When does perfectionism go from being a good thing to a bad thing? I’m not sure there’s a perfect answer to this question — but I’m going to keep looking for one.
As a writer, one way I think about perfectionism in the context of creating something new.
Sometimes when I’m writing I’ll rework a sentence several times before I feel like I’ve found the words that express what I’m trying to say. This tinkering with words can become a little perfectionistic, but not necessarily in a bad way. If I just wrote down every sentence that popped into my head without a second thought, reading these blog posts would be a very different experience.
On the other hand, it would also create problems if I got so wrapped up in trying to make one sentence absolutely, unprecedentedly, unassailably perfect that I never got around to writing the next sentence. If I kept rewriting the same sentence over and over feeling that it was never good enough.
That’s why revision can be dangerous. The line for when something is “good enough” is subjective. What if things are never good enough?
The idea of things never being good enough can separate constructive and destructive perfectionism. Constructive perfectionism is about getting something up to high standards. With destructive perfectionism, high standards become impossible standards. You spend so much time trying to get things “perfect” that you lose track of your priorities.
In practice, distinguishing helpful and harmful perfectionism isn’t always easy. But a telltale sign is the feeling that you expect things to be perfect to the point that anything else feels like a kind of failure. One way to work with these feelings is to take a step back and appreciate the things you do well, even if there’s a voice in your head insisting you still aren’t doing them well enough.
In this Ask the Therapist video, Marie Hartwell-Walker and Daniel Tomasulo go over some other strategies for getting perspective on perfectionism and for working on the bad parts of perfectionism while keeping the good. Watch the video below: