perfection, is out of reach.

Social media

Finally, we can’t talk about the rise of perfectionism without talking about social media. Social media is all about the appearance of perfection, rather than the representation of reality. Taking forty different selfies just to post the best one is the modern-day equivalent of Monet slashing his paintings before his show. You couldn’t possibly post the photo that makes you look like you have a double chin and a shiny forehead, right? You’ll only post the best picture of the bunch. The one that’s closest to perfect. 

Perfectionism and personal growth

The problem with our perfectionist culture is that when it really comes down to it, perfectionism hurts us far more than it helps us. 

Even though perfectionism is, on the surface, all about personal growth and becoming, well, perfect, the fact is that perfection holds us back from becoming the people we want to become and living the lives we want to live.

Here are some of the biggest dangers of perfectionism.

Perfectionism sets an unrealistic standard.

“Nobody’s perfect” is not just something people say. It’s a profound and universal truth. Nobody’s perfect, and—hate to break it to you—that includes you (and me, too). Expecting ourselves to be perfect is going to result in us coming up short, every single time. 

Plus, true perfectionists are never satisfied, even when they achieve something. Maybe it’s not quite what they had in mind, or they should have been able to reach their goal easier, or they had to ask for help along the way. Whatever the reason, perfectionists can never live up to their own standards. They set themselves up for failure from the very beginning.

And speaking of failure…

Perfectionism creates an unwillingness to fail.

Nobody likes to fail, but for perfectionists, failure is unacceptable. By tying their perfection (or lack thereof) to their personal worth, they develop a mindset that if they fail, they are worthless. 

The problem lies in the fact that failure is a fact of life. Not only that, but it’s a necessary and useful part of life. Failure is how we learn. It’s how we discover ourselves and the world around us. It’s how we progress. And if we aren’t willing to fail, then we’re unlikely to make the progress we really want to make.

(By the way, prototyping can really come in handy here. It’s a low-stakes way to try something that will get you moving in the right direction. And because the stakes are low, failure is easier to swallow.) 

Perfectionism leads to “all or nothing” thinking.

Ever take a pass/fail class? In these classes, it doesn’t matter how well you do, just as long as you do well enough. You pass or you fail. It’s black or white. It’s all or nothing.

Of course, if you live with an all-or-nothing mindset, you’re not going to be able to see all those lovely shades of gray. Even “almost perfect” is not good enough. Anything less than 100% is considered a failure. 

As Voltaire said, “Perfect is the enemy of good.” When you’re a perfectionist, it’s not enough to do a good job, because you’ll settle for nothing less than perfect.

That can be dangerous, because it leads you down a path to shame and low self-worth.

Perfectionism leads to (or worsens) mental health problems.

If you are constantly seeing yourself as a failure…you aren’t going to think very highly of yourself. What a depressing thought.

Perfectionism is in fact linked to mental health challenges, including depression, anxiety, and, frequently, eating disorders. This correlation is especially true for people who lean towards what’s called “socially prescribed perfectionism,” which is essentially the need to appear perfect to other people.

These feelings of low self-worth can be extremely discouraging. Believing that others will only love you if you’re perfect is a very lonely place to be, and can easily lead to feelings of isolation. Holding yourself up to an unachievable standard is not going to put you in a healthy mental space.

Perfectionism could lead to lowering standards.

Perfectionists tend to have an “ends justify the means” mindset. That means that it doesn’t matter how you got the perfect grade on that paper; it only matters that you got the grade at all. Perfectionists don’t care about actually learning or retaining the material; they just care about getting the A. 

In extreme cases, this can lead to cheating or other forms of dishonesty. It’s easy to justify plagiarism when all you want is a good grade. This could apply in other walks of life, too: a businessman could fudge the numbers to make the company look good to investors; a person could start taking illegal drugs in order to create a certain perception of themselves. Whatever the application, the means don’t matter as much as the ends.

Be kind to yourself

Dear perfectionists, potential perfectionists, and recovering perfectionists: it’s time to be kind to yourself.

You are flawed, and that’s okay.

It’s also okay to have high standards. It’s great that you have big dreams, that you want to be a good, successful person, that you want to live your life in a way that you’re proud of.

But guess what? Perfectionism is not the way to do that.

If anything, the dangers of perfectionism are holding you back.

So how do you be kind to yourself and overcome your perfectionism? 

By taking control of your happiness and setting more realistic expectations for yourself. You visualize where you want to go, you begin with the end in mind, and you create a deliberate yet flexible plan that is pointing you in the right direction.

You try, you fail, you try again.

The only way out is through the process. And the only way to get through is to get started.

Start here, with our assessment that will help you narrow your focus and set some meaningful intentions for your life. Plus, we’ll help you identify where you’re at in our Egg framework, a powerful way to help you track your journey from hope to meaning.