Perfectionism can be a virtue in the pursuit of excellence and mastery, but it may also have a dark side, with unhealthy obsessions or chronic dissatisfaction getting in the way of creative imagination, healthy relationships and life satisfaction.
Two examples: Filmmaker Jerry Bruckheimer has been called a relentless perfectionist, someone who never allows a single detail to go by without notice. Martha Stewart calls herself a maniacal perfectionist and says if she weren’t, she wouldn’t have her huge multimedia company.
Psychologist Stephen A. Diamond, Ph.D. thinks that without perfectionism, we would not have the number of ventures we consider extraordinary and excellent, outstanding or great.
But perfectionism is not always a virtue, and it can affect how controlling we get about our lives and interactions with other people.
Actor Michelle Pfeiffer considers herself a perfectionist, but admits she can drive herself mad – and other people, too. But she thinks it is one of the reasons for her success, because she really cares about what she does and strives to get it right.
But another artist renowned (and often condemned) for her perfectionism, Barbra Streisand warns that we have to accept imperfections in ourselves, and in others. She notes it’s part of the beauty of life that nothing can be perfect.
Actor Ashley Judd entered a treatment program in 2006 to overcome lifelong emotional problems, and learned she was using sleep to deal with uncomfortable feelings and that her habit of wiping down plastic surfaces on planes and hotels was all about control, a big part of perfectionism.
Now, she says, it helps to be aware that engaging in perfectionism is a form of abusing herself.
In her book Never Good Enough, Monica Ramirez Basco, Ph.D. writes that when you think you keep falling short, feel criticized by others, or cannot get others to cooperate in doing something the way you think it “should” be done, you can end up inflicting negative attitudes and emotions on both yourself and others.
She describes cognitive-behavioral methods for controlling the distress associated with perfection, to identify, evaluate, and change the underlying beliefs that affect how we may respond to events and interact with others.
This can be a powerful approach to dealing with perfectionism. Part of it is becoming aware of the beliefs you have about striving to “do things right” in a compulsive way, and not allowing for “imperfect” to be okay.
Dr. Basco lists some potential beliefs to examine, such as: “If I make a mistake, it will be horrible”; “I must be perfect or others will disapprove of me” and “If I do it perfectly, then everyone will notice.”
These kinds of thoughts or ideas can seem to be true, at least in some situations. When you create something excellent, people are likely to notice and acclaim it. But depending on being “perfect” for approval is a self-defeating belief.
In his book Perfecting Ourselves To Death, Richard Winter quotes psychologist Don Hamachek about making a distinction between unhealthy and healthy perfectionists, who can derive pleasure from painstaking efforts and feel free to be less precise when appropriate.
They can enhance their self-esteem, take pleasure in their skills, and appreciate doing an outstanding job.
So another part of dealing with perfectionism is to pay attention to how you feel when striving to be perfect, and when you “fail” to get there at times.
It may not be easy to let go of stress around perfectionism, but it can benefit your life in many ways.
Actor Faye Dunaway has said she has learned to stop being so controlling, but agrees it can be a very hard thing to change. Now, she finds she can more often “sit back and enjoy the ride.”
Director James Cameron disagrees with being labeled a perfectionist: “No, I’m a greatist. I only want to do it until it’s great.”
That is something we can all do: take pleasure in making it great.