It’s important to distinguish between striving for excellence, and striving for perfection. As Patrick Gaudreau and his colleagues show in their research, we tend to confound the two, as if striving of any kind is what it takes. It is not.
Pursuing excellence means ‘a tendency to aim and strive toward very high yet attainable standards in an effortful, engaged, and determined yet flexible manner’. This may seem just what Perfectionists are aiming for. However, Perfectionism is ‘a tendency to aim and strive towards idealized, flawless, and excessively high standards in a relentless manner’.
Perfectionism means that striving becomes a process of setting goals and standards that are so high as to be unattainable, and almost always more than required to do the work. That’s even if the work, by its nature, requires exacting standards such as working with chemicals, in medical research or taking precise measurements.
It means that even high levels of achievement will never be seen as being good enough; there will always be a perceived gap in what is achieved. And Perfectionists are particularly prone to not switching off from work.
Perfectionism isn’t a behaviour, it’s a way of thinking about yourself, according to Professor Andrew Hill. It isn’t about having high standards, it’s about having unrealistic standards. It isn’t about having a good attention to detail, it’s about getting so caught up in the detail that procrastination occurs, anxiety increases and more mistakes are made.
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with hard work, attention to detail or dedication to work. That’s not Perfectionism, it’s the self-discipline, conscientiousness, and achievement striving of the pursuit of excellence, and is good in the right amounts.
There’s something wrong with it when demands for perfection become rigid, or there’s a compulsive need to appear to be perfect to others, and then it likely interferes with the life you want to lead, the work you want to do, and your overall wellbeing.
Perfectionists are motivated by success but are also daunted by a fear of failure.
Rather than confounding excellence and perfectionism, let’s make a clear distinction and in doing so help Perfectionists to have more reasonable standards, focus on ‘good enough’ and moderate their workload. That will help them spiralling into stress and burnout, as I’ve written in an earlier blog – check it out here.