Perfectionism is a disease. Here’s how to beat it.

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It’s amazing that people admit to being perfectionists. To me, it’s a disorder, not unlike obsessive-compulsive disorder. And like obsessive-compulsive disorder, perfectionism messes you up. It also messes up the people around you, because perfectionists lose perspective as they get more and more mired in details.

We can never achieve perfection — any of us. Yet so many people keep trying to reach this elusive goal and they drive themselves crazy in the process. So cut it out. Accept that it’s okay to do a mediocre job on a certain percentage of your work. If you need convincing, consider this: Perfectionism is a risk factor for depression. No kidding. Sydney Blatt, psychologist at Yale University, finds that perfectionists are more likely to kill themselves than regular, mediocre-performing people.

Here are three steps to take to avoid the perfectionism trap:

1. Allow yourself to be wrong in front of others.
Try having an opinion that is wrong. Tell a story that is stupid. Wear clothes that don’t match. Turn in a project that you can’t fully explain. People will not think you’re stupid. People will think you spent your time and energy doing something else “? something that meant more to you.

We all have many competing demands. We do not presume to know other people’s demands. But we are all sure of one thing: Our work is often not the most important thing on our plate.

Also, you’ll notice that people are not particularly vested in you being right. They don’t care if you’re right or wrong in what you do or say. They just want you to get stuff done well enough that they can do what they need to do. And this is usually a far cry from perfection.

The other huge problem with perfectionism is that people stop learning when they’re constantly afraid of being wrong. We learn by making mistakes. The only way we understand ourselves is to test our limits. If we don’t want anyone to know we make mistakes, which is how perfectionists tend to behave, we are actually hiding our true selves.

2. Be a hard worker rather than a perfectionist.
You can be a hard-working person and cut corners. In fact, it’s often a requirement: Smart people cut corners. The art of being a star performer is knowing which corners to cut. Focus on your goals, and be honest with yourself about whether your goals require perfectionism along the way. A lot of times perfectionism is a way to avoid focusing on goals. Real goals, after all, almost always require a little bit of luck and assistance along the way — factors the perfectionists tend to dismiss.

3. Spend your energy making yourself likable.
Tiziana Casciaro reports in the Harvard Business Review that people are not all that interested in you being super-good at your job. They care if they like you. And, Casciaro found that if someone does not like you, he or she will decide you’re incompetent whether you are or not. Sad, yes, but the converse is true as well. You can do a poor job and no one will notice if they like you. And, newsflash: In many instances, this is good for business — teams do better work when everyone on the team likes everyone else. So don’t worry about doing a perfect job. Do a decent job, but leave yourself enough time to manage your relationships at work. Take lunch. Participate in office politics, because office politics is really about being nice — which, frankly, is more healthy and certainly more achievable than being perfect.

44 replies
  1. Sketch Country
    Sketch Country says:

    You touch on this in point 2, but just to draw it out a bit further – I think it’s a fairly important truth that there’s perfect as in ‘immaculate’, and perfect as in ‘the best that could be achevied’

    1. Perfectionism: You decide on a task, and then strive to do every aspect of it perfectly – let’s say you want to hold a birthday party and you decide you want a cake: It *must* be perfect, so you spent four hours making a cake, being disatisfied, throwing it away, baking another, getting the icing letters wrong, throwing it away, screaming, making more cake, realising it’s 7pm and the guests are coming and you haven’t tidied up and it’s not perfect and *ARGH*…

    2. Perfect planning: You decide on the perfect plan, which involved degrees of perfection: You buy a cake from the shop which is *sufficient*, you tidy up just the bits that your guests will see, you only scream once, briefly, but that’s because you’re dropped a glass but that’s fine, because hey, they don’t all need to match. It’s 7pm and your guests are arriving and it’s all fine.

    So, to be happy, decide what is possible: The perfect solution doesn’t have to be immaculate.

