Perfection Is Poison

Perfection Is Poison
How often have you heard the phrase “I’m just a perfectionist!” and thought to yourself that it sounds like a negative trait. Not too often, hopefully. That’s kind of the whole point of this piece.
See, we’ve got a thing for performance at ZAAG. It’s the driving force behind our daily gel shots that power people through their workouts, creativity sessions, recuperation and, in general, their day.
Perfection then, you’d think, would be something we’d glamourise. Why would one aim for anything other than perfect? In modern culture, it’s generally an adorned notion. Our globalised lives venerate the elite, nudging us away from conscientiousness and more down the rabbit hole of perfectionism.
But it’s often the foil to performance. Obsessing over optimal outcomes can lead to dithering and procrastinating. Reasons are easily found to justify that it’s not worth trying. It’s a self-sabotaging and counterproductive endeavour that shields ourselves from possible failure, shame and embarrassment. 
Before we get into it, it’s vital to acknowledge Thomas Curran and his work on perfectionism. His 2023 book The Perfection Trap outlines a number of dangers that the trait summons.
What Do You Mean?
Curran defines perfectionism as the “striving for flawlessness in combination with tendencies for overly critical self-evaluation.”
It’s a scale, not a diagnosis. We all exhibit it to a lesser or greater degree. Back in 1991, Hewitt and Flett identified three types of perfection: self-oriented, other-oriented and socially prescribed.
  • Self-oriented perfectionists expect flawlessness in themselves.
  • Other-oriented perfectionists place high demands on other people.
  • Socially prescribed perfectionists think others expect them to be perfect.
The key problems with perfectionism are, first, the avoidance of situations where you know you'll be bad. Second, the accompanying deficit thinking that follows parallel; overly critical and disparaging views of ourselves. It can be boiled down to “I’m not good enough.”
Rising Sighs
These darker sides of perfection have been burgeoning in recent decades. Data from the 1990s to the modern day, based on 41,000 students, show a steady rise in both self-oriented and other-oriented perfection -- a couple of percentage points.)
The notable, alarming, and wholly unsurprising increase arises in socially prescribed perfectionism. This number has increased, and continues to increase, exponentially. About 300% faster than the other two.
The dramatic rise of individuals feeling as if others expect them to be perfect neatly aligns with the proliferation of smartphones and the stratospheric rise of social media from around 2008.
Global Town Square
Until very recently, our experienced world was governed by geography. As technology marched forwards, the local boundaries that once encircled our lives have crept outwards. Today, it’s tough to argue that we live anywhere other than in a globally connected world.
The rise of remote working has been remarkable for many, yet the flipside of this is the widening of talent pools for the most sought-after jobs. Instead of jockeying with those in our local town for the top spot, the metaphoric lens of comparison has broadened. Our skills and flaws are juxtaposed against individuals on the other side of the world.
“Modern society has got to a point where we only celebrate the unicorn achievers, the impossibl[y] high standards of the super elite.” - Thomas Curran
Whether you’re a painter, a software engineer, an athlete or somewhere in between, the top 0.1% are just a few taps away.
It used to be good enough to be good enough. Now, society tells us that we have to be better.
So… why is this bad?
Your Actions Have Consequences
Remember, perfection isn’t just aiming high. It’s “striving for flawlessness.” 
Gaudreau in 2018 highlighted the counterproductivity of the aspiration by introducing the idea of pushing for excellencism. In essence, trying to be better outperforms utopic ideas of perfection.
He found that, initially, there’s an uptick in performance for perfectionists. However, before long this behaviour turns into a negative endeavour by way of anxiety and burnout.
What’s more, two separate meta-analyses of perfectionism have been performed in recent years by Madigan and Harrari. The first found a marginal correlation between the attitude and academic performance.
The latter looked at the impact of perfection on job performance and found no correlation whatsoever.
This highlights the counterproductivity of perfectionism. Never being content with an outcome does not lead to increased performance. It actually holds us back from doing the necessary work in many situations. Not being happy with anything other than a faultless outcome is more of a self-sabotaging act.
Why Bother
This “fuck it, why try,” outlook was wonderfully illustrated through an experiment by Hill in 2011. He challenged cyclists to race against themselves. Regardless of their effort, he told them they failed. Then, they were asked to try again.
Those low on the self-oriented perfectionism scale performed either the same or slightly better on their second go.
But those who scored high for self-oriented perfectionism saw their score plummet the second time around.
They gave up when asked to repeat the task. 
Rather than risk the embarrassment of failure again, they self-sabotaged. 
This illustrates the paradox of perfectionism. By only engaging in activities that one might think they’ll thrive in, they hamstring their potential and minimise their performance.
Striving for excellence is almost always the reason for high achievement. Aspiring for flawlessness, and berating ourselves when anything other than that emerges, is typically a means to undermine potential. 
Impossibly high standards, disregard for valid reasons that explain suboptimal outcomes, and relentless self-critique, are often the cause of many of the problems of perfectionists. We inflict this pain on ourselves.
Remedy Time
The salve to perfectionism, according to Curran, is meaningful reflection and self-compassion. 
We’ve covered in previous pieces how self-compassion outweighs self-esteem when it comes to the idea of self-worth – providing a more reliable uplift to the way we feel about ourselves. Puffing our chest out and pretending we’re doing great does nothing other than mask the truth.
Holding ourselves to impossible standards isn’t the best route to high performance. Understanding why we sometimes missed the dizzying heights we so desperately aimed for is leaning into excellence rather than perfection.
To perform, we have to step onto the stage. When we overanalyse and over-criticise, only daring to engage in things we know we’re great at, we kill potential in the cradle before it has time to blossom.

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