Perfectionism is for many people an aspect of being gifted and multi-talented, and can be an integral part of the pursuit of excellence and high achievement.
But being perfectionistic in unhealthy ways can make us feel continually dissatisfied or anxious, and hold us back from finishing – or even starting – creative projects.
It may often be based on trying to meet others’ expectations, rather than our own values.
Actor Emma Watson has a healthy attitude about being “perfect” – which, of course, isn’t really possible.
She talked in an interview about the pleasure and satisfaction of being an integral part of the Harry Potter movies, but admits she struggled with trying to meet expectations of fans.
“I will look back on this part of my life and I know it will be special, but it used to be that if I ever had a bad review or someone said, ‘Oh, she is too this,’ or ‘She’s too that,’ I got upset about it.
“Now what I have worked out is that it would actually be physically impossible to be perfect for everyone. Everyone has a distinct idea in their head of what each character is like.
“So I’ve kind of had to lower my standards. I can’t be perfect for everyone. J.K. thinks I’m perfect, and that’s good enough for me.”
The article added, “J.K. Rowling has said that Watson’s character, the sweet but swotty Hermione Granger, is based in part on her own persona as a child.”
[From 'Harry Potter' countdown: Emma Watson still 'quite intimidated' by pal J.K. Rowling, Hero Complex blog, Los Angeles Times, July 2, 2009.]
Best Actress Academy Award winner Kate Winslet, is, according to her husband Sam Mendes, “incredibly, relentlessly dedicated and detail oriented to the point of obsession.”
To prepare for her winning role in “The Reader” she locked herself into a rented room for two months, “to think, reflect, research eight hours a day,” according to a news story.
Her director, Stephen Daldry, said “She never stops questioning. Never stops challenging. She never rests.” [From Worth the wait in gold, By Rachel Abramowitz, Los Angeles Times, February 23, 2009.]
Another actor, Emmy Rossum commented some years ago that she too is “heavy on preparation. Some actors come to the set and don’t know what scene they’re playing, but that would make me crazy.
“It’s not about control but perfectionism – my biggest vice and one of my biggest assets.”
[Photo from "The Phantom of the Opera" (2004)]
Michelle Pfeiffer has expressed a similar perspective: “Being obsessive might be my strength and my weakness, actually, as with everyone. I’m a perfectionist, so I can drive myself mad — and other people, too.”
Impeccable is not a bad rap
Someone known for her nit-picking attention to detail, Martha Stewart has declared, “I’m a maniacal perfectionist. And if I weren’t, I wouldn’t have this company. It’s the best rap! Nobody’s going to fault me for that.
“I have proven that being a perfectionist can be profitable and admirable when creating content across the board: in television, books, newspapers, radio, videos. All that content is impeccable.”
But being displeased with anything less than perfect, or too anxious over falling short of extremely high standards may mean you don’t complete a script, sculpture, stage performance, or software package, or even a simple blog post.
You might feel hindered, like Wayne Gould, who “helped Sudoku become a global phenomenon by developing a computer program over the course of six years to generate endless variations of the puzzle,” according to a news story.
“Once I take on a project, I see it through to the end,” he says. “The trouble is that I’m a perfectionist. I’m slowed down by that. It’s a terrible combination, having an interest in everything and being a perfectionist.”
Psychologist Stephen A. Diamond, Ph.D. thinks “Perfectionism has taken a bum rap. Were it not for perfectionism, we would be in short supply of all those myriad human activities we deem extraordinary, excellent, outstanding or great in quality.”
He adds, “America, as you may have noticed – is suffering from a dearth of competency in general, a virtual epidemic of incompetence at all levels of human endeavor. How has perfectionism and its virtues come to be so devalued and vilified in our day?”
He points out that “Once upon a time perfectionism was perceived not as neurosis, but rather as a sign of commitment, caring, and devotion to one’s work, be it manual laborer, mechanic, servant, teacher, sales clerk, CEO, waitperson, chef, filmmaker, actor, screenwriter, author, architect or artist.”
But there can unwanted consequences to being perfectionistic.
Internet entrepreneur extraordinaire Yaro Starak admits he was a “control freak and perfectionist” but advises entrepreneurs to “throw away your perfectionist hat or you will never release anything.”
He also says, “One of my big mistakes was trying to do everything myself. I required many years of struggling to make technology do what I wanted it to do to finalize realize my core skill was not web design, or HTML coding, or CSS or playing with servers. I had to learn how to get out of my own way, become less of a perfectionist and just get stuff out there or I would never earn a result.”
Potential negatives to being perfectionistic include the fears, anxiety and self-criticism the drive can bring with it.
“Perfectionists fear that if they give up perfectionism, they won’t be good anymore at anything; they’ll fall apart,” writes Hara Estroff Marano in Psychology Today.
“In fact, perfectionism harms performance more than it helps. The worst thing about it, says Randy Frost, is the belief that self-worth is contingent on performance—that if you don’t do well, you’re worthless.”
But fortunately, she adds, “It’s possible to escape that thinking.”
Those are potent and emotionally loaded associations for anyone to make with being perfect – as if that is even possible.
Some of the above questions (eg “If I make a mistake, then I am worthless”) can be deeply anxiety-producing. There are a number of resources to help with that at Anxiety Relief Solutions .
A tool for self-development
Linda Kreger Silverman, PhD, Director of the Gifted Development Center, noted in her article Perfectionism: The Crucible of Giftedness , “A cherished goal for only a small portion of the population, excellence is the hard-won prize of those whose zeal and dedication are fueled by the drive to attain perfection, as they envision it.
“Chiefly an affliction of the gifted.. perfectionism is not a malady; it is a tool of self-development.”
Another way to think of perfectionism is to see it as an obsession, but a positive one.
Creativity coach and therapist Eric Maisel, Ph.D. explains that positive obsessions “are insistent, recurrent thoughts or sets of thoughts, pressurized in feel, that are extremely difficult to ignore, that compel one to act, and that connect to one’s goals and values as an active meaning-maker and authentic human being.”
So the value of counseling and books on perfectionism may be in learning how to use this tool to our advantage without being emotionally overwhelmed or destabilized, to pursue excellence without being shackled by the impulse.
Can we learn to be perfectionistic in a more balanced way?
“Think about money,” she writes. “Everyone knows that there is nothing inherently good or bad about the specific dollar bills you may be holding in your hand: it all depends on what use you make of it.
“Perfectionism is similar. The issue isn’t whether or not being a perfectionist is good or bad: it’s what you decide to be perfectionist about! Or put it another way: If you’ve always been a perfectionist, go for it! Just remember, you need to rise to the challenge and be a perfect perfectionist!
“What is a perfect perfectionist? Someone who knows when to apply 25% perfection, when 50%, when 75% and when the full, all-out 100%!”