I ’ve got a friend who used to proudly proclaim he was a perfectionist every chance he got. He took pride in it. If something in his immediate environment wasn’t “right,” he would set out to fix it, almost reflexively. He had incredibly high standards for what he considered acceptable, both for the people around him and especially for himself. It made him good at what he did. But it could also make him kind of a dick.
He knew he could be hard on himself, but he always said it was because he wanted to be better. And if he was hard on other people, he said he did it from a place of love. He wanted to see the people he cared about do well in life.
But there was a catch with my friend: for someone who was always prattling on about holding himself to high standards, and wanting to achieve excellence, blah, blah, blah — he actually didn’t get very much done.
He’d work on projects for months at a time without showing it to anyone because it wasn’t “done yet” — that is, it wasn’t perfect. He’d end up abandoning virtually every one of these projects, and I eventually realized it was because he’d reach a point where he realized it could never live up to what he had envisioned in his mind, which was, of course, perfection.
He’d beat himself up for weeks, months, even years, either for not following through or for being so stupid to start something that wouldn’t “work” in the first place. Years of his life went by in a steady stream of intentions and planning and progress, without a single result.
That’s where his perfectionism got him.
The Perfectionism Paradox
To be clear, I’m not about to admonish you to “lower your standards.” In fact, I think perfectionism has its place, both professionally and personally (more on this later).
But it’s funny, perfectionists always seem to have their guard up against people who try to point out their irrational behavior. That’s mostly because perfectionists tend to think everyone sucks at everything, so why would they ever take their advice? It’s a side effect of their stratospheric standards: no one is worthy of listening to. Therefore, the perfectionist struggles on, alone.
With my perfectionist friend, whenever he’d tell me about getting stuck on something he was working on and I’d suggest a solution, he’d come up with all sorts of reasons why it wouldn’t work and why “compromising” in that situation wouldn’t be acceptable. Six months would go by. And nothing would be done.
Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, once said in a letter to shareholders that he believes that optimal decisions occur when one has 70% of the necessary information. He went on to say that anything less than 70% and you’ll probably make a bad decision. But anything more than 70% and you’re probably wasting time on something that is unlikely to change the outcome.
Bezos’ “70% Rule” can be applied to a lot of things in life. Sometimes it’s best to ship a project when it’s 70% done. In writing, I’ll hand off a draft to an editor when it’s 70% of where I want it.
The idea is that you can always fill in the last 30% AFTER you’ve shipped something. Because if you wait for 100%, you’ll never get there.
Adaptive vs Toxic Perfectionism
It’s important to know that not all perfectionism is created equal.
Again, there’s nothing wrong with setting high standards and lofty goals. You should work hard, you should try to achieve the things you want to achieve in your life.
But there’s a difference between adaptive perfectionism — striving for perfection while accepting that things will never be perfect — and toxic perfectionism — striving for perfection and accepting nothing less.¹
Perfectionism, then, actually comes in a few different varieties.²,³
Some perfectionists hold themselves to their own (ridiculously) high standards.
There wouldn’t be anything wrong with this if these types of perfectionists handled themselves differently when things don’t go according to plan, which — and this won’t surprise you — they don’t. They melt down like Mt. Vesuvius in a heat wave. They can’t let go of embarrassing mistakes, sometimes even years or decades after they made them. Their “self-talk” is incredibly critical of nearly everything they do.
We’ll call these “self-oriented perfectionists.”
Some other perfectionists hold those around them to extremely high standards. And this, too, wouldn’t be so bad if these people simply used their high standards to motivate people to do better, and “better” was good enough.
But again, it’s not. These people have such incredibly impossible standards that no one will ever live up to them. That, and they can just be total dickheads.
Think of your micromanaging boss who only tells you about how you screwed everything up (*cough* Steve Jobs *cough*), or your judging mother who endlessly makes comments about your weight, or your asshole boyfriend who made you tell him about every sexual experience you ever had so he could “make sure he could trust you”⁴ (read: “I need to know if you measure up to my ideal sexual morality”).
We’ll call these “other-oriented perfectionists.”
And then you have perfectionists who think other people impose impossibly high standards on them.
These people are usually a mess. They can’t make a decision to save their lives because they’re not sure what everyone else will think if they make the wrong decision. Instead of that little voice in their head judging themselves, it tells them that everyone else is judging them and that they’re not living up to what’s expected of them.
These people often resign to just being helpless, reasoning that if they’ll never be good for others, why bother? We’ll call these “socially-oriented perfectionists.”
Perfection in an Imperfect World
Of course, there’s overlap between the three types of perfectionists as well. A self-oriented perfectionist often holds themselves and others to incredibly high standards. Other-oriented perfectionists might take what they consider to be social ideals and impose them on the world around them. Either way, hardcore perfectionists usually have one characteristic style they gravitate towards most of the time.
