A perfectionist is a person who aims for perfection in their work and actions. You might think that this is an excellent trait in a person, especially in the software industry, where avoiding errors is part of the job description. Many even secretly view perfectionism as a good thing. “I’m a perfectionist, so I do high-quality, flawless work.” However, this perception is flawed.
Perfectionism is not driven by a healthy desire to excel as a professional and produce high-quality work. Instead, at the core of perfectionism lies an incessant fear of inadequacy. This fear is often intertwined with shame and imposter syndrome.
Perfectionism is a protective shield
A person who fears inadequacy protects themselves through perfectionist behaviour. Perfection – and only perfection – is believed to shield one from criticism, failure, and being exposed as incompetent.
“If I never make any mistakes, I won’t have to face these uncomfortable situations.”
Perfectionism becomes a protective shield that hides the actual person, who is struggling, stressed, and fatigued. When you must be perfect, there is little room left for humanity and compassion. In the long run, perfectionism turns against you and does more harm than good.
The pursuit of perfection is slow and laborious
A perfectionist works slowly and laboriously because they spend an enormous amount of time perfecting and polishing their work. The pursuit of perfection doesn’t only apply to the most critical tasks but to everything, starting from sending an email. Getting caught up in details slows down progress, and the relative importance of things becomes unclear.
Certain tasks deserve our full attention and require extra care, especially when dealing with different environments—such as checking whether it’s a testing or production environment. However, there are also tasks that don’t require a 100% effort, and they can be handled with a slightly lighter touch. But a perfectionist cannot do this because only perfection is acceptable.
A person doesn’t need to be a perfectionist to do high-quality, sometimes flawless work. On the other hand, even perfectionism cannot guarantee flawlessness because humans make mistakes occasionally, no matter how hard they try. Instead of pursuing perfection, aiming for appropriateness would make work more manageable. Ask yourself: What is appropriate and sufficient at this point?
Perfectionism leads to procrastination and burnout
It’s difficult for a perfectionist to take action. The commonly used term for this is procrastination. The more challenging the task, the more difficult it is for the perfectionist to start. A daunting task may cause anxiety and fear to the extent that it is left undone completely.
As the deadline approaches, the perfectionist has to make heroic efforts to make up for the time wasted on procrastination. Leaving things to the last minute also serves as a defence mechanism. If someone criticises the work, the perfectionist can always blame it on having done everything at the last minute.
Stressing about unfinished work, periods of putting in a heroic effort and nitpicking your work add to your workload and your stress levels. The perfectionist is also rarely satisfied with their own work or results. There’s always something to improve or develop. As a result, the perfectionist starts to burn out.
Don’t hide under the shell of perfectionism all alone
If you recognise traits of perfectionism in yourself, talk about it with a colleague, your supervisor, an occupational health nurse, or your loved ones. It’s challenging to change our thinking and behaviour without the help and support of others. Additionally, talking about it reveals that you are not alone, nor the only one with these tendencies and thoughts.
Striving to overcome perfectionism is beneficial to you as it lightens your burdens and makes life easier. It doesn’t turn you into a lazy underperformer. On the contrary, it will likely make you a happier professional.
I also recommend Brené Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection as further reading on the subject.
TL;DR Perfectionism does more harm than good
- Perfectionism is not a good thing because it stems from a constant fear of inadequacy.
- A perfectionist uses the pursuit of perfection as a shield against criticism, failure, and exposure.
- Flawlessness is not achievable. Aim for appropriate and enough instead of perfection.
- A perfectionist easily burns out, since there is always something to improve on or develop further.
- Overcoming perfectionism is worthwhile as it lightens the load and makes you a happier professional.