Unlearning Perfectionism


There is a common idea that perfectionism is the need for perfect results: the maximum test score, the flawless recital, the unanimous verdict. But this idea misses the deeper reality. More generally, perfectionism is the tendency to stake your identity on achieving fixed outcomes.

Fixed outcomes vary by person. The perfect performance is the stereotype, but a fixed outcome might be feeling smart, beautiful, and right, or getting that car or job we've been craving for so long. Every perfectionist has their own personal ideal.

None of these outcomes are problems. But they become so when they intertwine with our identity and self-worth. If a perfectionist of fame ever feels unknown, then he feels worthless and ashamed.

Hence the perfectionist stakes his identity on achieving his outcomes, meaning his self-worth depends on realizing them. This is a pitiful wager and a poor strategy.

Above all, perfectionism is a tendency, not a law. With practice, we can unlearn it and replace it with far better approaches.

If you clearly see this tendency in yourself, you then have a choice: to reinforce it through your actions, or to unlearn it and practice something better.

Either way, it's your decision.

II. The tendency

Let's first see the tendency clearly. Let's enter the mind of a severe perfectionist.

Our perfectionist has always done well in school and has been told that she's smart by all of the most important people in her life. Now it's just part of how she sees herself. Success affirms who she is as a person.

She starts her new projects with an optimistic but brittle confidence. Easy tasks and small problems are within her grasp, and she handles them flawlessly. But as the difficulties rise, her confidence falters.

If the tendency were milder, she could push through. But she wants to preserve her self-image so badly that she refuses to face her imperfect reality.

So she feels threatened by moderate setbacks and finds any number of excuses to procrastinate: she's not in the mood, not in the right place, too busy, not inspired, too hungry, too full, too alert, too tired.

When the work is uncertain, she withers: uncertainty means the unknown, which means risk, which means failure, which means she's worthless. The thought of fumbling in the void terrifies her. So she retreats into the safe and familiar. She checks her email for the hundredth time.

She might refuse help of any kind. She might procrastinate then resort to last-minute heroics. Or she might chase standards that are delusionally high. In a way, her self-sabotage tilts the game in her favor. If she succeeds despite it, she affirms her brilliance and talent. And if she fails, she survives unscathed because nobody else was playing her impossible game, which means nobody can make her feel inferior.

In the worst case, she intentionally fails: better, she thinks, to crash and burn than be mistaken for someone mediocre.

She tirelessly finds excuses to ward off her rising anxiety: the project would be difficult for anyone, or only a genius could figure it out, or she never really cared about it anyway, or the work is simply beneath her. At her lowest she blames others: everything would be fine if it weren't for them.

When others surpass her, her dynamics are no different. They have more money, better connections, savvier teachers, richer opportunities ... the game was rigged from the start. At her most primitive, she seethes: they may be more intelligent, but at least she's a deeper thinker, a more ethical human being.

Self-awareness is no balm and becomes part of her defense: she knows how she is, sure, but it's just her personality, or it's the fault of her upbringing, or she's just an idealist, or she's sagely accepting herself as she is.

Because she has the tendency, she can justify not changing; therefore she chooses and reinforces it. It becomes both cause and effect.

What she won't do — and can't do — is take action and try with the whole of her being, since nothing would be more excruciating than to do so and fail anyway. Or if she must try, her effort is woven through with her frustration and shame.

If shorn of her defenses, she suffers existentially: she wagered her self-worth, and she lost. She berates herself — "Why am I so stupid? Why can't I be better?" — and copes with the bitter result. And if the failure is more than she can handle, she feels irrevocably worthless and enters deeper hells I cannot name.

All of her excuses are valid in the right context. That's what makes them such good cover. But the tell is what comes next. "It's just my personality" — therefore, what? And the response: therefore, she doesn't need to change.

The perfectionist fears setbacks, uncertainty, true knowledge of her strengths and weaknesses, failure that can't be blamed on others, and anything else that threatens her outcomes or her fixed sense of self. She deprives herself of the explosive growth that comes from uncertainty, struggle, and open exploration. Like a tree that grows only as large as its pot, she hews to the familiar and stunts her potential.

She is theory over practice; dreaming over acting; resentment over curiosity; fantasy over reality.

She dwells in puddles for fear of the ocean.

III. Pro and contra

Perfectionism endures because it has its merits, and we must see these clearly as well. It establishes a high standard and feeds on a source of intense energy, i.e. the fear of losing our identity and self-worth. So it is no surprise that some of the world's luminaries have made contracts with it.

But the cost of that contract is just as present. Carl Gauss, through whom it set mathematics back by decades:

His own contemporaries begged him to relax his frigid perfection so that mathematics might advance more rapidly, but Gauss never relaxed. [...] Had he divulged what he knew it is quite possible that mathematics would now be half a century or more ahead of where it is.

— E.T. Bell, Men of Mathematics

Virgil, through whom it almost deprived the world of a masterpiece:

In his last illness he called for the cases containing his manuscripts, with the intention of burning the Aeneid. [...] [H]e speaks as if he felt that the undertaking of the work had been a mistake. This dissatisfaction with his work may be ascribed to his passion for perfection of workmanship, which death prevented him from attaining.

1911 Encyclopedia Brittanica

Bill Walsh, whose coaching career it utterly destroyed:

He would sit dazed in his hot tub even after wins, despondent that he had miscalculated a play or two. "I was a tortured person," Walsh later told biographer Harris. "I felt the failure so personally ... eventually I couldn't get out from under it all. You can't live that way long. You can only attack that part of your nervous system so many times."

