Do you struggle with perfectionism? If so, I have good news for you.
For the next few weeks, I am writing a series of posts on overcoming perfectionism with playfulness.
To kick it off, I want to examine the issue of perfectionism more in depth and help you figure out if you are a perfectionist.
Read the list of items below. Place a check by each item that is true for you. You can either mentally keep track of how many items you check off. Or, you might copy and paste this quiz into a computer document and type Xs next to items that are true for you.
Place a check by any of these items that are regularly true for you:
I hate making mistakes. ______
When other people criticize me, I often deflect blame onto others. _____
I want to know how to do things the right way before I do them. _____
I often feel shame. _____
I often think about past failures or mistakes. _____
I often worry what people think about me. _____
When I was in school, if I earned less than an A on schoolwork, I felt like a failure. _____
When I do art, music, or various projects, I am usually disappointed with my results. _____
It is very important to me to always look put together in my clothing and appearance. _____
I often feel like a failure. _____
I often feel anxious about doing things the wrong way. _____
I am afraid of looking stupid in front of other people. _____
I frequently worry I am not good enough. _____
I often fail to start or finish projects important to me; I am afraid it won’t be good enough. _____
I often daydream about a future time when every part of my life goes exactly how it should go and I am finally happy. _____
It is hard for me to try new thing because I hate being bad at stuff. ______
If my house is not extremely clean, I feel gross or like a failure. _____
It’s hard for me to say I’m sorry. _____
It is hard for me to think about my faults. _____
I often feel defensive when people criticize me. _____
When people are mad at me, I feel like my world is falling apart. _____
I wish someone would just tell me the right way to do everything. _____
One of my biggest fears is looking foolish or incompetent in front of people. ______
If I am bad at an activity, I often want to quit doing it. _____
If people criticize me for anything, I have a strong need to defend myself and prove them wrong. _____
Number of Items you checked _______
The rest of this post discusses ideas related with this quiz.
What is Perfectionism?
Before we discuss the quiz, let’s talk about what perfectionism is.
I define perfectionism as the attitude we take towards life when we consistently focus on performance and product, rather than process and presence.
Playfulness: The Opposite of Perfectionism
We could describe the opposite of perfectionism in several different ways. But one way to describe it is playfulness. Playfulness is the attitude we take towards like when we consistently focus on process and presence.
Perfectionism Exists on a Spectrum
It is not the case that you either Are or Are Not a perfectionist.
Perfectionism exists on a spectrum. We all exhibit characteristics of perfectionism from time, and there are indeed times when it is wise to focus on performance or product.
Problems arise, however, when we consistently emphasize performance and product over all other values, especially process and presences.
When we emphasize performance, we focus on looking good; executing well; and being smooth and in control.
There is nothing wrong with these emphases per se. However, life is full of moments in which we don’t look our best or execute an action well. And we often experience moments in which we aren’t smooth and in control. Such moments are inevitable.
In fact, whenever we learn something new, we must go through a rough patch in which we perform that new skill poorly and look silly while doing so.
If we aren’t wiling to go through rough patches like this, we won’t learn new things or grow as a person.
When we emphasize product, we focus solely on the result of our actions. Furthermore, if we combine a focus on performance with a focus on product, we will likely value only excellent, perfect, beautiful, or accomplished products.
The problem is that many of the products we produce in life are imperfect. Such products might be art projects, schoolwork, athletic experiences, relationships or relationship moments, and job experiences. Our imperfect moments in all these endeavors teach us a great deal if we allow them to do so. They even give us some of the most meaningful moments of our life.
If, however, we reject our imperfect moments and only accept the perfect ones, we miss out on important lessons and beauty, as well as missing out on most the moments of our life.
The Hamster Wheel of Perfectionism
Focusing on performance and product all the time leads to the Hamster Wheel of Perfectionism.
We focus on performing well and looking good. Because we only accept excellent performances and products, we put a lot of pressure on our self.
Fear of Failure:
The more we pressure our self, the more we feel like a failure. And the more we only accept excellent performances and products, the more we wrap our identity up in these things. When we do that, failures signal to us that we, personally, are failure, and we ashamed of our self and unworthy.
Because we all want to be worthy and feel good about our self, performance pressure and fear of failure can lead us to shoot for higher and higher goals in an attempt to prove our worthiness.
There is nothing wrong with high goals. But when perfectionism drives us, we usually end up setting unrealistic goals that require superhuman strength, knowledge, or skill. And since no one is superhuman, we inevitably fail to achieve these goals.
And if we are perfectionists, this leads to increased performance pressure, fear of failure, and increasingly unrealistic expectations. We get caught on the Hamster Wheel of Perfectionism. And often we end up paralyzing our self with so much fear, we either stop trying new thing for fear of failure, or we have problems finishing things we start for the same reason.
Perfectionism often makes us feel like we are trapped on an escalating Hamster Wheel we cannot escape.
An Example from My Own Life
When I was younger, I took piano lessons for a number of years. I definitely got stuck on the Hamster Wheel of Perfectionism. For some reason, I got the idea that I had to perform songs perfectly, or else I was a failure.
When I practiced piano, if I made a mistake I would start the song over so I could try to play it perfectly. In the process of doing so, I made myself increasingly anxious about playing piano.
Eventually I became so anxious, I would freeze up while playing in recitals. I started hating piano, and I eventually quit.
This is unfortunate because when I let myself relax and play with piano, I LOVE it. I love the challenge of learning new songs and playing beautiful music.
The Toll of Perfectionism
And that is the problem of perfectionism. It takes a toll on you and often drives you to quit activities you love or would learn to love.
Back to the Quiz
If you look back at the quiz you took at the beginning of this post, you will notice that all of the items on it pertain to the different characteristics of the Hamster Wheel of Perfectionism. They pertain to Performance Pressure, Fear of Failure, and Unrealistic Expectations. Therefore, the more of the items you checked on this quiz as being true for you, the more likely it is that you struggle with perfectionism.
The Good News
The goods news is that it is possible to overcome a perfectionist attitude. One of the ways we do it is through recovering an attitude of playfulness. Stay tuned for future posts on this.
By the way, I love playing around with free design programs on the internet. This is a chart on perfectionism and play I made on Canva. It highlights some of the ideas I covered in this post, along with some ideas coming in future posts.
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