How Perfectionism Can Help You Not Harm You

3 things you want to consider in order to know if your perfectionism is helping you or hurting you.

When I was interviewing someone to be my new assistant (so I can get out advice to you more often) she described herself as a ‘perfectionist’.  I noticed I had an interesting reaction…

As ‘the boss’ and ‘her new client’, that was music to my ears.  I loved that I’d be able to count on her to not let anything fall through the cracks and always make the details look good.  I suspect I’ll learn to trust her quickly.

These are all good things!  So what’s the fuss about perfectionism?  Why are we encouraged to ‘get over’ our perfectionism and just do what’s ‘good enough’?

Perfectionism is a double-sided coin.  Its helpful when it gives you the drive to get things done, make products even better, and get appreciation for your work.  Its harmful when it sets you up to multi-task, overfocus on the details and beat yourself up for falling short, clearly  interfering with moving toward your next level of success.

The trick is to know which is which is which. What makes that hard?  You have to know a little where it comes from to be able to tell the difference…

When you are pressuring yourself to be perfect, what you are really doing is trying to control others’ perceptions of you.  You are trying to prove to yourself and others that you are flawless , so that others will think well of you, hire you, love you, and approve of you.  You are trying to hide if there is anything about you that isn’t all knowing or all capable or all positive, in order to prevent people’s loss of respect for you or loss of their love.

This is when you are trying to be perfect for the wrong reasons.  Its “subjective”, meaning you exhaust yourself and try to manage other people’s perceptions, all because of some idea you have in your head. Its not really about the work,  its about you regulating your own self esteem.

But what about when perfectionism is helpful. When can you allow yourself to let that inner perfectionism pony run free?   Only when you do it for the right reasons. When its “Objective”.

Here are 3 things you want to consider in order to know if your perfectionism is helping you or hurting you.

1. Know the purpose –  Ask what the purpose of the task/project is?  If you have provided enough information and written/designed it in a way that understands the reader’s motivations, then its ready to send.  All the extra flourishes you are doing are a waste of your energy.  I think this is what people mean when they say its ‘good enough’. It fulfills its purpose.

Yes, sometimes the work has to be exacting:  Are you performing surgery or competing in the Olympics?  Writing a law brief that cites 100 cases which your client paid $1mm for your team to write?   Engineering parts for planes?  Writing a TED speech that will be forever captured on video?  Go for it!

Or are you designing the basic wire for a website that will be viewed and changed many times? Then maybe you need to explain to others why things need to follow a strict protocol now in order to save time and money later, here’s where you can own your value and educate others.

Know the purpose of the thing you are working on.  Keep working on it until it fulfills its purpose. Then its ready to send.


2. Know the phase – Ask what phase are we in and how will my perfectionism affect the timeline and quality of the work?  Are you in brainstorming phase, if so your perfectionism is causing too much focus on detail and you might be experienced as a downer.  Are you in the final execution stage where decisions have already been made and it just needs to get out the door, if so your perfectionism is blocking the way.   Your perfectionism is more helpful during the planning and implementation phases.


3. Know YOUR purpose – Have the self awareness to know whether your purpose is heightened by perfectionism or is just another opportunity to beat yourself up.


Are you passionate about sweating the details so you can help other people and see that you’ve made their life better or easier?  Does it fill you with a sense of reward to know that you are devoting your time to helping people as best you can?  Do you derive intrinsic value (as opposed to the worry about how other people will evaluate you) from the experience of having given it your all and done your best?  This would be considered the ‘right’ reason.  This is when perfectionism allows you enjoy the ride.