Bested or the Best: A Perfectionist Tells All

“What are some of your weaknesses?” 

It’s a pretty standard job interview question, but also one that feels a bit like a trap. There’s a fine line to walk between being honest about your negative traits and trying to sell yourself as a worthy candidate for the job. 

I’ve definitely fallen into the cliche of using “Well, I’m a perfectionist” as an answer to this question. When I really think about it, is perfectionism a weakness or a strength? Is it a selling point of my personality, a weak spot, or something in between?

via GIPHY

The Perils of Perfectionism

At the root of perfectionism is almost always fear of some kind. Maybe it’s the fear of failure or the fear of not living up to expectations set by yourself or others. When this fear controls you, whether you’re conscious of it or not, the consequences can be pretty grim.

Perfectionism means constantly striving for the best and not being satisfied with any less. When time or some other limitation forces you to settle for less than the ideal result you pictured, you’re left to beat yourself up about not meeting your own unrealistic expectations. 

It doesn’t stop there. With the next project you take on, you want to avoid these feelings of failure and disappointment. Your internalized pressure is increased. You might procrastinate starting the task until you feel like you’re in the perfect mindset to take it on. You might even avoid taking on challenging tasks or coming up with creative solutions because it’ll be harder to control the outcome of something unfamiliar. In its most extreme forms, perfectionism is a vicious cycle that can leave you feeling inadequate and unhappy with the work you’re doing, and it can also lead to or be linked to mental health issues such as OCD. 

Perfectionism can also seep into other aspects of your life. When applied to relationships, perfectionism can mean setting impossibly high standards for the people you let into your life (and if you’re single, carpal tunnel from lots of swiping left). It can mean putting off everything from small changes in your bedroom decor to big life decisions until the circumstances are perfect (which they very rarely will be).

 

Learning to live with it

As someone who has lived through this cycle for a long time, I know that there are definitely cases when perfectionism crosses the line into unhealthy territory. However, I actually think that the right amount and right type of perfectionism can actually be good for you – and perhaps even worthy of being classified as a strength instead of a weakness.

For me, growing up and simply facing the realities of life has forced me to find nuance in my perfectionism. If I have an inbox full of emails to answer, I simply can’t obsess over the perfect combination of punctuation marks that makes me sound approachable but not unprofessional, or whether “Best”, “All the Best” or “Best Wishes” is the best email sign-off. 

I don’t think I can switch my perfectionism off completely – it operates more like a dimmer switch. I’ve learned some things that help me lower the brightness when I need to. 

Defining a specific goal rather than going into a project aiming for perfection can be helpful. Maybe the goal is simply getting the project done on time, or maybe it’s a checklist of specific outcomes I want to achieve. If my definition of “perfect” becomes whatever realistic goal I set in advance, I’m way less likely to be agonizing over my own unrealistic standards in the end. Being able to recognize the point of “good enough” is unique to every project is a skill that takes time to hone but it’s worth the peace of mind to work on it.

If the nagging feeling still isn’t going away, I try to address it head-on. Is this urge to continue tweaking my work based on something concrete and factual I know will improve it or is it simply a symptom of me fearing that my work isn’t good enough? And if it is something concrete I can fix, is the end result really worth my time and effort right now or should I just go ahead and send that text without the perfect emoji?

 

Friend, not Foe

These instincts aren’t very fun to have when they’re holding me back or when they surface while I’m working on inconsequential tasks. However, when I’m working on something important to me, it’s their time to shine.

It’s no coincidence that in addition to a perfectionist, I also happen to be a procrastinator and an overthinker. These three qualities can be a kind of cursed holy trinity when it comes to getting work done but they also happen to be some of the things I like most about myself. I like that I’m a deep thinker, an observer and a planner. My attention to detail and drive to work until I’m satisfied with something has pushed me to be a better writer. I don’t settle for the first idea or first draft. I catch my own errors and rewrite sentences and find better adjectives until I feel at peace. If all of this has led me up to the last minute, I’ve developed an ability to thrive off the adrenaline rush that comes in the hours before a deadline. This process isn’t always easy and it’s definitely stress-inducing at times but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Without this holy trinity of traits motivating me to do better and think deeper, I might not even be a writer at all.

Like many things, I think perfectionism exists on a spectrum and is experienced uniquely by everyone. Over the years, I think I’ve found the sweet spot that allows my perfectionism to work in my favour and act as a catalyst rather than paralysis. 

Of course, my perfectionism isn’t perfect. There will be times that I catch myself needlessly obsessing over something I’ve already finished or staring at a blank page because I think my idea isn’t good enough to start. 

But it also makes every gift I wrap look like how I feel about the person I’m giving it to. It makes my eye sharply tuned to typos and unable to ignore inconsistencies. Even right now, it’s making sure I don’t stop writing until I’m proud to put my name on this article. 

So yes, perfect can be the enemy of good but in my experience, it’s also been a great friend.