    Oh, and being a ‘perfect solutionist’ (the happy version of a perfectionist) is a lot easier if you have a low threshold for ‘sufficient’ :)

  2. Alisa Bowman
    Alisa Bowman says:

    I think your first point is probably the most powerful one here. I think of myself as a recovering perfectionist. Although, I don’t think the lure to backslide is anywhere near as strong as, say, a drug addiction. That said, I’ve found your first point to be very true. I also make fun of my flaws. I figure we’re all flawed. Anyone who tries to pretend he or she isn’t flawed is either Jesus on Earth, on crack or just lying. So it helps me to stay calm about accidentally screwing something up. Hey I can always write about it!

    A psychologist told me recently that perfectionism is the constant search for a flaw–and if you are always searching for flaws you will find them. I’ve been thinking about that ever since. I’m not sure that’s necessarily true. I think it’s more like the fear of being flawed or of others knowing that you are.

  3. Robin
    Robin says:

    Thank you for this article, Penelope. I am a recovering perfectionist (with many relapses), and your thoughts on perfectionist behavior stopping the flow of learning struck a chord with me (had to learn this the HARD) way. However, I have a question – how do you deal with a boss who strives for perfection at the expense of his team?

  4. Margaret Goerig
    Margaret Goerig says:

    As I have gotten older, I have realized at least two things:

    1. I used to be an über perfectionist and will likely always struggle with taming that impulse;
    2. the reason we are inherently distrustful of perfectionists is that we know that if someone is that hypercritical of him- or herself, imagine how they feel about the rest of us.

    Since having those two revelations, I do indeed feel much happier and much less prone to depressive cycles. That said, I do still find myself spending too much time on something (this comment included), at which point I have to back off and try to figure out how to put myself into it without losing myself in it, which is why I liked your second point on just being a hard worker.

  5. Missy
    Missy says:

    Penelope I would love to hear your take on how “people pleasers” fare in the work place. As a people pleaser myself, I always push myself really hard, which has gotten me far in my young career, but leaves me exhausted. I think alot of the tactics discussed for perfectionism could also work for a people pleaser….

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I confess that people pleasers annoy me. Maybe because I sometimes feel like one, and it always feels desperate and manipulative and disingenuous.

      If you take care of other people at the expense of yourself, you make the completely cynical assumption that taking care of yourself is not something other people care about. In a good world, we want to feel cared for and we want the people around us to feel cared for, and both parts are necessary for either part to work. No one can truly feel cared for by someone who neglects their own needs – it’s an unsafe feeling.


    • MyWifeThinksImADonkey
      MyWifeThinksImADonkey says:

      It’s my experience, for what it’s worth, that mediocre performers can have fairly lengthy careers if they are people pleasers. However, they won’t achieve the same level of pay as big producers. Medocrity and obnoxiousness, of course, are the kiss of death for both pay and longevity.

      Big producers can have long careers and reach the higher levels of the organization’s pay scale without being people pleasers, even to the point of being fairly obnoxious, as long as they don’t go too far.

      I think the big producer/people pleaser combination produces the best longevity results, but not the highest pay (since you won’t be perceived as a threat to leave). The highest pay goes to the best producers that seem unhappiest.

      These are only opionions of course, coming from an ass…

  6. Emily
    Emily says:

    Hi, I would love to take a look at the article you link to, but the link is broken. Any way you could fix it?
    As a college professor I can say that risk-averse perfectionist students are everywhere, and so depressing. So many people are afraid to make any bold assertion because they are so afraid of turning in work that doesn’t fit the mold.
    Those who are afraid to go out on a limb will never get anywhere interesting. I’m coming to realize maybe they just don’t WANT to be interesting.

  7. Chris
    Chris says:

    I read the whole article over on BNET, but I thought I’d comment here. I enjoyed the whole article, but the third point rang especially true. Save time to be nice and develop relationships. Perfectionism should indeed take a back seat to being nice to people.

  8. Jens Fiederer
    Jens Fiederer says:

    I really wish I could take your advice, but I am afraid that I am just too perfect by nature. On the bright side, at least it’s not as grueling as you seem to think it is – perfection has always been effortless for me.

    As for being wrong in front of others…how can one manage that? Not only am I inevitably right on factual issues, but I can’t even seem to manage those little social gaffes that other people so often do – such as seeming arrogant or being overconfident!

