Perfectionism or Healthy Striving: What’s the Difference?

You may have been told you’re a perfectionist by someone you love – a partner or a friend – or maybe it was your boss on a performance review.  Or you’re pretty sure you live your life in the all or nothing, success or failure world of perfectionism but you aren’t certain. A 2019 study showed that perfectionism is increasing. You’re not alone!

Is it perfectionism? Can’t it just be that you’re trying to do your best? Brene Brown, a writer and research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, uses the term “healthy striving.”   She and other researchers differentiate between the healthy pursuit of excellence and the perfectionism that leaves us people-pleasing, struggling with self-doubt and fear of not being good enough.

Perfectionism is setting unachievable high standards.  You feel intimidated and weighed down instead of energized, excited and motivated by your goals. You’re fearful that they won’t be met.

Healthy striving is setting realistic goals for yourself.  Your standards are high but realistic. Achievement is possible.

Perfectionism is feeling bad about yourself when those standards are not met, or that outcome is not achieved. You feel like a failure no matter how much you accomplish because perfection can never be attained. So you’re going to feel bad about yourself –  a lot.  

It feels like you are “never enough.” You have the belief that if you live perfect, look perfect, are perfect then you can avoid the pain of blame, judgment, and shame. Dr. Brown describes perfectionism as a shield that we use to protect ourselves from feeling shame and vulnerability. 

Healthy striving is celebrating the small victories along the way.  You appreciate the effort and the process with self-compassion, whether or not the goal is met.   It’s giving yourself credit for getting out there and trying at all.

Perfectionism is externally motivated. “Please, perform, Perfect.”  You’re trying to manage others perceptions. It’s impossible and exhausting.

Perfectionism is other-focused: “What will they think?”
Healthy striving is self-focused: “How can I improve?”

-Brene Brown

Healthy striving is self-focused.  It’s about working towards a goal that is based on your values, your wants.  

Perfectionism is hearing self-criticism and judgment when any type of mistake is made.  You say “I’m a failure” and really make your mistakes mean something about you.  So you do anything to avoid making the mistake. You don’t take the risk or try the new activity.

Here’s an example of Mary, a manager.  When she struggles with perfectionism: 

Mary is working on a project for work that means a lot to her.  She works hard writing and editing and editing and editing. When she’s given feedback by her colleagues and boss she feels defeated. She’s ignored the positives they’ve said and catalogs the mistakes.  She starts to resent the project. It doesn’t feel fun or exciting at all like it always needs more and more work. So she wonders if she should ever finish it. She only turns it in because her boss is upset about the missed deadline.

When she goes for healthy striving instead:

Mary works hard on the project. It takes time and energy. She’s excited about it so she’s okay investing in it. She gets feedback from her colleagues and her boss. She takes that feedback and decides she’ll use some of it to make changes.  As she approaches the deadline, she’s happy with her progress. She knows it will never be perfect. It is good enough and she is proud of her effort. She gets it in on time.

Perfectionism is the avoidance of mistakes.  You do things like seeking reassurance, reviewing and gathering lots of information more than needed before making a decision, giving up too soon, procrastinating or avoiding tasks.

Healthy striving is learning what you need to from the experience and bouncing back. It is having a growth mindset when mistakes are made – “I did it to the best of my ability.”  It is valuing progress and enjoying the process. It is making mistakes, learning from them and moving on. “I earned a B. What can I work on for next time?” 

“A “growth mindset”, sees failure not as evidence of unintelligence but as a heartening springboard for growth and for stretching our existing abilities.”

-Carol Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success

Perfectionism can creep into all parts of your life or it may only appear in a certain area. You may have a super messy home and yet you reread emails many times assuring there is never a typo.  You might spend hours making sure your appearance is just right yet you don’t overly prepare for that presentation at work. 

How does perfectionism show up in your life?  Are you hanging out in healthy striving or spending more time trying to get things perfect?

Perfectionism doesn’t have to get in your way.  You can succeed and have fun – it’s possible!  If you’d like help finding the healthy striver in you, give me a call.