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  • Writer's pictureElisha Bae

The dark side of perfectionism

golden ratio, staircase
The 'perfect' golden ratio... but is there a side that we don't see?

Being 'perfect' is a state we often strive to be in. When someone accomplishes a task well, we often say it's 'perfect'. Over the years, I have been complimented for being the 'perfect student' but it's only now that I'm beginning to see that there is a darker side to perfectionism.

Two Sides of a Coin

Like many things in the world, there are positive and negative sides to perfectionism. At a healthy and motivating state, perfectionists challenge themselves with goals and standards that can drive them forward.

Even when they fail, they take it as an opportunity to learn from the mistakes and try to figure out a solution to them. They won't lose interest in the activity just because their attempt at it was not successful.

However, negative perfectionists, also known as maladaptive perfectionists, set extremely unrealistic goals for them to follow through, meaning that they're almost destined to fail. When they do make mistakes or fail, they might either become obsessed with accomplishing the initial goal, increasing their efforts even if it doesn't work. This can result in burn-outs or a lowered sense of self-esteem. Some might choose to avoid doing the activity altogether as soon as they think that they're going to fail, losing a good opportunity to learn from their mistakes.

I actually associate myself with being an avoidant maladaptive perfectionist, which explains my urge to drop everything and do something that I know I'm good at every time I face an obstacle. This feeds into procrastination as well, but now that I've identified this issue, it's been easier to talk myself through the situation and reach a point where I'm not as stressed out with trying to make everything perfect.

You Can Be Your Own Helping Hand

Just like how I started to get over my maladaptive perfectionism just by identifying the problem, there are ways that you can help yourself if you feel overwhelmed.

  • Break down the goal into smaller steps

To make sure that the idea of doing a task doesn't become a place to demonstrate your perfection, try breaking down the goal in multiple stages. The small steps will be easy to do — so much so that you won't even feel the pressure. It can even be something as 'wearing your trainers' before heading out for a jog or 'making a new document' to write an essay.

  • Change that cynical, snide voice in your head into something more encouraging

I know that people sometimes hear a very disrespectful little voice that tells you that everything you're doing is wrong. Get that voice to move out and let a kinder, more gentle voice into your mind. The fact that you're trying something out is amazing. Don't let yourself take that away from you.

  • Increase your sense of self-efficacy

Self-efficacy is the belief in your own capabilities to achieve a goal or an outcome. As a person who avoids things altogether in fear of failing, I had to work on my self-efficacy skills to make sure that I wasn't just being paranoid. With a higher self-efficacy, it's easier to bounce back from setbacks. In order to increase self-efficacy, put your focus on the process of reaching your goal (i.e. how you achieve them) instead of the results of your goal (i.e. what you achieved). Accurately attributing your mistakes and failures will help you understand that it wasn't because you're not good enough, but perhaps you didn't follow the instructions correctly.

  • Describe, in detail, what your 'success' or 'end product' looks like

This is a practical technique that I use before a big project. If I can describe exactly how I envision my finished task to be, I'm also thinking about the steps I need to take to reach that (linking it back to my first advice). It prevents you from being too unrealistic with your goals — because if you can't even describe it in your own words, how are you supposed to do it yourself?

Getting over this unconstructive idea of perfectionism is not easy, but now that you know more about it, perhaps it can be a starting point.

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