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Consequences of perfectionism

Although perfectionism often complicates my life, it also helps me have the patience and eye for detail that are required for painting projects such as this one (Kellie Book/The Collegiate).

Editor’s Note: This article is a part of a series of stories with the theme “consequences.” It was originally intended to be published in a print edition of The Collegiate. However, because of COVID-19 we were unable to make a hard-copy magazine.

Hi, I’m Kellie and I’m a perfectionist.

I often get stuck in the midst of a project because of one hiccup that I can’t fix. My perfectionist tendencies have negatively affected my home life, school work, and mental health.

I try to control and fix everything. I avoid struggling with important problems that I know I can’t easily fix by becoming momentarily obsessed with something small and meaningless, like organizing my sock drawer. I either relax too much because I can’t bear to start working on something I can’t finish right away, or sacrifice much-needed rest in the name of productivity.

Those frustrating, self-sabotaging habits of mine are counterproductive, and I’ve had them for many years. The management techniques that help me harness my perfectionism, on the other hand, have only been in my metaphorical toolbox for a year or two. I’m still learning how to use them, but they have been helping. I want to share them with you in hopes that these eclectic bits of knowledge might help just one person have an easier time dealing with life.

Oftentimes, we perfectionists dread beginning a new project because its size is daunting and we know we won’t be able to finish it quickly. This is where that old proverb about eating an elephant a bite at a time comes in. At this point it’s important to just dive in, even if you just work on it for five minutes before you climb out of the water again. Congratulations, the project will now take five fewer minutes to finish. Maybe once you get started you’ll find your groove and be able to do more. But it’s fine if you can’t. Remember- it’s an elephant and you’re you. There’s no way to eat it in one sitting. You can only eat until you’re full, and then it’s time to walk away for a bit.

I’ve talked about this exact subject with my counselor, and she told me that after I’ve done all I can for the moment, it’s time to go do something else. She also told me to make my breaks generous, because a short break just garners resentment when it’s supposed to be over and turns into a long break anyway. Instead just give yourself that 45 minutes or hour or whatever time frame that your brain needs to recharge and reset. Then get back to your project.

Most times, it’s a matter of expectations for yourself. I don’t think there’s any getting around this one- you have to modify your expectations to be realistic given the situation and how you’re feeling. It’s probably a bad idea to expect yourself to write a five-page essay when you get home from a hard shift at work and you’re mentally tapped out. It won’t happen, so just admit it to begin with and skip the guilt. In those situations you have a perfectly valid reason to not push harder and get it done. You’re exhausted and you would be risking some pretty serious burnout when there are other options.

That brings me to my next point: take care of yourself! A dehydrated, hungry, tired, bored, lonely person is going to be way less productive than someone  who has done themself a few favors, and they’ll be miserable the entire time to boot. So, in the previous situation, the smart choice would be to get some water and decent food if you’re hungry, say hi to your housemates, and go to sleep. Don’t try to do your work when you’re exhausted. Just go to bed and work on it in the morning when you feel human, or whenever the next good opportunity presents itself.

And give yourself some credit. You might not get it done right away, but you will get it done and it’ll be good. You can be proud of the work you’re doing, you just have to do it strategically so you don’t burn out.

If your perfectionist tendencies are causing you to procrastinate on basic things like cleaning and housekeeping, it’s probably having a negative effect on your mental health. So unless you should be doing something else that’s urgent, you really should consider trying to clean a little. A few months ago I stumbled across this site, which provides lots of advice and resources for cleaning when your brain won’t let you just do it. It uses some adult language (okay, kind of a lot), but the advice itself is actually pretty useful, and generally inspiring. Just browsing through the posts might motivate you to go clean.

“What if there’s a time limit? I have to get this done NOW!” Okay then. It won’t be fun, but it is possible. Here are your next steps: hydrate. Fuel yourself. Put away your distractions. These rush projects are more like sprints than marathons, so it’s important to maximize your ability to be productive (without wasting an hour prepping. You don’t have time for that.) Settle in, and do the thing you dislike most: do work that seems shoddy, and don’t let yourself go back over things. Most likely, that “shoddy” work will actually be pretty decent, and then you’ll have a bigger portion of the project over with. This tactic is extremely difficult for me to make myself use, but it has saved me from my own procrastination on many occasions because of the efficiency it provides. Also, it helped me get good scores on my SATs and two separate AP English tests in high school, so that’s a plus. All of them were timed tests designed to be impossible and miserable and rushed, so producing a bunch of super rushed “BS” was the only way to get through more than a third of the material.

My perfectionism has created a lot of unnecessary problems for me, but it has also been helpful.

At work my perfectionism eliminates small mistakes and oversights that might otherwise fall through the cracks, and gives me greater patience with the tedium of processing shipment and organizing the stockroom. In fact, these tasks that sometimes seem boring or unappealing to my coworkers actually bring me immense satisfaction. My perfectionism drives me to make things as orderly as possible when they get disorganized, and that order makes work a little bit easier for everyone.

Perfectionism makes my schoolwork good, because it drives me to work hard and get things done right. That means that group members can rely on me to do my part well, and I can rely on myself to produce something I can be proud of.

Your perfectionism may be getting in your way, and it might make life more difficult than it probably should, but those issues are not insurmountable. When you manage your perfectionism effectively, it can actually become an asset that propels you towards your goals.