In a horde of students and peers alike constantly claiming their ‘perfectionist’ tendencies to be the root of their untimely stress and anxiety regarding work, it’s often hard to understand where you lie. The ‘perfectionist’ charcteristic has long been developing, and what once was a psychogical derivative of a disorder has now become an “attractive flaw” phenomenon. How many times have you heard, especially if you studied or worked at a high-ranked, high-pressured university or workplace, someone claiming that they were stressed about a certain work of theirs because of, or that their biggest flaw is, perfectionism? Too many to count, I assume.
But if everyone was a perfectionist, surely no one would be?
I think the issue lies within one common problem — misconception. Let’s get this straight, perfectionism is not an “attractive flaw”. Gone need to be the days when every second person uses it as their “worst quality” in an effort to mask all the ones they so clearly are ignorant of. Perfectionism does not simply encompass always striving to be one’s best. If that’s what it meant, surely people would simply say “Oh, I’m always striving to be the best!”. (Try saying that at a job interview when asked what your flaws are). Whilst that is a big component of being a perfectionist, it comes with a whole lot of baggage and is applicable to the being as a whole. It’s a lot like OCD, as my friend shrewdly observed of the overuse of characterising onseself as a perfectionist. Both perfectionism and OCD have been attributed with a somewhat positive connotation, where the former now translates as ‘one who works hard enough till results are perfect’ and the latter being an attribute for cleanliness, tidiness, and being organised.
Yes, getting frustrated or uncomfortable with a painting hanging askew or a desk being cluttered are certainly aspects of OCD, but I’m sure not possessing such afflictions is rarer than having them. Who, really, doesn’t get bothered by an uneven, askew painting hanging on the wall? But even eliminating that point, simply having that one affliction does not classify you as an obsessive compulsive person. Ask someone with actual OCD how life is for them. A problem that affects all areas of their life, where their obsessive compulsive tendencies are apparent in every aspect, however mild or severe.
Perfectionism is the same. It encompasses insecurity, and a lack of self-esteem and confidence. You always strive for the best, for achieving your ideal standard, for making things “perfect”, but what does this stem from? From a sense of insecurity, from never feeling good enough, not having enough confidence in your own abilities. This is what it means to be a perfectionist. When people with such tendencies constantly worry about not being good enough, they often have a crippling fear of failure. This fear is so intense, it leads to an attribute that one would never associate with the colloquial “perfectionism” — procrastination. More often than not, a perfectionist is so anxious about producing their best work, they are unable to get started. Can’t fail if you don’t try, right? This procrastination is, of course, accompanied by incessant guilt — you are anxious about making something perfect, but in turn end up doing nothing, which in turn generates a sense of inadequacy and self-loathing: the very breeding ground for depression, anxiety, and eating disorders.
A perfectionist feels this incessant need for achieving this ‘ideal standard’ in every aspect of their life. They not only need their professional work to be ‘perfect’, but also need others to see them a certain way. They need validation, a sense of approval from others, and in a way, their own self becomes the “other” for how critically they view themselves. Of course the degrees and aspects in which they feel so vary, but more often than not this perfectionism jumps from work to emotional endurance to physical appearance to strength to creativity to a number of other attributes. Essentially, as soon as validation comes towards one aspect, in whichever form, it is soon replaced by feeling inadequate or not quite good enough in another.
So, truly, perfectionism is a coined term for a constant, rampant feeling of insecurity and lack of self-belief and confidence. It is often symptomatic of procrastination, and a critical nature as a defence mechanism. Anyone that uses “perfectionism” as a reason for their stress or as a classic example of their supposed “flaws”, let them remember that they are essentially being ignorant of a more important, real problem underlying their stress; perhaps this is self-doubt, a fear of their potential, or lack of confidence in their abilities. Perhaps it is all of the things that do encompass a perfectionist. But maybe it’s time we stop using this term that has come to hold an overlying positive connotation. Even if you suffix it with “it’s really not a good quality, I’m never happy with the result so I’m always trying to do better”, it will always come off as a roundabout way of saying you’re just hardworking and are always trying to reach the best possible outcome, to both the listener but more importantly, to yourself. Maybe if we stop using this sugar-coated word, and start realising and actualising the flaws that underlie this term, we will begin to improve and overcome the problems that truly matter. We might work towards gaining more confidence in our abilities or realising our true potential, instead of simply accepting “oh, I’m just a perfectionist.”