It’s true that perfectionism can ruin your life. And psychotherapist Katherine Morgan Schafler has met enough “recovering perfectionists” to know people are looking for a way out of the exhaustion and anxiety perfectionism can produce. But she also begs you to ask: What if your perfectionism isn’t the problem?
According to Schafler, perfectionism can be a powerful asset when you know how to use it. “Perfectionism has a dichotomous nature. So yes, it can be very destructive, but it can also be very constructive when you manage it thoughtfully,” she says. Research shows perfectionism is a part of you, anyway: You’re a perfectionist the same way an artist is an artist or a romantic is a romantic, Schafler says. You can’t recover from it; you have to learn to work with it.
In her therapy practice, Schafler teaches perfectionists how to harness the power of perfectionism—and evade undesirable consequences—by shifting their perception. (Her book, The Perfectionist’s Guide to Losing Control, is life-changing.)
“Perfectionism is about striving toward an ideal,” Schafler explains. It’s the ability to recognize the gap between what is and what could be—and the drive to get from here to there. The difference in whether your perfectionism works for you or against you, though, has to do with how you relate to the act of striving. “Healthy perfectionists understand that ideals are meant to inspire; they’re not meant to be achieved. And unhealthy perfectionists sometimes lose sight of that.” Here are two questions to help you figure out what kind of perfectionist you are.
1. HOW AM I STRIVING?
Are you striving in a way that is hurting you? Is your well-being suffering? Are you exploiting your relationships and the people around you? Does striving make you feel exhausted, depleted, and less like yourself?
Or are you striving in a way that makes you feel more of yourself? Does it make you feel alive and engaged? Does striving make you feel tired in a good way? “Healthy striving is about striving because you love the process. You’re not attached to the outcome when you’re striving for the love of the process. You get satisfaction from learning, growing, solving problems, building relationships, encountering new ideas,” Schafler says.
Schafler gives an example: “Let’s say you’re striving toward a goal at work—earning 35K in commission next quarter. If you’re striving toward that goal by regularly forgoing sleep, eating junk food at your desk because you’re so busy, or creating interpersonal drama because you’re placing excess pressure on your team, that’s all unhealthy. You’re hurting yourself and you’re hurting others. The healthier version of striving looks like working hard with the understanding that you’re no good to yourself or anyone else if you’re burned-out, resentful, rushed, absent-minded, sleep-deprived, or otherwise not well taken care of.”
2. WHY AM I STRIVING?
Are you striving toward an ideal because you imagine it will validate your belonging somewhere? So you can get someone else’s validation and officially call yourself successful? Or are you striving because pursuing your work (or relationship, or whatever) is a natural expression of yourself?
Schafler’s example: “A perfectionist in a healthy place might want to look their best because they feel really good on the inside. And they want to animate that for themselves and celebrate that and let that be known. A perfectionist in a maladaptive space might strive to look their best because they feel so inadequate. And they feel like they’re already operating on a deficit. They feel like, I better look my best because I have to compensate for any inadequacies.”
The antidote to unhealthy perfectionism, Schafler says, is pleasure. Knowing what makes you feel good will help you strive toward things that energize and delight you, rather than drain you. It’s not about immediate gratification (although you may get a bit of that, too) but a sense of fulfillment.
What to avoid in the process: trying to feel good by pursuing what makes other people feel good. You might find, for example, that the stillness and simple pleasures that work for your friends don’t do it for you. “You are not other people,” Schafler emphasizes. “You have this incredible internal system that—if you just give yourself access—is going to inform you about what is right for you and who you are.”