— Seth Wickersham, "The Book of Coach"

I'm not anywhere near the level of these people, and I have no right to tell them to live differently. But I shudder to think of how much farther they could have gone had they only practiced a better approach.

More prosaically, the tendency correlates with a stunning number of maladaptive patterns, often as a cause. Here are four:

  • Procrastination through fear of failure and delaying complex uncertain tasks. The perfectionist procrastinates to avoid confronting her imperfection. She is also slow to ask for help because doing so would mean admitting that she's struggling.

  • Impostor syndrome as the fear of being found out and judged unworthy: not smart, not capable, not good enough to meet an ideal standard. The perfectionist blends in and acts the part for fear of being found out and rejected.

  • Obsessive compulsion, both as full OCD and in its milder forms. For example, the recurring anxious fear of inadequacy leads to the self-soothing response of scrolling Twitter for an hour.

  • Burnout, which some see as a kind of PTSD. A defenseless perfectionist that chronically fails to live up to her ideal endures deep emotional trauma. In the worst case, she loses all sense of self-worth.

Perfectionism might restrict itself to just one domain. But our core tendencies tend to cut across all the realms of life. It is this quality that makes them so valuable, or so insidious.

IV. An alternative

Much of perfectionism is what we learn as children and choose as adults. To the extent that we choose it, it is a fool's choice that we can unlearn. But if not perfectionism, then what?

One alternative with a similar flavor is excellence, which differs in two respects:

  1. Where perfectionism focuses on achieving, excellence focuses on pursuing. Success and failure aren't ever in our full control. All we can control is what we choose to do right now, in this moment. Our attention shifts from outcomes to process.

  2. Where perfectionism focuses on fixed outcomes, excellence focuses on better outcomes. Any real situation can always be improved. Since there is no perfect outcome, perfection is impossible.

Let's see this tendency clearly and revisit our perfectionist from earlier.

Our former perfectionist prides herself on working hard and paying attention to what she does. Just by being present, she feels great satisfaction.

She starts her new projects with a steady confidence that endures regardless of the difficulties underfoot. When the work is uncertain, she persists: uncertainty and the unknown are no longer a threat to her, and no matter where she is, she just focuses on taking the next step. Since she embraces imperfection, she gives a sincere effort regardless of how motivated she feels. Life's little difficulties are not enough to deter her.

If the project is hard enough, setbacks and failures are inevitable. But she learns so much from them that she treats them like precious friends. While they aren't exactly pleasant, they show where she can improve and grow. If she hasn't failed recently, she knows that she's playing too safe. When she feels stuck, she has no problem asking for help and advice.

She may feel the usual anxieties and stresses of a big project, but such worries are no longer self-inflicted. In general, she is serene and steady. And when she feels that her work is good enough, she completes it and moves on.

When others achieve better outcomes than her, she responds with openness and curiosity. If there is something she can learn from them, she gladly absorbs the lesson. If not, she has no ill-will for them. She focuses on what she can control: the pursuit, not the outcome. In doing so, she opts out of the comparison game. She is always rooted in the reality of the moment.

Process over outcomes; systems over goals; growth mindset over fixed mindset; satisficing over maximizing; professionalism over amateurism; boring fundamentals over flashy tricks; response over reaction; agency over passivity; presence over regret and worry. No matter what you call it, the distinction is the same.

I don't claim getting here is easy, and I am hardly an expert of it. But it is possible if you put in the work. And with enough time and practice, it becomes more and more automatic.

V. A way out

It is a cruel paradox that the preconditions for meaningful change — wanting to change, believing that change is possible, and committing to regular practice — all run against the tendency itself. But with enough self-insight or enough self-inflicted suffering, the perfectionist can arrive here.

Broadly speaking, the way out has three parts.

The first is to train the mind to see and endure an imperfect reality. The psychological literature recommends various treatment options depending on the situation, but here are three:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy, which trains the mind to challenge distorted thoughts related to perfectionism (e.g. "I'm a failure" → "I might fail, but I'm successful in other ways").

  • Exposure and response prevention, which trains the mind to tolerate and reduce mental distress by repeatedly facing the distressing thought (e.g. "I'm going to fail" → "Yes, maybe I will.").

  • Mindfulness meditation, which trains the mind to engage with thoughts non-reactively (e.g. "I'm going to fail" → "The thought of failure is arising").

The second is to train the mind to change its stores of self-worth by practicing self-compassion. Daily gratitude journaling is a simple place to start.

The third is to practice the alternative and make it habitual. Deeply learned habits must be deeply unlearned, which means practicing the alternative as often as we can. Mindfulness meditation can help build the meta-awareness necessary to do so.

At first, all of these may feel unnatural and fake. Progress may be slow enough that the training feels useless. But you must persist. A trusted friend, a mentor, or a therapist can help keep you accountable.

Here are specific resources you can use to take the next step:

To the perfectionists reading this: I've been around the internet for a while, and it grieves me that I know what most of you will do next.

What most of you will do is nothing.

So here is something concrete you can do right now. Write me an email at <my_first_name>90 at gmail. Set a timer for 5 minutes, and write as little or as much as you want. And when your time is up, send it out.

One small act of stepping into the unknown. As simple as it sounds, that is the only way out, and that's all it takes to get started.