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Perfectionist’s Prey

Writing_React_BSPMy late mother and I discussed how to deftly handle the vexing interview question, “What’s your biggest weakness?”

Instead of providing a sincere answer (stubbornness for $100, Alex), we collectively rehearsed the answer. And, yes, my over-practiced answer hinted at those dreaded — and inescapable — tendencies.

“Well, I am a perfectionist. I am not satisfied until the project is perfect. And I will strive — relentlessly — to meet the project’s objectives,” I dribbled out to the interviewer in chief.

According to my mother, perfectionism is a virtue. And, according to her perfectionist’s creed, my answer proved my very bona fides — an unflinching commitment to meet my employer’s goals.

But, Mom wisdom notwithstanding, is perfectionism more vice than virtue? Could it even be my biggest weakness?  

Get out your shovel; it is time to dig a little deeper. Like my late mother, I am a proud overachiever. And like her, I attribute my success to an unmatched work ethic and a tireless desire to achieve.

But these putative virtues have devilish side effects. As a perfectionist youngster, I remember — in vivid detail — the agony of an eighth grade science project. Sure, earth science was excruciating for this math and science technophone. But more distressing: the crumpled drafts in my overflowing wastepaper basket. My handwriting was imperfect — or so I declared. But with each hastily discarded draft, my frustration crescendoed into a boiling crockpot of angst, impatience, and, yes, trying perfectionism. Intellectually, I knew my behavior was irrational but in my quest for perfection (and the perfect cursive t), my earnestness — and volatility — seemed completely sensible.

Did my quest for perfection sabotage pretty good? The unmistakable answer: Yes. In perfect — or imperfect handwriting.

As a perfectionist, I understand its allure. Our unflinching mantra: If I just work a little harder, it will work out. Perfectionism is a tempting mistress; she provides a fleeting sense of control. But  as a recovering perfectionist, I recognize its fallacy. We spend our life chasing next: the next assignment, the next accomplishment. And regardless of past successes, every assignment becomes an indictment of our worthiness. Is this good enough? Am I good enough? Failure’s blaring siren beats our stinging synapses into submission.

Yes, your perfectionistic tendencies may have a causal relationship to your success but it also contributes to a deepening joylessness. Success become a relief — a deep, longing sigh — before the ravenous self-doubt consumes your time, energy, and brainpower.  Even worst, perfectionism breeds indecision. Instead of trusting yourself, you analyze and overanalyze and then analyze some more. Is this good enough? becomes a self-defeating prophecy.

Observing my perfectionistic tendencies, my girlfriend has dryly admonished, “Work smart; not hard.” She is right — even moreso when it takes an hour to write a three sentence paragraph. But as we perfectionists know all too well, perfectionism is hard-wired into our DNA — and those stinging synapses. Here’s an amenable compromise: “Work hard(er) at being smart.”

Now that is one mantra worth writing down — even if it is in scribbled, imperfect cursive.

Perfectionist’s Prey


Matthew Loeb

Matthew Loeb, a Seattle-based attorney, is a mental health advocate. You can contact him at [email protected]


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APA Reference
Loeb, M. (2018). Perfectionist’s Prey. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 17, 2019, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/perfectionists-prey/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych Central.com. All rights reserved.