Every person in the world has perfectionistic tendencies, but only some of us realize it. Fewer still recognize the profound negativity that perfectionism has on our lives.
~ Stephen Guise
The Benefit of Perfectionism (Perceived Safety)
Perfectionism is an excuse-generating machine. After setting a perfect standard, attempting to meet it seems futile. Such a standard can also be a response to underlying fears and doubts. For example, if I feared that I couldn’t write well, I might then create an irrationally high standard for my writing to discourage myself from ever attempting to write—for example, my first draft must be as concise as Hemingway and as witty as Shakespeare. This would prevent me from writing a single word!
The perfectionist enjoys safety and protection from what they fear, and that—not striving for excellence—is the most common reason why people become perfectionists.
This is clearly seen because of when we are the most perfectionistic. Have you noticed that the higher the stakes (and fear), the more perfectionistic a person will be?
Most people aren’t as concerned with being praised as much as they are about preventing embarrassment. Author and researcher Brené Brown says that perfectionism is a 20-ton shield we carry around in hopes that it protects us from harm. “In truth,” she says, “what it does is keep us from being seen.”6 If you’re unseen, you can’t be embarrassed, but does anyone really want to remain unseen? Being seen and even embarrassed occasionally is an essential part of life.
The Illusion of Greatness
A desire for greatness and fear of inadequacy are counterforces, and perfectionism is the only solution that seems to address both. You can fantasize about greatness while remaining protected against embarrassment. Inaction, in this case, even appears to validate your great potential because desiring perfection implies that you have and can meet high standards (when you run out of excuses), but it only hides your potential from yourself and the world.
If perfectionism were an iceberg, the small, visible tip would be a desire for excellence, and the submerged part, which reportedly comprises 90% of an iceberg’s mass, would be the fear of failure. The fear of failure is not something we want to show to the world, but it can still drive our actions.
There is yet another caveat to this perplexing mindset that I want to make clear: it’s not the literal consequences of failure that scare us; it’s the idea that we could fail at something we desire greatly.
We cling to perfectionism not because the cost of failure rises but because the importance of the reward rises. The more we want something, the more afraid we are to not get it. A “perfect” example of this is one of the many low-risk and high-reward behaviors that trigger a perfectionistic response in people: asking a girl to go on a date, asking for a raise, meeting new people, or trying something new.
Each of these usually has a negligible downside compared to the great upside if it’s a success. Why then, would they trigger this response?
Failure has two components to it.
The 2 Considerations of Failure
1. The first, most obvious component of failure is the literal impact of failing.
If you fail to jump across a ravine, you’ll get gravely hurt or killed by falling into it. But failure in the examples given in the previous paragraph comes with little to no consequences. You might feel slightly worse and less confident because of rejection, but you’ll be no worse off in most cases.
The reason we can still be fearful of these near-zero risk actions is the second component of failure—meaning and symbolism.
If you fail to do something, you will naturally wonder why. Why did she say no? Why didn’t I get the raise? Am I unintelligent because I couldn’t complete a Rubik’s cube on my first or tenth try?
The answer to these bigger questions is what we fear the most. Your boss said you couldn’t get a raise. Why? You might think it’s because you’re not good enough, you don’t have what it takes, and your career has hit its ceiling. Suddenly, this zero-risk attempt has thrown a knockout punch to your confidence and self-esteem!
We fear what failure means about who we are. We fear that it will expose our weaknesses and damage our vulnerable hopes and dreams. That’s scary stuff! I used to be a perfectionist in fearing this type of “symbolic failure” with women. If one woman rejects me, so will the rest!
For Anyone Would Like to Learn More About How to Overcome The Need to Be Perfect, Read More About it in Stephen’s book:
How to Be an Imperfectionist
by Stephen Guise
2. Perfectionism protects us against symbolic failure
Because low-risk and high-reward opportunities are often tied to concepts that we crave success in—romance, career, and socializing—an individual instance of failure can be seen as symbolic of our standing in that area, even though, logically, it’s more of a chance-based result than a life-defining failure. (We’ll cover this more in the second half of the book.)
In this dynamic is another “benefit” of perfectionism—mystery! If you never attempt something, you can’t know empirically that you’re not world-class at it. The mystery in perfectionism allows our perfect fantasies to never be tested and disproved. A quick logic check tells us that we’re not perfect at anything. So there’s not actually any mystery; it’s just the illusion of it.
It’s important to be honest about this—perfectionism does protect us. It protects us from massively damaging our confidence and hopes. (Otherwise, it wouldn’t be so popular.) Being a perfectionist seems prudent and responsible based on this perspective.
To this, I have a potentially life-changing question for you to consider: do you want or need this type of protection?
Being protected is not always best for us. Consider animals that grow up protected in shelters and so lack the skills to survive in the wild. Consider individual muscle fibers, which are torn through exercise and then built back stronger. Protection often weakens that which it protects.
Funny Tee For the Perfectionist: As Long As Everything is Exactly The Way I Want It, I’m Totally Flexible
Perfectionism significantly weakens us over time by making us overprotective against mistakes and failures that carry a short-term downside and a long- term upside. The idea is as follows: if you can withstand something undesirable AND it strengthens you, you’re far better off “unprotected” against it.