There are many pitfalls of striving for perfection. Most of us are familiar with these damaging effects: the pressure that leads to paralysis, a fear of mistakes, missed deadlines, stress, anxiety, low self-confidence.
But many people also credit their perfectionism for their great success. According to self-professed perfectionist Jeff Szymanski, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist and author of The Perfectionist’s Handbook: Take Risks, Invite Criticism, and Make the Most of Your Mistakes, there is such a thing as healthy perfectionism.
He distinguishes healthy from unhealthy perfectionism in this way:
As a rule of thumb, you’re operating within the realm of healthy perfectionism when your payoffs are greater than your costs, you are striving for and meeting standards you set for yourself, and you value organization. However, your unhealthy perfectionism is at play when your behavior, choices, and strategies are driven by factors such as a fear of failure, chronic concerns about making mistakes, constant self-doubting, attempts to live up to others’ expectations of you, anxiety about always falling short of self-made goals, and if your costs outweigh your payoffs.
Szymanski cites findings from a review of 20 years of perfectionism research. The results were quite surprising. It revealed that healthy perfectionism was associated with everything from less depression, anxiety and procrastination to higher achievement and academic success to more social support, greater life satisfaction and less self-blame.
The problem with perfectionism, he explains, isn’t in wanting things to be perfect. It’s in what we do with that desire. According to Szymanski:
In other words, our intentions, desires, and ambitions aren’t the problem. Rather, what matters are the ways in which you go about achieving those desired outcomes — the strategies you choose to use. Different strategies lead to different outcomes…Research on perfectionism has found that striving to achieve personal standards (your intention) isn’t where the problem occurs. Instead, people run into trouble when they become preoccupied with making mistakes and doubting themselves excessively. These ineffective strategies are, in fact, what get in the way of reaching our desired outcomes.
In his book, Szymanski has a useful way of thinking about perfection that can help perfectionists achieve good outcomes. Consider a recent experience when you didn’t achieve what you aimed for, and think about the following:
My intention was to ________________
My strategy was to _________________
My desired outcome was ___________
The actual outcome was ______________
Take the example of Florence, a perfectionist in the process of penning a book. Her intention was to write a good read. Her initial strategy was to perfect every sentence she wrote before moving on to the next passage. Her desired outcome was to publish her book. However, her actual outcome was a bad case of writer’s block. Not surprisingly, she felt like she wasn’t making progress. So she switched strategies. As Szymanski said, her intention and desired outcome remained the same. But by changing her strategy — writing first, editing later — she changed the outcome.
Szymanski encourages readers to examine how you spend your time by asking yourself: “Am I regularly attaining my desired outcomes? Or am I just putting in long hours and a lot of effort without seeing results?”
Overall, Szymanski’s point is that there’s no one-size-fits-all perfectionism. In other words, it’s not all bad. As he writes in The Perfectionist’s Handbook, one of the most interesting parts of perfectionism is learning when it works, when it doesn’t and why. As such, he helps readers figure out when their perfectionism pays off and when it backfires. Instead of eliminating your perfectionism, Szymanski helps you determine a way to use it so it actually works for you.