In Praise of Perfectionism: 10 traits that set perfectionists apart (and 8 pitfalls to avoid)

In Albert Camus’ novel, The Plague, Joseph Grand is trying to write a book, but he’s having trouble getting past the first sentence.  He makes endless rewrites in search of the perfect beginning.  He believes that until he comes up with the perfect words, in the perfect order, he can’t move forward.

As a recovering perfectionist, I’m familiar with the problem.

Perfectionism has at times been the bane of my life.  At its worst, it froze me in place, sowing the seeds of deep-seated fear of failure, which started me bashing myself with criticism and negativity, and which ultimately prevented me from achieving my goals.  It set me on a downward, self-perpetuating spiral as I tried the same useless tactics over and over, spinning my wheels like Monsieur Grand as I failed to measure up to my own impossible standards.  I ended up doggedly pursuing my goals without satisfaction, as my self-esteem plummeted, and I sank into depression.

Okay – that’s the dark side.

But there’s a silver lining to all this.  With the help of a gifted therapist – who pegged me within the first few minutes of meeting me – I learned through cognitive therapy to honor my perfectionism, yet keep it in line so I could stay sane.  As I brought my trait into balance, I began to see that perfectionism gets a bad rap.  True, it can take the form of neurotic obsession, creating misery not only for the perfectionist, but for her friends and loved ones as well.  Yet it can also be the fuel that drives us to pursue, and ultimately achieve, our highest ambitions, whether we follow in the footsteps of Michelangelo or Martha Stewart.

So if you’re someone – like me – who’s been told a thousand times to “lower your standards” or to “stop caring so much” or to “just relax,” I’m here to tell you what’s good about perfectionism, so you can take full – and healthy – advantage of your trait.  You’re not alone, but you’re far from the norm.

10 things that set perfectionists apart:

1) Your work ethic is unsurpassed.  You love your work and will push yourself long past the point when others stop.

2) You are orderly and organized.  You don’t start a project until you’ve thought it through and have a good idea of where you’re headed.  You don’t waste time flailing.  Your work space supports your thinking.

3) Your focus is intense.  You stay on task.  You don’t distract easily.

4) You strive for excellence.  You set the bar high for yourself and inspire those around you to do the same.

5) You are conscientious and pay close attention to detail.  You often catch your mistakes without needing to have them pointed out to you.  You correct your mistakes quickly and seldom make them a second time.

6) You know how to motivate yourself.  You’re a self-starter.  You don’t need much, if any, prodding to get going on a project.

7) You commit to your goals completely.  You don’t stop until you’ve achieved your aims or have gone as far as it’s possible for you to go.

8) You are tenacious and persistent.  You keep going in the face of repeated failure and rejection.

9) You don’t procrastinate.  Your motto is: “Get it done – Now.”

10) Your “good” will often be better than most people’s “best.”  Your personal standards are so high that even on a bad day you’ll put in good work.

Are you beginning to appreciate, if not out-and-out admire, your trait?  You might as well embrace it, since it’s doubtful you can change it.  But there are pitfalls – booby traps successful perfectionists learn to avoid, or at least manage.  I’ve listed the worst of the lot, along with strategies to help you rein in those defeating tendencies.

8 perfectionistic pitfalls to look out for:

1) Negative self-talk and self-criticism.  Many perfectionists have a constant monologue of self-judgment running through their heads.  Learn to thank your inner voices for sharing, then ignore them.  As it is, you’ll get all the criticism you can stand from outside sources.

2) Isolation.  Because we often feel misunderstood, it’s tempting for perfectionists to go it alone.  But every artist needs a support system.  It might be a fellow creative walking a similar path, a spouse who believes in you utterly, or a friend who is willing to listen to you whine, then kick your artistic butt.  Have at least one person in your life who can give you a hug and a reality check – not necessarily in that order.

3) Working too hard.  Learn to balance all that striving with down time.  Even the Energizer Bunny needs a recharge.

4) Listening to too many opinions.  Decide whose advice is valuable to you and whose isn’t.  Learn who has your best interests at heart.  If someone is merely telling you what they would do in the same situation, graciously tell them to go do it.

5) Low self-esteem.  Accept that it’s YOUR job to build your self-esteem.  No one can do it for you.  Take the long view – recognize that big successes come from achieving many small goals.  Celebrate every victory, no matter how small.  Every achievement builds confidence, which builds self-esteem, which will keep you sane as well as in the game.

6) Unwillingness to make mistakes.  Give yourself permission to make mistakes – lots of them – in public and in private.  It can be painful, but it’s the only way to learn.  If you can’t allow yourself to fail, you will never succeed as an artist or anything else, because you will never allow yourself to try.  Mistakes aren’t fatal; they are, in fact, necessary for growth.

7) Focusing on results.  It’s fine to have goals, but obsessing over the end product will block your progress.  Vow to transform yourself from a perfectionist into a “betterist.”  Improvement – lots of tiny little advances and corrections – is what drives progress, not mania for some imagined perfect ending.

8) Dogged persistence.  Know when to quit and walk away.  Learn to recognize when you’ve done all you can, then move on to the next project with joy and eagerness, and without second guessing yourself.  Take from the experience what you can and build on it.  That’s the definition of success.

I’ll now leave you with two perfect quotes:

A life spent making mistakes is not only more honorable, but more useful than a life spent doing nothing.  ~~ George Bernard Shaw

Mistakes are part of the dues that one pays for a full life.  ~~ Sophia Loren