Perfectionism is often described as a relentless obsession with being better, faster, smarter, and stronger than everyone else. If you’re a real perfectionist—like, say, basketball legend Magic Johnson—you’re willing to literally crush your competition (even if it’s your daughter).
That’s all well and good. Perfectionists do want to be the best. But the real paralysis of being a perfectionist isn’t rooted in external pressures. For many of us, the person we compete with the most is ourself. Our greatest fear isn’t letting down our family, friends, or coworkers—it’s letting down ourselves.
Perfectionism that keeps you up all night
Rap legend Nicki Minaj, a self-proclaimed perfectionist, hits this nuance on the head in a recent Elle feature. Aptly titled “The Queen Returns,” it profiles Minaj in advance of her much-anticipated album, Queen, set to drop on Aug. 10. When the story begins, Minaj has been cooped up in a recording studio for more than 24 hours, working, and re-working a single piece of sound.
“Nicki’s engineer, Big Juice, who, bless him, has also been in here for 24 or 30 or 36 hours…couldn’t even hear the wrong thing at first. But now he hears it, and he’s trying to fix it, too,” writes Devin Gordon. “He makes every single infinitesimal adjustment she very politely, very wearily requests, because Big Juice knows that they are not leaving this room until they get it perfect, then second-guess it and re-perfect it.”
According to Minaj, this hyper-precise adjustment isn’t a choice, it’s her responsibility.
“I feel like true icons shift music, uplift music, switch music, have the balls to take a chance,” Minaj tells Gordon. “The things that people do come so easy to me. I could do it in my sleep. But I’m such a perfectionist that when something is too easy to me, I actually feel guilty. It would’ve been so easy to listen to all the trap music out there right now and say, ‘Let me just copy this.’ But I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself.”
The dangers of directing guilt inward
Perfectionism has many dimensions—self-oriented, others-oriented, and socially prescribed. And as many studies have shown, self-oriented perfectionism is uniquely damaging in generating internalized shame.
When you’re prisoner to your own expectations, and your own expectations are limitless, you’re bound to disappoint yourself. And while perfectionists reckon with fear of failure, the truth is that often, perfectionists succeed—with flying colors. Over time, such escalating success becomes internalized debt: If you know you’re capable of excellence, you’ll feel guilty when you settle for anything less than your absolute best.
There are countless meditations on how to stop perfectionism from ruining your life, many of which will feel meaningless to those addicted to success. However, if you’re a perfectionist, or if you’re managing one, the most important step may be acknowledging, as Minaj does, that the guilt perfectionists often feel is directed at no one but themselves.
Managers can help by emphasizing that striving for excellence is great. Workers need to know that giving themselves a break every once in a while is just as important. Clarify that as the boss, your expectations are not limitless, nor will you be disappointed with “good” or “great” and not demand work that is “MIND-BLOWINGLY AWESOME.”
And as a perfectionist, remember that guilt is a two-way street. If you’re the one issuing and receiving it, you also have the power to turn it off.