A public safety agency in our town periodically puts up interesting sayings on a sign in front of its facility. Right now the sign says something like the following: “IF YOU DON’T M3SS UP SOMETIMES, IT MEANS YOU’RE NOT DOING ANYTHING.”
I laugh a bit when I drive by the facility and read the sign, but I also understand the truth in what it says.
Perfectionism is part of my obsessive-compulsive disorder. I believe that it sometimes keeps me from doing anything.
I avoid writing because it might not be perfect. I avoid doing more artwork because I won’t do a perfect job.
I also have a hard time letting tasks go. For example, I have a hard time letting go of assigned stories on the job.
I read and reread and revise and proof over and over before I finally turn in a story to my editor. This process takes a lot of time, more time than it should, and it leaves me dreading writing and even avoiding starting writing assignments until the last minute.
I really hate to mess up. I fear that others will think I’m incompetent or unintelligent. I am afraid that I’ll make a mistake with terrible consequences, especially in my writing for the newspaper.
Perfectionism is not always a bad thing, and not all perfectionists have OCD.
In a post called “Perfectionism in OCD: When the pursuit of success turns toxic,” on Dr. Steven Seay’s Psychology Blog, Seay wrote about adaptive and maladaptive perfectionism.
Seay described the adaptive perfectionist as “the prototypical workaholic student/employee who goes above and beyond expectations. This person is intelligent, hard-working, dependable, and passionate about meeting or beating deadlines. He or she sets high personal standards of performance and has an attention to detail that is appreciated by (and often draws accolades from) others.”
Seay wrote that the maladaptive perfectionist also believed in hard work and tended to be intelligent and have high standards. But he “often misses deadlines and fails to deliver an exceptional work product (or, in some cases, any work at all).”
This was because a person with maladaptive perfectionism “often gets stuck in repeating tasks and has difficulty finishing projects. He or she may repeatedly recheck or revise their work. However, despite these efforts, the product never quite feels ‘good enough,’” Seay wrote.
He said maladaptive perfectionists may also practice avoidance: “Alternatively, the person may suffer from intellectual paralysis due to an over-concern with living up to their own potential, fear of failure, or a fear of disappointing others (e.g., teachers, parents, loved ones). This intellectual paralysis may lead to complete avoidance, and this avoidance often becomes chronic and difficult to change.”
On Friday, my therapist and I discussed my tendency towards perfectionism and how it played a part in my avoidance of going through my piles of papers.
The cognitive behavioral therapy exercise I did Friday was one way of fighting through the avoidance caused in part by perfectionism.
OCD Chicago offers other ways of fighting perfectionism in an article called “The Search for Imperfection: Strategies for Coping with the Need to be Perfect,” by Andrew M. Jacobs, Psy.D. and Martin M. Antony, Ph.D., ABPP.
An example of a strategy was testing your beliefs about perfectionism. Make a typo in an email to your boss, the authors suggested, and see if your fears come true. If they come true, consider how you were able to deal with them.
Other strategies include putting your sense of perfection into perspective and think about areas of your life where imperfection is OK; attempting to define perfect; considering how you have different standards for others; and finding out the standards of people you admire.
The authors also encouraged exposure response prevention therapy. That is basically what I did Friday night: I worked on my piles of papers for 20 minutes, but I didn’t allow myself to get caught up in a never-ending session of trying to make everything perfect. I also didn’t allow myself to continue to avoid going through the papers.
Are you a perfectionist? Do you also have OCD? How has perfectionism affected you? What strategies do you use to fight against the negative effects of perfectionism?
Now I am going to stop rereading and revising this post and use it as an exposure exercise. I really want to read it again, but I’ve done my best, and it’s time to let it go.