trying to be perfect

Some people think that trying to be perfect inspires you to action. “Aim high if you want to stand out and be noticed”, the thinking goes. That’s OK if you don’t take too literally, but if what drives you is that you feel you are not good enough, beware. Fear of not being good enough or of getting it wrong can lead you to make demands on yourself to such a point that you can become stupid. It also limits your confidence.

Trying to be perfect is all very well, and it’s OK when it acts as a driver to push you to do better or achieve more. But, there are some serious side-effects.

By stupid I mean they lose sight of something so that you act in a limited, or unintelligent, way. I’m not accusing anyone of being stupid, I saying that in certain situations we can fall into the trap where we lose something of ourselves and become less able think clearly in that moment.

We become less able think clearly when we are trying to be perfect. This is because when we focus on something which is unattainable it is also likely to make us feel stressed. One of the effects of going stress is that seems to interfere with cognition, attention, and memory.

Over time, it  may also reduce your confidence and self-esteem. Constantly striving for something and missing your goal (perfection is unattainable), sets you up for failure. Repeatedly failing at something, it goes without saying, isn’t the best way to feel good about yourself. Confidence is built on strengths and competence,

Side effects

The knock-on effect of trying to be perfect temporary stupidity is under-confidence, and the effect of that is that people can struggle without getting the help they need, because they are afraid to ask.

I was reminded of this recently while I was presenting a workshop to managers in a large organisation. We had some serious discussion about what their expectations were of themselves and their performance at work.

Fear of being seen as less than perfect in their role meant that they were unable to do a number of things that everyone needs to be able to do from time to time. These included:

  • Not being able to say “I don’t know”
  • Not being able to ask for help (say, when managing a difficult employee or situation)
  • Inability to say “It’s too much for me”
  • Unwillingness to ask for something they needed to do their job better
  • Not being able to go home at a reasonable time after a hard day’s work.

These are just some of the results that I hear about from people who make an illogical connection between getting their needs met and being judged as failing. Trying to be perfect can actually be self-defeating!

You might think that the solution to this is for people to be braver about asking for what they need, but that’s only part of it. Another part is that families, groups, schools and people-systems like organisations should discourage the idea that failure at something means failing as a person.

I’m a psychologist, coach, and therapist. All my work is aimed at enabling people to improve personal aspects of their lives and work.


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