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It Will Hold You Back

Perfectionism is often viewed as a positive quality. We assume that perfectionists are indeed perfect, and who wouldn’t want to be perfect? Perfectionists generally meet their goals and feel accomplished. But there is a dark and dangerous side of perfectionism. When we are truly a clinical perfectionist we can go so far that we harm ourselves, our mental health, performance, and general wellbeing.

Extreme perfectionism places immense pressure on us to meet extremely high, even unattainable goals. We relentlessly strive to meet them. We base our self-esteem on how well we meet them, and when we fall short of meeting perfect standards (we always will) we experience negative emotions, low self-worth, and see ourselves in defeating ways. Perfectionism can lead us to destructive behaviors, including procrastination.

Procrastination is often a major symptom of perfectionism. Because perfectionists are afraid of being unable to complete a task perfectly, they put it off as long as possible. They feel that not being able to meet the goal means there is something wrong with them.

Perfectionism might be driving procrastination if…

  • The thought of starting the project is so overwhelming because it won’t be good enough.

  • Too much time is spent on the vision or planning phase, but the actual task is put off until the last minute.

  • Work and actions are heavily driven by emotions, and it has to “feel right.”

  • Easiest, least intimidating tasks get prioritized over the ones that really need done.

What keeps perfectionists in this destructive loop?

The Way We Think:

  • Perfectionists are always sensitive to signs of negative feedback and their own stress and discomfort when attempting to start a task.

  • Perfectionists can fall into the trap of unhelpful thinking styles. These are often inaccurate but are accepted as reflecting reality.

  • All or nothing thinking: This particularly relates to unrealistically high standards, “If I don’t get 100% then I am a bad student.”

  • Catastrophic thinking: The person assumes he or she will not be able to cope with negative outcomes, and even a small mistake will be a disaster. “My reputation would never recover if I say the wrong thing in my speech.” When consequences are blown out of proportion, procrastinating seems to be the safest option.

  • Mind reading: The procrastinator predicts what other people are thinking, often making assumptions that they being judged negatively. They are afraid to move forward.

  • Misguided rationalizations, like believing deadline-driven productivity is the secret to getting the job done. For example, “I do my best work under pressure.” Or rationalizing less-than outcomes to preserve self-esteem, “I could have done a better job if I would have had more time!”

The Way We Feel:

  • Because perfectionists are usually highly self-critical, as we said, they experience negative emotions when their expectations are inevitably not met. Their thinking keeps perfectionists feeling bad about themselves and reinforces their low self-worth. They may experience feelings of anxiety, guilt, depression, and doubt.

  • These feelings may be so intense that procrastination seems to be the safest and most comfortable option.

The Way We Behave:

Our fight or flight response kicks in when we face a task we see as challenging and demanding perfection. Procrastination is an excellent example of the flight response, where we try to avoid the threat of failure and the resulting negative feelings.

  • Avoiding decision-making: The pressure to make a perfect choose is paralyzing. The perfectionist may end up having to deal with the leftovers.

  • Giving up too soon: It is common for perfectionists to give up trying because doing so means facing the possibility of failure. It feels more secure and safe to avoid the scrutiny.

  • Delaying starting a task: The perfectionist may avoid starting assignments, or spend an excessive amount of time researching but not actually starting the assignment (but still feeling productive). Not committing means not having to deal with a less-than-perfect attempt.

All of these behaviors not only increase psychological stress but strengthen the problem. When we engage in procrastination we never really learn if we are actually good enough, and our thoughts keep us stuck in the perfectionism-procrastination cycle.

Everyone knows that procrastination is bad. But despite its high-sounding image, perfectionism is also very difficult. They tend to exist together, destroying your productivity and psyche. Perfectionists tend to focus on the product to the exclusion of the process, and those results better be successful. Perfectionists’ feelings of satisfaction about achievements are temporary because they believe there is always more to do, be, and accomplish. Perfectionists are their own harshest critics, frequently beating themselves over a small failure. Perfectionists tend to do things in fits and spurts, starting out strong but collapsing in weariness. A perfectionist’s self-worth hinges on the expectations of others. It is often referred to as “the highest form of self-abuse” because perfection simply doesn’t exist. More importantly, perfection is rarely necessary in day-to-day working and living, unless you are a brain surgeon or handling grenades.😊

You can beat it. You can break the perfectionism-procrastination loop.

  • Count the cost of procrastination.

  • Set realistic and achievable goals.

  • Shift your mindset.

  • Make new goalposts.

  • Be compassionate to yourself.

  • Reach out for help.

Talk to a counselor or someone who has experience in this cycle. Be aware that perfectionism/procrastination is an entrenched pattern of thinking and behaving, with strong emotions. Progress will take time and there will be setbacks along the way. But if you stick with it, you can make it.

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