written by Sandra Pfluger | originally published on Mental Landscapes
Perfectionism is not the same as Excellence
“Have you ever thought about the difference between perfectionism and excellence?” I had been rambling to my coach about my utter frustration with a group project for a university course I was taking, when she interrupted me with this question. I beg your pardon? Had I ever what? I’m sure I gave her a very puzzled look. Aren’t they the same? And right as I was considering the question, their fundamental difference hit me. It would take a while for it to really sink in, but it was a moment when things suddenly started shifting.
Being a perfectionist wasn’t news to me. I knew that having high personal standards, persevering through difficult phases and being meticulous in organising my affairs in order to deliver a certain result was an integral part of me. And I had come to accept it as a facet of my identity. I actually enjoy exploring things in depth, rather than just scratching the surface or meeting the basic requirements. I love putting things in a bigger context, grappling with the sometimes overwhelming complexity of our times and contemplating the purpose of our existence. And after all, being exact, conscientious and well-organised had its benefits. Plus, paying attention to details, doing things accurately and having them in order was not something I had difficulties with. It, sort of, came naturally. It is my gifted brain in flow mode.
One of the benefits of being a perfectionist is satisfaction. Yes, that does sounds like a contradiction, but bear with me for a moment. When you go above and beyond – say when drawing a chart in excel or writing a text or buying a gift or hosting a dinner – a sense of pleasure follows because you enjoy the process and the potential result of the activity. It can even be energising. And perfectionism often comes with appreciation and praise, even admiration. Let’s admit it, these are nice perks.
Staying in control
However, perfectionism can lead to serious doubt about one’s potential and accomplishment, a disproportional sensitivity to mistakes and a fear of being judged. It is the side of the perfectionism coin that often manifests in compulsive behaviours and obsessive rumination. They in turn lead to anxiety, even panic. And I noticed that I panicked a lot! While I appeared completely calm on the outside (as many people confirmed over time), I would freak out internally. My whole body would go into hyper-mode.
Perfectionism, I realised, had become a strategy for me to stay in control and to protect myself from negative external validation. More than it was about enjoying the process and the potential result. I feared being measured by failure and getting everything perfectly right was my way of controlling the fear. Over time and unconsciously, I had come to see achievement as a direct result of my competence and personal worth. And consequently, making mistakes became a non-option!
I remember a situation at the beginning of my internship at a branch of the Swiss legislature. I was asked to write part of a press release and I was anxious about living up to the expectations. This wasn’t just some blurb in a local newspaper that people skimmed at best on their way to the sports section. This was the federal parliament! Different people were working on the draft document and I handed in my section just before lunch. I was nervous about my boss’ feedback but overall satisfied with focus I had chosen for my text. Just as I was heading out, my boss caught me in the hallway and called me into his office. There were two typos and a missing comma in my writing. He clearly wasn’t impressed, yet the delivery of his feedback was kind and there was no ‘punishment’.
At the time, I couldn’t see that though. All I saw was the monumental mistakes – plural – I had made and all I could sense was panic, which didn’t leave me for the rest of the day at work. It followed me home in the train and through much of the night as I was lying awake, going over the conversation with my boss, again and again. How could I have been so stupid? How could I have let this happen? The next morning, I woke up scared of going to work because I might make another mistake and get fired.
So the only conceivable option was to make absolutely sure that I would not, under any circumstance, make another mistake. And so I constantly monitored myself, always vigilant of all the possible ‘mistake traps’ lurking around. I became a control freak and my harshest critic in the quest of perfection.
Being perfectionist and critical often does not stop at the self. It spills over and we become critical, even hypercritical, of others too. Especially when our own standards differ from the ones of other people. Remember the group work situation? Have you ever been in one and at some point said to yourself: “Screw it! I’m going to do it myself. I don’t care if I have to put in all the work and they free-ride on it, but that way at least things get done properly?”
Breaking the cycle
Time and again I got into this painful cycle of overcompensating for potential mistakes and flaws of myself and of others, while also spoiling the pleasure of fully completing a task and savouring the result with joy. Why do I hurt myself this way? Being so strict is not healthy! But I would only arrive at this conclusion after the fact. Today I know that perfectionism is a toxic thought pattern that hampers happiness in the long run, and makes us less resilient in response to disease and trauma.
