4 min read

Less Perfect = Better Results?

CC Bryan Zug
CC Bryan Zug

Some time ago I wrote a quick article called, “Perfect Smurfect.’

As a recovering perfectionist, I’ve been a long time advocate of encouraging people to escape perfectionism in favour of effort, consistency and deliberate practice.

I never really explained why in that article. I just made a statement, along with some personal points of view. I’ve long struggled with perfectionism, so in the effort of providing you with more scientifically valid reasons why you might want to challenge your perfectionist views, read on…

But first…

Are You a Perfectionist?

Much of what I’ve learned about perfectionism in a scientific sense comes from researcher Gordon Flett (out of Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, my native Canada).

Below I have a quick little survey I’d like for you to fill out for fun, I’m curious to see if perfectionism (an often desirable personality trait in Western Culture) is as prevalent as I suspect and thus worth writing about.

These are his ten tell-tale signs you might be a perfectionist:

Perfectionists Are More Vulnerable to Depression

I’ve had a good life, grew up in a good family, had no reason to be depressed ever.

While I’ve never had what I’d call clinical depression there have been moments in my life where I previously found myself in a deep funk.

Let’s face it, if you’re depressed it’s hard to be motivated towards success.

If you’re here you’re probably looking for weight loss success, you want to gain muscle mass, improve your athletic performance or just generally be healthier than staying motivated is key.

It’s not the only one, but a study from the Journal of Counseling Psychology back in 2006, found that students who exhibited maladaptive perfectionist traits, were more likely to slip back in and out of depression than those with high standards without self-criticism.

It cautioned that psychologists need to focus on treating personality/identity just as much or more than treating mood.

Perfectionists More Vulnerable to Eating Disorders

That same study drew upon it’s conclusion with another well known link of perfectionism:

“…it is consistent with the treatment of eating disorders and possibly depression, in which people get better from these disorders but some of the problematic personality characteristics that might be associated with these disorders don’t change.”

A study in the American Journal of Psychiatry found a very strong relationship between concerns over mistakes, doubts over actions, and high personal standards (perfectionist tendencies) and eating disorders like Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa and Generalized Eating Disorders.

Given that last bit, it’s likely that perfectionism also significantly increases the risk of Orthorexia Nervosa and Cognitive Dietary Restraint (generalized eating disorders).

Need more proof, this write-up by Carrie Paulus at Vanderbilt University, paints a more detailed picture.

More Vulnerable to Suicide, Poor Coping, Etc…

Flett et al., found that those who feel as if they have a stronger social pressure to be perfect (lawyers, doctors, etc…) have an increased risk of suicidal thoughts.

This paper showed high degrees of workaholism associated with perfectionist tendencies, that often leads to greater amounts of occupational burnout and less productive overall hours worked.

Gordon Flett wrote another paper for psychologicalscience.org with evidence that perfectionism is linked to poor results with:

  • Low quantity of work
  • Mortality (perfectionists die earlier)
  • Chronic stress
  • Coping and recovery from illness

What Can You Do?

If you answered yes to a bunch of questions above and are now worried that you might be susceptible to a bunch of serious problems mentioned below that, don’t fret.

We don’t want the nocebo effect taking hold. There is hope. As I can personally attest to.

I no longer worry about writing perfectly (if I did, this blog probably wouldn’t exist, I spent almost 2 years writing a blog without telling anyone who I was or that I was blogging, not even my girlfriend really).

I no longer worry about putting out perfect content out there, just useful, meaningful content.

I abstain from finding faults in others and try to offer only constructive criticism.

Though still competitive, I’ve lightened up immensely. I used to get downright upset if I didn’t win (and I used to win a lot…).

I now try things I know I’ll probably never be perfect at.

I’m far more comfortable with failure, provided I felt I learned something.

I stopped striving for perfect diet, because the perfect diet doesn’t exist.

One of the biggest revelations in my life was that it was impossible to be perfect at anything that didn’t have a right or wrong answer (like math or science).

So many things are just too unknown for perfectionism. This includes fitness. How you move could be optimal for you, even if it seems less perfect as compared to others.

These are abstract things without much in the way of concrete data, and thinking on a level of wrong vs right is far more damaging than you might realize given the research above.

It’s been a long road though, I’ve had to practice.

Researchers have been exploring the difference between adaptive versus maladaptive perfectionism.

Or the kind of perfectionism that is probably the desirable type, versus the type that leads to all kinds of health problems.

There have been strong implications that strong self-criticism is the central component to maladaptive perfectionism.

Meaning, you can have a strong preventative approach to your perfectionism if you place a strong emphasis on striving for excellence, rather than striving to be perfect.

Getting 90% on things is still far above average after all… provided you gave it your all, being satisfied with your effort is truly rare these days and hard to teach.

Lastly, I’ve found that practicing meditation for 20 minutes most days (I use the app Headspace – get nothing from sending you that link and highly recommend it) has led to the biggest change in my perfectionist-like-tendencies.

A main component of meditation is practicing non-judgemental thinking, seeing things as they are, rather than as you’d like them to be.

Practicing acceptance can go a long way in my experience.