My first year of TAFE teaching is a blur in my memory. Each day I prepared for every possibility that I could imagine arising in a class, organising two lessons’ worth of material in case students got through it all (they never did), or something went terribly wrong (it never did). Yet, if I looked into that sea of faces and even one student seemed doubtful or disengaged, I blamed myself, and often had trouble sleeping. My failures were all I could focus on.
Slowly, I came to recognise my perfectionist tendencies, a common trait that can be experienced anywhere: at work or at home. Superficially, at least, perfectionism might seem like a valuable trait. After all, doesn’t everyone want a job to be well done? The answer is, well, yes and no.
The problem lies in its roots: fear of failure and a desire for acceptance. A perfectionist, deep down, believes that a perfect performance or achieving impossibly high standards will make them feel secure and happy; if not, they judge themselves and expect others to judge them too. For them, a mistake is nothing less than a personal defect.
The self-consciousness and lack of confidence resulting from perfectionism almost inevitably lead to anxiety.
The connections that researchers have found between perfectionism and the incidence of mental illnesses such as anxiety, depression and eating disorders are alarming but not altogether surprising. It seems that perfectionism is on the rise, with rising levels reported among young people in the West over the past thirty years, alongside pressure to meet increasingly high standards generally. Workplaces, schools, parents, peer groups and social media can all play a role in exerting pressure, presenting goals that are sometimes impossible to achieve.
It’s not as difficult to spot a perfectionist as you might think. Symptoms paradoxically include reduced efficiency and a tendency towards procrastination – the results of a fear of failure. Perfectionists focus on outcomes rather than processes and believe that personal value lies in whether they’ve achieved perfection rather than in any inner worth.
Another, less discussed, aspect to perfectionism is its effect on creativity. If, while creating or responding to an assignment, all you dwell on is your conception of the completed item – a story, a painting, an essay, a mathematical problem – the serendipitous pathways and ideas that might otherwise open up are discarded as distractions from the main goal. Creativity and discovery depend on a willingness to take risks, and the failures and imperfections that are part of them should more often be embraced as important and necessary steps.
Seeing ‘mistakes’ as ‘learning opportunities’ creates an environment of openness and willingness to take risks and try new ideas.
There’s nothing wrong with striving to succeed, but educators and psychologists draw a distinction between perfectionism and excellence. Achieving perfection is about avoiding making mistakes, while the pursuit of excellence is about developing your skills and becoming as good as you can be.
Seeing ‘mistakes’ as ‘learning opportunities’ (excuse the dreaded phrase) rather than opportunities for judgement, creates an environment of openness and willingness to take risks and try new ideas.
Other ways forward might include exercise, focusing on what you enjoy in a task rather than the result, or doing a simple but absorbing activity to distract yourself from circular thoughts of failure are some of their recommendations. Personally (as you might know about me by now) I like to head into the garden.
Anne Lamott’s description of perfectionism is one I always remember. It is, she says, “the voice of the oppressor…It will keep you cramped”. People who let it go, she adds, “are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it”. I discovered the truth of that after a few months of teaching when I took a small risk one day and let go of the idea of perfection. Everything improved after that.