But until some years ago I perceived imperfections as shameful traits. I needed to be flawless right away and all the time. Once – I was living in Washington D.C.- my boyfriend at the time and I were driving in the car, talking about our future. He had just landed his dream job across the country and I would soon return to Switzerland. “So, what are you going to do?” he asked, referring to my professional future. I had no clue! Answering the career question in itself was complicated enough, adding a long-distance relationship to it was just too much. But instead of saying: “I don’t know yet, but I know I will figure it out and I would love your support in it,” I just started crying, feeling desperate and alone. I had to have the perfect solution but I didn’t.
Contemplating the difference between perfection(ism) and excellence has been a mind-opening exercise. I understood that perfection is not only unattainable – a process that puts you forever in a position of non-fulfilment – but it is also based on external expectations and standards. Perfectionism holds us hostage in endless guessing about the nature of these expectations and standards, and in the recurring attempts to live up to them.
Excellence, on the other hand, can be accomplished in whatever you do because it is based on your own individual standards. It still requires dealing with expectations, but they too are your own. And that is the invaluable and freeing work you then get to do: setting your self-chosen expectations and standards.
Breaking the perfectionism spell has been an enormous relief! Yet, deciding to choose excellence over perfection was only the beginning. Bringing excellence into being wasn’t such a quick fix. But surprisingly fun.
To begin with, it was much more than an intellectual definition exercise. Simply swapping perfection with excellence and adapting my mental checklist didn’t suffice. Creating excellence was an extended quest with a double-mission. And the two missions turned out to be quite closely linked. In fact, progress with one mission often meant advancement in the other. And lagging in one mission many a time meant slowing down in the other.
The obvious mission was about conceptualising my version of excellence. What was I going to fill this void – once inhabited by perfection and now labelled ‘excellence’ – with? As much as I enjoyed the freedom, I also felt quite helpless about initiating the ‘creation process’. Over the years, I had gotten so used to focusing solely on external factors. It was my default setting. And that needed some serious re-programming. This re-wiring of the brain can be particularly challenging for highly sensitive and strongly empathic people who are so keenly aware of the needs of people around them. It’s the master class in defining excellence!
So, in order not to fall back into old habits, I needed to give myself room to ponder the excellence question. It started with the word ‘stop’ for me. It was my signal for critical introspection before embarking on a task or project and before interacting with people. And I applied it to any context that I found myself in.
I screened my mental and behavioural habits, dissected how I approached tasks and activities, and I x-rayed relationships from acquaintances and colleagues, to family members and close friends. Which routines were beneficial for and supportive of the life I wanted for myself? What principles did I want to be my guide when working on projects and in my hobbies? How did I want relationships to look like? I drifted between assessing real-life experiences and my slowly forming idea of excellence. Moments of inner tension bore special insights – realising what you don’t want can have such a cathartic effect. As can instances of strong positive resonance.
One element was critical: absolute honesty. No turning a blind eye, no making excuses, no rationalisations. No “what ifs” or “yeah, but maybes”. The plain truth.
Staring reality in the eye was even more important with the second, not-so-obvious mission: Making mistakes. Yes, M I S T A K E S. The perfectionist and people pleaser’s worst nightmare! But I knew that if I stayed in my safe corner and avoided risk and uncertainty, my idea of what excellence could look like, would be covered in blind spots. I felt huge discomfort even at the thought of consciously getting myself into situations to make mistakes. (I’m typing this with a big smile on my face!) But I was ‘all in’, so the only way out, was through. Framing it as ‘getting out of the comfort zone’ and ‘experimenting’ helped me tremendously.
At that time, I also first learned about Carol Dweck’s research on “mindsets” and I noticed how both the growth and the fixed mindset were often competing voices in my head. I saw that in many ways I have a growth mindset – the awareness, the conviction even, that mistakes are integral to learning. Failure drives me to try harder, to improve and grow. People with a growth mindset see effort as a necessary element towards becoming their higher self and they use failure to their advantage. It fuels their courage and energy to persevere.