Behind each of these types of perfectionism, there’s an underlying tendency to impose perceived ideals of perfection on yourself or someone else.
- Self-oriented perfectionists impose their own ideals on themselves.
- Other-oriented perfectionists impose their ideals on the people and the world around them.
- Socially-oriented perfectionists impose what they think is socially accepted as “perfect” on themselves.
The problem arises when what you perceive to be ideal or “perfect” and what you perceive reality to be are incongruent.
Again, I want to be clear: there’s absolutely nothing wrong with having high standards.
But there’s everything wrong with imposing those high standards on yourself or others without qualification and a healthy skepticism of your own bullshit. Perfectionists of all kinds tend to use a type of all-or-none, black-and-white style of thinking: you’re either a failure or a success; you either won or lost; you either did something right or you did it wrong.
Real life happens in the gray areas between all of these things. The irony is that most perfectionists just want the world (themselves, the people in it, etc.) to be a certain way, but they can’t even see the way the world actually is.
Fuck Your Perfectionism
Dealing with self-oriented and other-oriented perfectionism is perhaps the most straightforward. These types of perfectionists at least believe they have a reasonable amount of control over themselves and their immediate environment and, therefore, they believe they can change themselves and/or their environment.
With that in mind, here are my thoughts on giving a big “fuck you” to self-oriented and other-oriented perfectionism.
Dealing with Self-Oriented Perfectionism
You have to learn to take it easy on yourself. I know, like, eight million people have told you that already, but hear me out.
Unlike the other-oriented perfectionists of the world, you’re probably the type who is supportive and encouraging with your friends and family. When they mess up or do something stupid, you don’t rub it in their face or tell them how dumb they are.
You are compassionate. You recognize that people make mistakes, that they have the best of intentions and there’s a lot of chaos and luck involved in life, and none of us can change that. This helps them feel better. It gives them confidence and a feeling of security that they have your support and that things will be OK even though they’re not perfect.
This might come as a surprise to you, but you can do all of those things for yourself too.
Try it. Treat yourself as if you were a friend. Imagine the mistake that’s eating away at you is a mistake of a close friend or family member. What would you say to them? How would you feel for them? Now do that for yourself.
Dealing with Other-Oriented Perfectionism
You need to recognize that your impossible standards are keeping you from experiencing all the intimacy and love that relationships have to offer.
Recognize that you’re not exactly the cat’s pajamas when it comes to being perfect — asshole. In fact, you fuck up all the time, and the people around you are constantly putting up with it and forgiving you for it — both things that you have yet to have learned how to do.
Dealing with Socially-Oriented Perfectionism
Socially-oriented perfectionists are a whole other bag of asses to unpack.
They feel helpless in their situation in life. Everyone is out to get them, shoving their impossible expectations in their faces and turning their judging noses up at them. They see condescension and judgment in the most casual of statements. They assume the worst about any social interaction. They are tortured by a constant sense of embarrassment and not being liked.
If this describes you, I want to challenge you, from this very moment, to start taking responsibility for everything that happens to you in your life. Everything. This is what I call “The Prime Belief”.
Now, before you start saying, “But Mark, it’s really not my fault the world is the way it is! How am I supposed to take responsibility for that?!?!” remember that taking responsibility is not the same as taking blame for something.
Socially-oriented perfectionism falls into the trap of what I call “Victimhood Chic,” where coloring yourself as the victim of other people’s judgments becomes the way in which you feel important.
One thing about being victimized is that it makes you feel special and unique in some way. People who are constantly inventing imaginary ways in which they’re victimized are therefore inventing ways to feel special and important, despite the fact that they’re hurting themselves.
Perfection Is Imperfect
The ultimate solution to perfectionism isn’t to get rid of perfectionism, it’s to reorient your understanding of what’s “perfect.”
Perfection does not need to be a result. Perfection can be a process. Perfection can be the act of improvement, not the act of getting it right every time. Strive for greatness. Strive for quality. Even strive for perfection.
But understand that what’s in your head, that beautiful vision you have of how things should be, that is not perfection. Perfection is a process of removing imperfection. Of getting something out there, having it criticized, failing, and then improving upon it. This is a new, imperfect kind of perfectionism. It’s a functional form of perfectionism. One that won’t drive you or the people around you fucking insane.
And, dare I say, it’s even a useful form of perfectionism.
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- Enns, M. W., Cox, B. J., & Clara, I. (2002). Adaptive and maladaptive perfectionism: Developmental origins and association with depression proneness. Personality and Individual Differences, 33(6), 921–935.
- Hewitt, P. L., & Flett, G. L. (1991). Perfectionism in the self and social contexts: conceptualization, assessment, and association with psychopathology. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60(3), 456.
- Stoeber, J. (2014). How Other-Oriented Perfectionism Differs from Self-Oriented and Socially Prescribed Perfectionism. Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment, 36(2), 329–338.
- I actually know someone who had this happen to them.