  9. Robin
    Robin says:

    Tiziana Casciaro reports in the Harvard Business Review that people are not all that interested in you being super-good at your job. They care if they like you. And, Casciaro found that if someone does not like you, he or she will decide you're incompetent whether you are or not. Sad, yes, but the converse is true as well. You can do a poor job and no one will notice if they like you.

    I really suck at this part of office dynamics. Maybe it’s being INTJ, but I always assume that heroic performance and excellent work will trump everything…I see now that I’ve been going about things the wrong way. And that to co-workers, perhaps I’m slightly unlikeable in my grumpy quest for perfection. Sigh.

    I’m not exactly sure what I should do instead. Someone should write a “Never Eat Alone” type book translated for introverted people, i.e: once a year, ask a colleague to lunch. Be sure to take the next day off in advance so you can recover. :-)

    • INTJtoo
      INTJtoo says:

      hyuck hyuck hycuk. don’t forget that as an INTJ you are also blessed with this hilarious outlook on life (and yourself). for me it more than makes up for the grumpy perfectionist (at least i tell myself that anyway)

    • Cheryl Morris
      Cheryl Morris says:

      I’m an INTJ too–tested three times over my life and always scored as an INTJ–and always Strongly Introverted. I could have written what you wrote in your reply. I’ve got a reputation for accuracy and I want to keep it. I often document my data reports with warnings and notes, since “Only God has perfect data!”

  10. Leslie
    Leslie says:

    I feel that team work and collaboration are the main way that work actually gets done. There is usually one person on the team who has a lower tolerance for mediocrity that the others and that person usually does twice as much work.

  11. Mr. Salamack
    Mr. Salamack says:

    “So cut it out”

    It reminds me of a mad TV skit starring Bob Newhart as a therapist that can cure people in a matter of minutes. As the patient describes her symptoms, the usually mild mannered Newhart screams out “QUIT IT!”.

    Seriously, if perfectionism is a disorder than it requires more than just three tips from your blog to help. Those who suffer mildly from perfectionism will do well by these tips. Those who suffer to the point of stagnation need to seek professional help.

    Do therapists recognize perfectionism (and its close cousin serious procrastination) as treatable disorders? Are there any that specialize in it?

  12. Mike
    Mike says:

    I think perfectionists are not good debaters. They stick to the facts and that gets them behind the eight ball. Non perfectionists/ good debaters can make up facts on the fly.

    • Cheryl Morris
      Cheryl Morris says:

      You’ve gotta have a boss who’s strong enough to handle you making mistakes. Don’t know if this is Truth or Myth, but I once heard of something happening like this: a boss gave a newly hired person a bag containing notes: 10 were marked “little mistake”, 3 were marked “medium mistake” and 1 was marked “big mistake”. The new hire was told to take the right note out of the bag for each mistake and give it to the boss. This was supposed to encourage the new hire to make at least a certain number of mistakes.

  13. Carrie
    Carrie says:

    This is great advice on how to deal with perfectionism. I especially loved your point about how other people really don’t care how right or perfect we are, just so long as we do what we need to do so that they can do what they need to do. It really puts things in perspective.

  14. MyWifeThinksImADonkey
    MyWifeThinksImADonkey says:

    My wife says there are 2 kinds of pefectionists:
    1). Those who attack an activity with zeal, obsessing over the end result until the moving target they see as perfection is achieved or time runs out.

    2). Those who want perfection but, realizing it can’t be achieved, don’t bother to engage.

    After reading Emily’s post (I think she may be talking about the second camp, when she mentions the large number of risk-averse perfectionist student’s she sees) it occured to me that perfectionism is directly related to risk. As risk is raised, so is the propensity for pefectionism.

    So, as U.S. econmic dominance fades, competition for jobs (and college acceptance) increases leading to increased risk of failure. As this risk increases, are people in this country becoming more risk-averse and, as a result, less creative and effective, in a positive feedback loop?

    • Jens Fiederer
      Jens Fiederer says:

      Is it?

      If your first grade teacher asked you to draw a dog, and at the age of 70 you are still struggling to get that picture PERFECT, rendering every hair in all its glory, was it really a worthy goal? I can’t answer that – maybe if your picture, although still not perfect, is the best picture in the history of mankind (or even the best picture of a dog in the history of mankind), posterity will judge your life with its sole accomplishment was well spent.