But I also recognised the fixed mindset in me, which I realised triggered much of my perfectionist behaviour since childhood. It is the anxiousness about how things are going to go, the uncomfortableness when doing new things and the uneasiness with situations that open me up to scrutiny. The shame of not being ‘enough’ or ‘worthy’ that lies at the root of these emotions. I recall a question my dad would ask me before exams (even in grad school for my second master’s degree at the age of 32): “Do you think you are going pass this exam?”, the doubt in his voice more than evident. It was about much more than simply passing the exam. I couldn’t allow myself to not get a high grade!
And I remember another formative incident from 5th grade. We had just completed a maths test. One by one, each pupil was called to the teacher’s desk. He had us watch while he marked our tests. With the graded test in hand we each had to pass the black board and ‘publicly’ indicate our grade on it. The moment I drew my stroke on the board, a noticeable murmur went through the classroom. I hadn’t gotten the highest grade. That day, I decided that I wasn’t any good at maths and later on shied away from the natural sciences altogether. Eventually gave up on becoming a doctor. Either I could do it already or I would never be able to do it. And it was clear that I couldn’t! With a fixed mindset, every challenge is a potential threat that makes us lose faith in ourselves and we set ourselves up for self-fulfilling prophecies. Ultimately, we stay confined to places of comfort and controllable outcomes.
So here I was, learning to make mistakes. Zumba and yoga classes became my gentle teachers. I made them my safe ‘lab’. There I allowed myself to ‘let go of control’ and get familiar with the experience of being imperfect. “I will make mistakes in class today, in front of everyone and watch myself in the mirror of the studio,” I told myself very consciously. “That’s okay. I’m here for myself and to have fun!”. And, it was surprisingly fun! Laughing at myself felt so much better than reproaching myself. And I realised how painful my years of salsa classes and dancing had been. Because I had turned them into weekly exercises in perfectionism in an environment made for learning and creative expression. I felt so sorry for my ever so patient dance partner!
Moving intro integrity
Once I stopped pressuring myself, the tension eased and gave way to pleasure. To being in the moment and to reconnecting with myself! And I observed my progress through making an effort. Gradually, I was able to venture farther away from my comfort zone into more risky areas of life.
With time and practice, I nurtured my growth mindset and moulded my idea of excellence. The two missions gradually started coming together. My standards towards myself and others got more refined. In many ways they became more relaxed. If you can cut yourself some slack, it gets easier to do it for others too! Today, I liken my recanting perfection and committing to excellence to a recalibration of my inner compass. My goals, standards and ideals aren’t any less high than they used to be. Their quality has however changed markedly. daptations in behaviours and the formation of new habits followed. Our brains are wonderful tools to change our minds!
Excellence is as much about the process as it is about the end result for me. On a practical level, I have come to use something of a shorthand:
- it begins with an excellence ‘mini vision’ of how I would like something, e.g. a task, meeting, day, process, etc. to go. My macro-level vision is a guide in this. I do this intuitively, others might apply logic or feelings instead;
- then I look at the requirements or standards (internal and external) and make an 80/20 assessment, knowing that most often 80 percent of outputs are achieved by 20 percent inputs. This awareness helps to keep things in perspective for me (a note to the gifted in conventional settings: often more than the regular 80 is achievable in your gifted 20);
- when I sense that I could get inspired by an activity (as I often do), I consciously weigh the trade-offs with other items in my day(s) such as long walks and yoga exercises to ensure that I don’t lose sight of the balance;
- if necessary, I adapt my ‘mini vision’;
- and, finally, I communicate my vision to others who are concerned, so as to reconcile the inner and the outer worlds.
Looking back, this journey to excellence has shown me my humanity with its limitations and endless opportunities. It uncovered the transformative power of effort on the path to mastery and the energy of being truly aligned with your integrous self. It revealed the healing effect of forgiveness for my mistakes. And it taught me that becoming (not being) is the purpose of any quest!
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About Sandra Pfluger
Sandra is a career and life coach for gifted people. She lives in Estonia and coaches academics, researchers, and young professionals all over the world for personal and professional fulfillment. Feel free to get in touch with her to schedule a session!