There aren’t too many people who’d argue that having high standards is a bad thing. A person with high standards, after all, tends to shuns procrastination, performs at his best and values a job well done.
There’s a difference, though, between taking pride in your work and needing to control every aspect of the process. Too often, people confuse having high standards with perfectionism, a condition that sabotages productivity, creativity and confidence. Having high standards can lead to great work. Perfectionism does not.
So how can you tell if you’re someone who strives for excellence or a control freak who needs everything to be perfect? To answer that question, it’s important to understand the difference between the two.
According to University of Minnesota psychologist Glenn Hirsch, perfectionism is the belief that anything undertaken must be error-free at all times. In other words, mistakes are out of the question and minor goof-ups are major character flaws.
“People who are perfectionists often believe that making mistakes makes them less successful, less likeable, and even less worthy people,” Hirsch explains in this paper.
Assuming those afflicted with perfectionism are human (they always are), reaching perfection is impossible. And it’s the inability to reconcile this obvious contradiction that wreaks havoc in the perfectionist’s life. It’s no wonder anxiety and depression are the hallmarks of perfectionism.
“Expecting yourself to be perfect sets you up for all kinds of uncomfortable and unsuccessful experiences,” Hirsch notes.
Unlike ambitious go-getters who are able to learn from their mistakes and bounce back from setbacks, perfectionists are hobbled by their incessant need to get everything right all the time.
Here are some ways perfectionism shows up in the real world:
Anxiety or depression. Anxiety is usually the underpinning of perfectionism. The fear of making a mistake or being judged by others is common for perfectionists. What’s more, their anxiety can be compounded by depression when they fail to live up to their own impossible standards.
The irony, of course, is that both anxiety and depression are the enemies of productivity, creativity and confidence – all qualities of successful people.
“(Perfectionists) do not believe they will ever be good enough or be able to maintain high performance long enough,” Hirsch explains in his paper.
Procrastination. If a perfectionist fears doing something wrong, he will avoid doing it all together — despite the consequences.
Frustration. Perfectionists live by the belief that “good enough is not enough.” They are often frustrated by their inability to meet their own impossible expectations.
Low self-esteem. Perfectionists tend to be their own worst enemies. They lambaste themselves with negative self-talk and criticism. They judge themselves by the things they can accomplish, not by who they are.
If any of these descriptors strike a nerve, you might be a perfectionist. Here’s what to do to keep perfectionism from sabotaging your success:
New York Times bestselling-author and podcast host Gretchen Rubin believes perfectionism is one of the biggest “stumbling blocks” to happiness.
As Rubin explains in this interview, it’s helpful if people separate their high standards from the anxiety surrounding those standards.
“Sometimes people feel like, ‘If I gave up my perfectionism then I would be mediocre.’ And it’s like no, you can keep your standards. Just lose the anxiety that you’re feeling around…the idea that you’re going to fail if you don’t meet those standards,” she says.
In other words, reframe the way you think about success. Not everything is going to be a homerun. So prioritize the important things that will move you toward success.
“Don’t spend your time rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic” is a motto Rubin swears by.
Stop setting goals that are impossible to achieve. Unrealistic timeframes or deliverables only set you up for failure. Get real about what you can get done in any given period of time. The more you can feel like you’ve accomplished something, the less anxious you’ll feel about not getting things done.
Realize when good enough is good enough.
Endless tweaking is the equivalent of “death by a thousand paper cuts.” Waiting to put something out into the world until it’s perfect is a waste of time because it will never be perfect. There will always be room for improvement or iteration.
As Seth Godin writes on his blog:
“Every time you raise your hand, send an email, launch a product or make a suggestion, you’re exposing yourself to criticism. Not just criticism, but the negative consequences that come with wasting money, annoying someone in power or making a fool of yourself.
It’s no wonder we’re afraid to ship.
It’s not clear you have much choice, though. A life spent curled in a ball, hiding in the corner might seem less risky, but in fact it’s certain to lead to ennui and eventually failure.”
It’s your turn.
Are you a perfectionist? Which of these tips did you find useful? Share your thoughts on Twitter or in the comments.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.