Marisa Navarro: “Perfectionism can be harmful for personal and work life”
- September 26th, 2018
Marisa Navarro, doctor in Medicine from the Universitat d'Alacant talks about medicine applied to emotions on her book "La medicina emocional" (The Emotional Medicine). She has been a psychotherapist for more than 20 years and in her book she adresses the idea of perfectionsim at work and gives key concepts to recognise the cases in which this attitude is harmful for work itself and even personal well-being.
- What does perfectionism at work mean? Can we make a difference between healthy and harmful perfectionism?
- When we try to define perfectionism, it never ceases to amaze me that so many times it is defined as a quality, even more, the quality of that who wants to achieve perfection. But perfection cannot be achieved, to state so is a contradiction. Perfection as we understand does not exist, since we cannot define it. What is perfect? Everything? Nothing? These kind of definitions keep me worried since general population -and specially perfectionists- still see it as a quality, something positive; Thus, when anyone says they are a perfectionist, they say it with pride: “Oh, yes, I am a perfectionist” and with that they mean they are a dedicated, thoughtful, meticulous person, someone with high standards in their life. But not all those who have these qualities are perfectionists. Perfectionists are slaves of perfection. Trying to be perfectionist is not healthy at all.
Perfectionism is slavery in any area of life, and, of course, in work life too.
- How is harmful perfectionism originated, what does it derive from?
- Perfectionists suffer more than the rest of us because perfectionism has never enough. They are eternally unsatisfied. They need to be the best in everything they do and if they fail or make any mistakes it becomes a huge handicap. They have a true phobia to making mistakes. But not only that: perfectionists are never happy with what they achieve because they think they could have done better; if they truly achieve something, the happiness is ephemeral, they want to achieve perfection at so many levels that they immediately take another path to another perfection: they won’t stop to think what they achieved is important because it could have been better.
- Is there any kind of relationship between stress, anxiety and perfectionism?
Perfectionists have higher levels of anxiety, angst, sadness, frustration and even depression. Nobody likes to fail or make mistakes, but it scares perfectionists to death. They do not allow mistakes or fails, which usually means that they won’t achieve success. And if they ever achieve it, they will think it is not a true success, they will never have enough.
- Is there any kind of relationship between procrastination and/or the impossibility to do tasks and too perfectionist people?
- It is really easy for perfectionists to achieve nothing; they are so scared to fail that they usually do not even begin to do anything, and if they do, there is a good chance that they give up when they feel the smallest obstacle or suspicion of failure. They prefer not to do things if they cannot make them perfectly. They do not want to take the risk because of the chance of failure. So they cannot accomplish any objective or goal.
Perfectionists always aim for impossible goals, reject failure and mistakes and are not able to learn from them, since it is not possible to learn from something you do not even know; this creates a large amount of suffering and pain that can even paralyze them. Perfectionists are subjected to constant fear.
- How do we know that someone is too perfectionist and how can it affect our work?
- It would be better to ask ourselves if we are before identifying others. Try and see if small mistakes take you down. If you give yourself the credit you deserve for what you do. If you ask too much of yourself and others. If you have never enough and things are never as good as you would like. If you compare yourself to others and think you are worse than them or you care too much about their opinions. If you do not take care of yourself and feel anxiety or stress. If you get obsessed by everything and you want to have everything under control and you feel usually unsatisfied. If so, you may be a perfectionist. Other perfectionists will have similar traits. They tend to be as demanding with themselves as they are to the people surrounding them; this usually means that coexistence with them can be complicated. Besides, they have a tendency to compare themselves to others, always to lose, which creates feelings of envy, jealousy and frustration. They are also extremely controlling, trust no one and can not refer to others: only they can do perfect, even if they ultimately fail.
- Can this misunderstood perfectionism be harmful to workers in their personal life? How?
- It is extremely difficult for them to enjoy life. They usually pay too much attention to that which they do not have, that which they lack and that which is not perfect in their lives. And, of course, nothing is perfect in their lives. Not on theirs, not on anyone’s; but that they cannot see, instead, they think that other people and their lives are perfect, which frustrates them even more.
Perfectionists tend to believe toxic things and put boundaries to themselves. This lack of flexibility becomes a huge setback to life in general. To them, only one path is available, things have to be their way and not otherwise. Any blow of wind can knock this kind of stiffness down.
- What are your advices for people who are overly perfectionist?
- To get rid of perfectionism is not an easy task. It can become quite an addiction. People with perfectionism tendencies have to be very focused on everything, they have tons of negative thoughts that drive them over and over again to the path of perfectionism. I makes them suffer; even not trying to be makes them suffer too. They think they will spiral into chaos. Let us remember that’s where they put their value and self-esteem on. The effort necessary to perfectionism is huge, but the effort not to is no less. It is easy to tell a perfectionist not to be so. But it is hard for them to achieve if they do not have a safety net. That is excellence. When I’m treating perfectionist patients and tell them to stop trying to achieve perfection in order to achieve excellence, explain them what it means, they usually feel a little relieved.
Excellence lies in doing things as well as you can with available resources and opportunities and keeping in mind the inner and outer context.
- Do you have any advices to promote any healthy practices to put an end to out-of-control perfectionism?
- With no doubt whatsoever a person cannot do the same work (nor the quality will be the same) at 9 a.m. and at 8 p.m., after having worked all day long; however, if they make their best effort to do their work as well as they can, their job will be excellent at both 9 a.m. and 8 p.m. If I know my limits, I am reminding myself that I am human. As human beings, we make mistakes, get tired, distracted, confused have emotions that affect on us and fail. That is what makes us human. And it is thanks to this that we learn and grow. If you are a perfectionist, the first thing you have to do is to reflect on why you choose perfectionism. You might think it is the only way to be recognised by others or to be valued, capable, smart, important... If you think this way, it means all these things are important to you. You do not have to give it up necessarily. Once you find out the reasons behind your perfectionism, try to achieve excellence, this will help you feel how you want to feel without all the suffering that perfectionism causes. With excellence you will get the best results within your capabilities and you will find the best possible solution to any problem in a given moment, always keeping in mind your inner and outer circumstances at this precise moment.
Excellence recognises our humanity. Perfectionism focuses only on the goal and misses the experience of walking the path. Excellence is the path itself and allows you to enjoy it. It includes possible fails and mistakes of your life; in fact, they are an essential part of the path. It is thanks to them that we can learn and grow.
Excellence allows perfectionists to go on and do things as good as possible, but at the same time it takes their pressure away, calms them down and makes them excellent in everything they do.
Excellence helps us accept our limits with humility and encourages us to improve learning every day.
Writing down what excellence would mean for you, keeping in mind the circumstances, can be very helpful. Letting perfection go and take on excellence in life is real emotional medicine. There is nothing more perfect than us, imperfect human beings.
Interview conducted by OPAL -
Professional Integration and Employment Guidance Watch Centre of the Universitat de València
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