The Difference Between High Standards and Perfectionism

Where does “high standards” end and perfectionism begin? When it starts to cost you. A recent New York Times piece by Karen Crouse recounts the trials of figure skater Gracie Gold, an Olympic contender who suffered mental illness, including eating disorders, in large part from the pressures of competing.

Gold’s perfectionism, according to the article, started early. “Throughout [her] childhood, she was fixated on being first, and flawless. In the classroom, she would furiously, and tearfully, erase an entire sentence if she misspelled a single word. By second grade, she had found an outlet for her compulsiveness, taking formal skating lessons at a rink near the family home in Springfield, MO.”

The absolute hardest thing I have to teach people is that perfectionism never helps and always hurts. The lesson can be hard to take in because:

  1. Perfectionism–whether in the form of harshness, punishments, and/or deprivation–has a superficial logic. “Just work harder, Sally!” Or, “No breaks till you’re finished!”
  2. Perfectionism often works in the short term. (But inevitably makes it harder to do your work later on because it creates more fear and disempowerment.)
  3. The media loves oversimplified, dramatic perfectionist narratives; and perfectionism is also prominent in advertising. (“Just do it.” “No pain no gain.” Etc.) And finally,
  4. Perfectionism is the toxic overapplication of a positive behavior–having high standards–but there’s no clear and absolute line between them. In fact, the line varies from person to person, and even for the same person at different times or for different projects.

Given all this, it’s no surprise that many parents, teachers, coaches, etc., buy into perfectionism. And some fields encourage it, including, of course, competitive sports. Crouse’s article quotes sports psychologist Caroline Silby about athletic perfectionism: “Some of it is developed through habits and practices that feed the athletic quest for excellence but drive these individuals further away from being healthy, productive non-athletes.”

Unfortunately perfectionism distorts our thinking at a very basic level, which prevents us from even recognizing that there’s a problem. And even when we do, it limits our options for solving it. “Until Gold’s life began to unravel, she couldn’t comprehend mental illness. ‘I’d hear someone say, ‘I’m so depressed,’ and I’d think, ‘Tough it out,’ she said.”

And make no mistake: perfectionism can kill. At her low point, Gold says she was, “suicidal for months.” (See, also, the stories of students who commit suicide from academic pressure, and the current spike in teen anxiety and depression.)

Perfectionism, which promises a glamorous, idealized version of yourself–effortlessly hyper-productive, and with little need for support or self-care–can be powerfully seductive. Compared to it, productivity work–which mostly involves getting real about yourself, your needs, and your constraints–can seem like a let-down. But perfectionism is always a lie, and often a dangerous one.

It’s the coming to terms with your true self that leaves you truly free to produce the best work you can, while also being the best, and healthiest, “you” you can be.

Photo: Gracie Gold by David W. Carmichael. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

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