INSPIRATION | 5 November 2015

When perfectionism is in the way

Popular research always led me to belief that being a perfectionist would limit my possibilities. Sure, it was the ‘flaw’ in your behavior when you were asked to tell something negative about yourself in a job interview (do we still do that by the way? I guess nowadays job interviewers just roll their eyes when they hear someone is a perfectionist…). But it was the perfect cover. Who wouldn’t want to hire someone who only delivered the very best they could? Sign me up!

Unless you read some semi-scientific stuff about the behavior trait perfectionism. Psychology today: “It’s a fast track to unhappiness, and perfectionism is often accompanied by depression and eating disorders”. Luckily as early as 1978 researchers started to distinct two different kinds of perfectionism: an adaptive form and a maladaptive form. The adaptive form motivates people to reach their goals without diminishing their self esteem when they fail, while the maladaptive form drives people to reach for unachievable goals, deflating their self esteem when things don’t turn out as hoped.

Perfectionism and achievements
But even for us normal perfectionists, there’s some bad news: research shows that perfectionism goes hand in hand with uncreative thinking. When you want to reach a goal that feels just a little bit out of reach, you – as a true perfectionist – won’t take any risk of failing. Hence the fall of creative thinking. I’ve read a bunch of studies about this topic a few years ago, but somehow I had trouble believing it to be true. It felt too shortsighted and I couldn’t recognize myself in it, even though I classify myself as a perfectionist. It got me thinking and trying to recall when I felt that perfectionism was a drawback. After a while I saw a pattern in my behavior: when I’ve set performance goals I indeed was less creative, but when I’ve set mastery (learning) goals I gave myself space to enjoy the ride and didn’t only focus on the possible outcomes (succes or failure). I was allowed to make mistakes, I was only learning.

Research indeed shows that the kind of goals you set for yourself, determines if your perfectionism is helpful or not. When perfectionists set mastery goals they perform better than non-perfectionists who set mastery goals. But when perfectionists set performance goals they perform less than non-perfectionists who set performance goals. Elisabeth Gilbert (who wrote international bestseller Eat Pray Love) discusses this in her TED talk.

Everywhere I go now people are treating me like I’m doomed. DOOMED. ‘Aren’t you afraid you’re never going to be able to top that? Aren’t you afraid you’re gonna keep writing your whole life and you’re never going to create a book that anybody in the world cares about? At all, ever, again?’ … And the short answer to all those questions is yes.

And I’m kind of seeing this pattern happening in my blogging: I need new learning goals to be creative, but at the moment I’m not sure what those new learning goals should be. So the big question is: what the hell should we do when we feel uninspired? Curious to hear your thoughts and ideas, so join me on Instagram!