The Perfectionism Trap: Why Striving for Perfection Leads to Failure

Perfection is the enemy of good.

If you try to get things perfect and end up missing deadlines, procrastinating, and spending too much time on a seemingly simple task, you probably understand the significance of this quote. The truth about perfectionism is that it’s a self-defeating habit. Paying attention to details and striving for excellence are admirable goals but perfectionism is about something different altogether – fear of failure.

Are You Afraid of Feedback or Failure?

I was assigned a piece of work recently that I knew would be evaluated and edited by several professionals. The possibility of scrutiny had me obsessing about getting it perfect. The knowledge that this would be a daunting task led me to procrastinate. After a week of delay, I asked for an extension on the content.

I ended up cramming and completing the project in one day. I proceeded to edit the project again and again. Finally, I realized that not only was my fear of feedback making the work less enjoyable, it was making it late. I surrendered my obsession and submitted the final draft.

Inadequacy Lurks Below the Surface of Perfection.

As evident in the example above, a fear of failure is indicative of a dormant feeling of inadequacy. I was terrified that upon close inspection, these experts would deem my work as not good enough and be a reflection of my own abilities.

There is a certain point when you must surrender the work over. This statement could be repeated consciously: “I have done the best that I can do at this time.” Receiving feedback or corrections is not the end of the world, it’s only through this feedback that you can achieve growth and improvement in your current abilities.

Overcompensating Tells the World You Don’t Think You’re Enough.

I’ve noticed a stark difference in the way people show up for a presentation or meeting. Some people show up with a memorized script, a slew of notes, a keynote slideshow, and a plan. Other people show up with confidence and an idea.

I attended a women’s day event this year where one of the speakers was the president of a renowned corporation. She shared a personal experience about her internal dialogue at the inception of her career. She had something you may have heard before called “Imposter Syndrome”, a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud”.

This brilliant woman’s feelings of inadequacy manifested as over-preparation. She told us that she would come to meetings with stacks of notes and elaborate presentations. She used to refrain from speaking up and deliver her information in a shaky tone.

On the other side of the table, there was a man who would should up to meetings empty-handed. He would waltz into the boardroom and make conversation with the partners. He would sit directly next to the CEO and speak up with self-assuredness. He clearly believed he knew what he was talking about and in turn, so did everyone else.

She said that her tendency to over-prepare was not always a sign of initiative, but a sign of fear and deep inadequacy. She began coming to meetings and realizing that bringing herself, her voice, and her ideas were enough. Now she is the president of the company.

Taking a Closer Look at Your Intentions.

As previously mentioned, striving for excellence may not be caused by your unworthiness. Some individuals develop OCD tendencies from childhood or were conditioned in cultures that pride themselves on quality.

Japanese cultural behaviour is cultivated from ancient traditions. One of these traditions is the concept of ‘kaizen’. Kaizen has come to mean seeking continual improvement; it’s about eliminating defects in a pursuit for perfection. This concept has been widely applied to organizations and enhanced the quality of health care, psychotherapy, and even automotive assembly lines.

If perfection is more destructive than productive in your life, it’s time to inspect the intention behind it. Are you simply striving to eliminate mistakes and improve quality? Or, are you seeking to avoid criticism, disguise inadequacy, and prove you are worthy? Take an honest inventory of your habits and determine if they are still serving you.