Behavioral Psychology

The Problem With Perfectionism

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The main practical reason perfectionists have a hard time giving up their perfectionism is that, despite the joylessness, guilt, self-recrimination, anxiety, depression, and other painful thoughts and feelings that follow them around over the course of their lives these people do tend to produce at a high level. In fact it’s exactly those painful thoughts and feelings, and the wish to eradicate them through achieving perfection, that act as their primary motivation. In other words, they use negative reinforcement on themselves to get desired results. They either don’t know, or simply don’t believe because of their own challenging abusive circumstances in childhood and adolescence, that positive reinforcement works just as well to motivate sustained behavior while minimizing the risk of undesirable side-effects inherent in negative reinforcement like mental illness and burnout.

If we take the concepts of positive reinforcement and positive reinforcement out of the behavioral realm and into the existential realm positive reinforcement says, “I do this because I love it. It fills me with joy and happiness. I’m pulled forward by what I love.” Negative reinforcement says, “I do this because I dread the consequences of not doing it. I’m driven by what I fear.” Both states of being create very palpable movement but oh what a difference between them.

The problem with perfectionism is that while the life attitude does produce movement it comes at a tremendous cost to the psyche. Even when perfectionists perceive that perfection has been attained in some task happiness and fulfillment are fleeting. They quickly move on to the next task and the negative reinforcement cycle starts all over again. While the paradigm of positive reinforcement makes happiness and fulfillment the centerpieces of motivation happiness and fulfillment only ever come intermittently and briefly for the perfectionist.

Another huge danger of perfectionism is burnout. Think about it like this. Perfectionists are always trying to silence that inner critic, to minimize feelings of guilt and self-loathing. One path to silencing the inner critic is doing something perfectly. The other path is ceasing to do it at all! Out of sight out of mind.

Therefore the perfectionist’s task is to set the intention to change paradigms, to cease using negative reinforcement as a motivational tool and to start using positive reinforcement instead. To embark on a project not in order to avoid unwanted thoughts and feelings but rather to deepen wanted thoughts and feelings. To be pulled forward by love rather than driven by fear. To realize that doing something well over the long-term while joyfully focused on improving tends to lead to more spectacular results than trying to do something perfectly over the short-term while joylessly focused on improving ever can.