The Perfectionist Itch

Unless it’s perfect it has no value…

Some people suffer from a persistent perfectionist itch. If you are smart and productive, you may be even more prone to the itch than others.

Even if you suffer from a perfectionist itch, there may be many areas of your work or your life, where the perfectionist itch gets no look in. Or there may be times – times of the day, times of the week, times of the year – where you tend to get the upper hand on the itch. It’s worth accounting for these cases where the itch does not get its way.

If your perfectionist itch appears to be overactive, appears to be stopping you getting more of what you want, then you might be interested in exploring some options for doing things differently.

Here are some things that the perfectionist itch might have you believe:

  • if it’s not perfect it has no value
  • ‘it’s good enough’ is an excuse for producing work that’s well below standard
  • if there is a flaw in my work then that shows there’s a flaw in me

When they are not tired, under pressure, stressed or anxious, many people who suffer from the itch find these statements implausible and extreme. But these are not the conditions where the itch most often operates. Rather, it tends to work when you are tired, under pressure, stressed or anxious. And it often operates in the shadows, lurking at the edge of awareness. It definitely does not like its working methods to be revealed.

You can try to disarm your perfectionist itch by challenging the things it would have you believe, explaining to the itch how they are implausible and extreme. This can sometimes work.

Or you can make the case for shipping, e.g. you can argue that it is better to ship something (where there is still some room for improvement) than to ship nothing (but be secure in the knowledge that you have not shipped something flawed).

The itch gets the logic of an argument like this. Indeed, it can concede this argument. However, it will point out that it’s only reasonable to achieve some minimal standard before shipping. If you, the person with the itch, concede this point, then the itch may have you. Because having secured this concession the itch will go on to argue that, in this particular case, the standard you have reached falls a long way short of the minimal standard. For the itch, the minimal standard tends to be a pretty high one. More critically, the itch tends to push the standard up over time, leaving you chasing a moving target.

Tips for treating the itch

You can sell the virtue of alternative approaches to your perfectionist itch. Some itches may buy a ‘‘good enough’ is good enough’ approach. Other itches won’t buy this because they hear ‘good enough’ as ‘sub-standard’ and they fear that if you ship sub-standard work, you will get some sort of kicking. It’s only because they really care, that these sorts of itches can be so potent, that they have the power to prevent you from completing and letting go of your work.

Given this, for the most persistent itches it can help to roll with them a little, rather than oppose them flat out. Alternatives to ‘perfect’ that might be more persuasive to an itch than ‘good enough’ can include:

  • top notch and finished (at least for this round)
  • damn fine and actually shipped
  • really very good and submitted
  • definitely pleasing a good number of people a lot of the time, and, after all, you can’t please all the people all the time.

These alternatives – and you will be able to generate your own variations tailored to your particular itch – may be more appealing to your itch because they acknowledge the importance of high standards.

Other useful ways to treat the itch:

  • step back from the task at hand to help you gain perspective
  • review the standards you want to achieve, perhaps with your peers, and write them down
  • make sure you are well-fed, well-watered and well-rested when making important decisions
  • focus on some of the good things that can come as a result of shipping / completing
  • examine the often diffuse and unfocused anxiety about finishing that the itch is generating and look to see:
    • how real the concerns are; and
    • for the concerns that are real what practical steps you can take to minimise the risk of negative consequences.

And remember…

And remember, unless you can eliminate your perfectionist itch for once and for all, such that it never returns in any way, shape or form, then you have failed and you might as well not have bothered taking any steps to minimise its impact at all. If you think there is any chance at all of failing to eradicate the itch, probably best not to bother trying. (Does your itch agree?)

Origins and understandings

I’m sure this short essay on perfectionism could be better. And that did not seem a good enough reason to exclude it from the app. Or a good enough reason to hold up making the app available. And so on…

I chose to write about the ‘perfectionist itch’ rather than ‘perfectionism’ because I wanted to separate the person and the problem. By talking about the problem as something separate from us, there is scope to open up more options. This approach draws on the idea of externalising conversations, a technique used in narrative therapy.

References and links

Hyperlinks can be great. They can also dilute your focus and tempt you into putting off what you most want to do. Here I chose to place links at the foot of the page to help you to make an active choice as to whether to surf or refocus your attention elsewhere.

Note: the links to books on Amazon generate a tiny kickback for me if you make a purchase.