What is perfectionism?
Perfectionism is the individual's belief that he or she must be perfect to be acceptable.
Perfectionism is black and white with no gray area. Anything other than perfect is failure.
Perfectionism is an attitude, not necessarily a behavior. In other words, two people can
engage in the same behavior such as trying to win an Olympic gold medal but one can be pursuing
excellence and the other is demanding perfection. The difference lies in the thought process
about the goal or behavior, not in the goal or behavior itself.
What is the pursuit of excellence?
The pursuit of excellence is the desire to attain a goal of excellence, to achieve at a high
level, to be the best that one can be but without the demand attached to the goal or desire.
Pursuing excellence may require tremendous effort and focus as well as other resources. But,
unlike perfectionism, it does not demand a sacrifice of self-esteem as it tends to focus on the process of achievement
rather than the outcome.
How does the pursuit of excellence differ from the demand of perfection?
1) Process-oriented vs. Outcome-oriented.
The pursuer of excellence focuses on the process of the
task at hand rather than the outcome. As a result, goals typically are performance-based rather
than achievement based. For example, in a relationship situation a person may develop a performance
goal of "I will make the effort to listen to my spouse more" rather than the achievement goal of
"I will stop interrupting my spouse." The performance goal is more achievable because it is always
easier to add a new behavior than to stop an existing behavior. However, as you may see with this
example, if an individual focuses on listening to their spouse more, they are likely to reduce how
much they interrupt their spouse. Yet, setting an outcome-oriented goal of stopping a behavior is
likely to lead to more failure and discouragement and possibly giving up.
2) Valuing Self vs. Valuing Achievement.
For a perfectionistic individual
self-worth depends upon achievement. Given that the achievement goal is perfection which is
impossible to achieve, the individual is likely to perceive him or herself as worthless or a
failure due to not achieving perfection. However, the pursuer of excellence values him or herself
separate from the achievement based upon the effort or the willingness to try rather than whether
the goal was achieved. For instance, a perfectionist trying to lose weight may think "I gained
weight this week. I can't do this because I'm so weak and lazy" whereas the pursuer of excellence
may think "I gained weight this week. I gave it a good effort and I need to figure out how to
improve" and is unlikely to negatively label him or herself.
3) Achievable Goals vs. Unreasonable Demands.
The pursuer of excellence sets
realistic but challenging goals that are clear and specific whereas the perfectionist set
unreasonable demands or expectations. I see many women who believe that no matter what is
asked of them they should meet everyone else's needs which leads to the stress of not enough
time to do everything they believe they should. Therefore, if the demand exceeds the available
time it is unreasonable. The pursuer of excellence would examine the situation and make decisions
about what is most important to do, where they can set limits by saying "no," and when they can delegate.
4) Assessing Mistakes vs. Criticizing Failure.
The perfectionist criticizes him
or herself for failure and mistakes often very harshly: "I'm so lazy and stupid." I often confront
this self-flagellation with "Would you say that to someone you love? Then, don't say it to yourself."
However, the pursuer of excellence is willing to examine his or her performance and personal
vulnerabilities so as to improve. Yet, this examination is conducted in a gentle way without
harsh labels or comments.
5) Internal Satisfaction vs. External Recognition.
The pursuer of excellence
focuses on achieving goals to attain personal satisfaction rather than needing others to recognize
their success. The perfectionist can only feel good about him or herself when others recognize the
achievement. In fact, the perfectionist may be unable to accomplish tasks or goals that don't involve
external recognition. For instance, a person who can't achieve sales goals when working for him or
herself but is able to achieve the goals set by a supervisor.
6) Risking Failure vs. Avoiding Failure.
The pursuer of excellence desires to
risk failure because of the benefits that occur from taking a risk. He or she is able to do this
because failure isn't personalized and dreaded as a result. However, the perfectionist prefers to
avoid failure and therefore often performs at a lower level than he or she is capable. They will
often report "I know I'm capable of more. I'm just afraid to try." Their need to avoid failure is
due to the high cost of failure to their self-esteem: "If I fail, I am a miserable failure." Whereas,
the pursuer of excellence believes "I was willing to take a risk and try something that most people
aren't even willing to try. So, no matter what the outcome is, I feel successful because I
7) Partners vs. Adversaries.
The pursuer of excellence sees others as partners
in the achievement of their goals. They view advice as constructive criticism and seek it out.
Whereas, the perfectionist views others as potential critics and fear blame from others.
As a result, they avoid feedback and their world tends to be viewed more competitively and
adversarial which then reinforces the view of danger from others. For instance, if someone
states, "I think if you took this stance when swinging the club you could hit it farther" they
would see the statement as criticism saying that they can't play golf whereas the pursuer of
excellence would welcome the suggestion and act upon it.
8) Patience vs. Demand.
The perfectionist expects goals to be achieved immediately.
I frequently encounter clients who express discouragement at about the third therapy session,
"I just can't get this. I can't stop the negative self-talk." They believe that if they identify
a problem, they should be able to solve it immediately. Whereas the pursuer of excellence recognizes
that change occurs with consistent effort over time and have the patience to continuing pursuing
goals even when there is not immediate change.
9) Desire vs. Fixed Desire.
A statement from the Tao te Ching (which I think
of as the earliest cognitive therapy) is "To be given everything, you must give everything up."
I believe this statement is indicating the difference between a "fixed desire" and a desire.
A fixed desire is a demand or a "should" about our behavior or the world around us. "I should
enjoy time with my children rather than being distracted." Fixed desires almost always lead to
unhappiness or dissatisfaction because there is an implied demand of "In order for me to happy
or okay or good, I should..." But the demand is so unreasonable that it can't be met. Look at
the one I wrote above. If a person is thinking "I should enjoy time with my children rather
than being distracted" while with his or her children, he or she is being distracted by the
demanding thought itself! The pursuer of excellence may have desires such as "I want to be more
mentally present when I'm with my children" but these desires are not demands but are achievable
10) Enjoyment vs. Dissatisfaction.
Finally, the pursuer of excellence finds
enjoyment and satisfaction in the pursuit of goals whereas the perfectionist is usually unhappy
or dissatisfied. When goals or risks are challenging and achievable and are not attached to
the self-concept they can be fun to pursue. As a result, the pursuer of excellence is often
more successful that the perfectionist because he or she is not paralyzed with fear of failure
but is able to enjoy the process, and therefore, pursue more risks and goals increasing the
chances of success.
Copyright © 2010
by Excel At Life, LLC
Permission to reprint this article for non-commercial use is granted if it includes this entire copyright
and an active link.
Some people may be curious as to why this website is dedicated to the "pursuit of excellence"
when I am constantly warning about the dangers of perfectionism. To address this question we
must differentiate between the pursuit of excellence and the need to be perfect. These concepts
are not only different but can be considered antagonistic to one another. In fact these concepts
are so opposed to one another that excellence can best be attained by giving up the demands of