      But most of us have to balance costs against benefits, keeping in mind diminishing returns (spending 10 times as long at something will rarely make it 10 times as good) and opportunity costs (perhaps learning to write would actually be more useful than a really awesome doggy-picture?).

      The real goal is to get things just good enough.

      • Lynn
        Lynn says:

        That is a stupid analogy. Striving for perfection is a problem but the likelihood that anyone is going to spend that long on a picture is ridiculous.

  15. Annabel Candy, Get In the Hot Spot
    Annabel Candy, Get In the Hot Spot says:

    I’m a sick woman but battling perfectionism daily and determined not to let it win! I think perfectionism is tied to procrastination… if you keep working for weeks on one project it delays the moment when you start on the next.

    They both kill creativity. My case isn’t as bad as one friend I have – a brilliant artist who never finishes anything because of it.

    • Cheryl Morris
      Cheryl Morris says:

      When I was in college, I knew a man who had almost completed his college degree for one major, then went on to almost complete a second college degree, and was on his third almost completed degree.

  16. Virginia
    Virginia says:

    Perfectionist is a misnomer. They aren’t looking for perfection, they are trying to find flaws in everybody and everything.

    There is a lot of power in saying you are wrong when you make a mistake. It makes you more human and people will usually forgive you. They often feel more secure with someone who will be honest about making mistakes. It takes alot of pressure off of everyone to accept that in this life we sometimes are better off to create a work around if things don’t go according to plan. When you have a “perfectionist” in the mix, it creates a barrier to this kind of creativity.

    They like the word “perfection” because it gives a false sense of trying to be perfect when it is really an excuse to stonewall or degrade. Perfectionists suck, its far better to be a realist and do as good a job as humanly possible.

  17. greg hayden
    greg hayden says:

    I’m not a perfectionist but surrounded by them at the office. The level of their perfection is also different from each other. Sometimes I see that everything they do is the opposite from what I do. Doesn’t means that I’m too stupid to do my job, but really I don’t get what they really want to achieve. Sometimes I also want to advice them on things like this because they are my friend too but I don’t have any idea where to start. If someone here can help me, I’d appreciate it very much.

  18. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    The best part about this post and its associated links is the clinical definition of a perfectionist and the pitfalls they encounter in everyday life. Many people incorrectly use the terms ‘perfectionist’ and ‘perfectionism’ as I did prior to this post. My parents called me a perfectionist so that’s what I figured I was until I read some of these linked articles. I know it’s a fine line but the best description of myself and many people labeled as a ‘perfectionist’ is not correct but rather someone who is ‘striving for excellence’. The important thing is to know and maintain focus on your priorities so that there’s enough time allotted to do your best. Leave the ‘good enough’ for other stuff. Of course, it’s also important to be flexible as many things are subject to change including priorities.

  19. Yrs
    Yrs says:

    This is my very first comment here!
    Growing up, I didn’t have the looks, my friends sucked and I was the only child. My parents doted on me though, and they encouraged me to read books. My favorite books were The Big Friendly Giant by Roald Dahl and A Little Princess by Frances Hogdson Burnett. I lost myself in books till things changed for the better (much much better). I have included a couple more in my blog on
    I think you might like the Palace Of Illusions.

    Love your blog!

  20. Ruban Wright
    Ruban Wright says:

    Thanks for you post. Sometimes I suffer from trying to make things perfect which affects my productivity. I need to remind myself that it’s better to be ‘in the game’ than sitting on the side lines even if it’s not perfect

  21. Sexy Confident Woman
    Sexy Confident Woman says:

    This article is so biased you are trying to make people accept mediocrity as a percentage of their work and saying perfectionism is a disease why not accept mediocrity and perfectionism on a job as a percentage of the job instead of it just being ok for a % of mediocrity.
    So overall the individual ends up with a well rounded completed job.
    I also disagree with the statement that no-one can achieve perfectionism and so we should just give up, I myself have experienced perfect results from time to time for example: Playing a fighting game I have achieved perfect flawless victories and many other people have too.
    So clearly we must accept perfectionism and mediocrity as % of our work because that is what usually happens anyway.

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