‘My weakness, I suppose, is that I’m too much of a perfectionist’.
This is the trite response my school suggested offering as a ‘weakness’ if asked to name our biggest failing during a job interviewe. It’s the sort of answer that thinly veils a strength so that you don’t leave the interviewer with a negative memory of you (and so you don’t tell them your biggest weakness is that fifth shot of tequila on a night out). Of course, these days it’s used as an example of what you should avoid ever saying to an interviewer – an answer so clearly rehearsed that it prevents the interviewer from seeing the real candidate.
However, perfectionism is a very real thing for many people and while it can be a strength that helps you push yourself further, work harder, live better, there are those for whom the desire for perfection is a real problem. Their idea of ‘perfection’ may be so unrealistic that it takes a dangerous toll on both physical and mental health.
A 2010 report stated that perfectionists are more likely to suffer from conditions like post-natal depression and OCD. It can even increase your risk of early death. The impact it can have on your health is something to which I am no stranger. By 2010, when I first experienced symptoms of M.E, I was so focused on doing my job, not just well but better than anyone else could possibly do it, I was under immense stress. I maintain it is a key reason I developed the condition, and the multiple studies in recent years that conclude ‘Type A’ personalities (those who are driven, focused and perfectionists) are the most commonly affected by M.E and Fybromyalgia seem to support this.
But is it always a bad thing? After all, the desire for perfection is behind many healthy habits such as the #cleaneating movement. It is a major reason athletes work so hard – not for mere accolades but to prove they are the best. If you do exceptionally well at work and are promoted, it is likely you would not have achieved such dizzying heights had you not worked so hard. A study published earlier this year on perfectionism and its effects on flourishing found that while ‘perfectionism can undermine flourishing and stand in the way of emotional, psychological and social well-being’ (Stoeber, J and Corr, P.J, 2016), this effect was often limited to those who viewed the need for perfection as a social requirement. On the other hand, it concluded that those who see perfection as important personally ‘feel that their life is more fulfilled, purposeful and socially related’.
This finding is particularly interesting. When I was striving for perfection in the workplace, I was very aware of how other people saw me, and I distinctly recall feeling that I was not good enough. On some bizarre level, I believed that working harder would change their opinion of me (‘they don’t like me but if I’m a hard worker and do everything right, they’ll have to change their opinion’). This plan was flawed from the start; nobody likes the brown-nosing kid that always puts their hand up when the teacher asks a question, but clearly, my need for perfection here was rooted in social requirements.
These days my drive for perfection is rooted more securely in my sense of self. Much like an athlete-in-training, I look at the previous day’s diet, last week’s exercise and my recent writing attempts and try to do better next time. Except this is the interesting part: I don’t feel any better about it. I still berate myself for my failings. I still feel bitterly frustrated when I am unable to do something, or when I am late, or make a mistake. I am not alone in this. Many of my friends battle an overwhelming need for perfection (one in particular – you know who you are) and the inability to achieve it in everything, creating a constant and undue sense of failure.
At some point we will all need to learn that perfection is not always attainable, and when it isn’t then good enough MUST be good enough. We have to learn to be okay with doing our best, especially when it falls short of our screwy ideals. Maybe if we can get the hang of it we can learn to appreciate ourselves for being perfectly imperfect. It might just save our health.