"Why I'm not clinging onto perfectionism as a badge of honour."

Perfectionism. It’s the kind of word you sling out in a job interview to answer the dreaded: “So, what’s your biggest weakness?” question.

It’s the ultimate humblebrag. You’re saying it because it implies you’re obsessed with perfection; with stopping at nothing until things are as magnificent as they can be.

“Oh, I’m just such a perfectionist. Other people seem to be able to move on from what they’re doing when it’s half done. Me? No, I need to make sure it’s perfect.”

What could be wrong with that?

As Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert points out in her Conversations With Richard Fidler interview, people wear their perfection like a “badge of honour, as if it signals high tastes and exquisite standards”.

Elizabeth Gilbert. Image via Facebook.

It's the clever, award-winning child in the family of personality traits.

The truth is, being a perfectionist is not always something to hold up as a shiny reminder of what kind of person you are. Yes, striving for excellence in life is admirable, period. As is learning to challenge yourself and set goals. But an obsession with it can be unhealthy. Damaging, even.

As Gilbert points out, the perfectionist label can hold you back from what you really want to achieve. It's procrastination masquerading as a positive characteristic.

"We must understand that the drive for perfectionism is a corrosive waste of time, because nothing is ever beyond criticism. No matter how many hours you spend attempting to render something flawless, somebody will always be able to find fault with it. At some point, you really just have to finish your work and release it as is..."

Watch MWN's co-founder, Mia Freedman, talk to Elizabeth Gilbert. It's amazing. (Post continues after video.)

While Gilbert might be talking specifically about creativity here, this quest for flawlessness she speaks of is something most women, myself included, have embarked upon at some stage or another.

Whether it’s our looks, our work, our mothering skills, our relationships, our bodies — the pressure to be perfect can be crippling.


It’s not good enough to be fairly good at something. To have done well. Forget reaching for the stars — you need to be aiming for Pluto. We need to be over-capable. Why give 100 per cent when you can give 150?

The perfection trap is something Olivia Patrick, clinical psychologist and director of Shape Your Mind, has witnessed women falling into over the years.

“Perfectionism is certainly correlated with various mental health issues, including depression, anxiety and eating disorders. The key here is the second part of the definition of perfectionism – the basing of one's self-worth on one's ability to achieve the unrelenting standards that are set,” explains Patrick.

being a perfectionist

We're constantly being asked to reach next levels. Image via iStock.

“In my work with clients with eating disorders, perfectionistic traits are very common. Almost all of my clients with Anorexia Nervosa have unrelenting standards in regards to thinness, where the goalposts are constantly shifted and no amount of weight loss ever feels ‘good enough’.”

It could be said that perfectionism can be synonymous with a fear of failure. A couple of years ago, Hillary Clinton summed it up when speaking to a crowd of young people: “Too many young women are harder on themselves than circumstances warrant. They are too often selling themselves short.”

“At this point in my career, I’ve employed so many young people. One of the differences is that whenever I would say to a young woman, you know, 'I want you to do this, I want you to take on this extra responsibility, I want you move up', almost invariably they would say, ‘Do you think I can?’... When I’ve asked a young man if he wants to move up, he goes, ‘How high, how fast, when do I start?’ There is just a hesitancy still about women’s worth and women’s work.”


It’s this hesitancy, this feeling of not measuring up, that can allow perfectionism to creep into our lives.

“When we set ourselves unachievable standards, it can be very easy to fall into the mindset of ‘if I can’t do it perfectly, then I won’t do it at all’. A fear of failure is common among perfectionists and this can lead to thoughts such as, ‘if I don’t try, then I can’t fail’. Both these lines of thinking lead to us putting off potentially difficult or challenging tasks and falling into a procrastination trap,” explains Patrick.

Despite its downside, I see perfectionism paraded around by some as a glittering trophy, something we should all be striving for. Well, I for one am out. Attempting to be perfect is exhausting. It simply cannot be achieved. It’s the mirage in the desert; as soon you get a glimpse of it, it vanishes, moving further into the hazy distance.

I’m certainly not urging you to give up on your high standards. Absolutely not. Rather, I think we need to think about healthy standards, about realistic standards. Standards that are flexible. Standards that, if not met, don't destroy our self-worth. Standards that we don’t require an industrial-sized ladder to reach for.

Do you think perfectionism can have a negative impact on your life?