mental health & wellness, work & vocation

Perfectionism and "Love of Work"

Last night I heard a hard-hitting talk about perfectionism at William & Mary InterVarsity large group. (Entire talk available here:

It gave me so much to think about that the topic could probably sustain me for at least 2-4 blog posts. 

So for right now I’m just going to set the stage with what perfectionism is, where it can come from, and what further questions I have about it.

What perfectionism is

The Oxford English Dictionary defines perfectionism as the following:

  1. “a system or doctrine based on the belief that moral, spiritual, social, or political perfection is attainable, or has been attained; the pursuit of such perfection as an ultimate goal”
  2. “refusal to accept any standard short of perfection”

Psychology Today gives the following, more illustrative, summary of perfectionism:

“For perfectionists, life is an endless report card on accomplishments or looks. A one-way ticket to unhappiness, perfectionism is typically accompanied by depression and eating disorders. What makes perfectionism so toxic is that while those in its grip desire success, they are most focused on avoiding failure, so theirs is a negative orientation. And love isn’t a refuge; in fact, it feels way too conditional on performance.”

Where perfectionism can come from  

Perfectionism can come from any number of environmental and personality factors. How perfectionistic are our families, friends, schools, and churches? And how susceptible are we personally to the pressures of those families, friends, schools, and churches?

The Psychology Today summary of this issue goes on to say that “perfectionism is usually transmitted in little ‘messages’ from parents to children, some as silent as a raised eyebrow over a B rather than an A.”

I can absolutely relate to this source of perfectionism “messages.” (And so can a lot of people, at least judging by all the nodding heads during last night’s talk.) Growing up, A’s could get me praise from parents, a class ranking at school, and sometimes even free pizza at Cici’s Pizza. In a child’s mind, all of this pairs achievement with reward and pairs failure with not-reward or even with punishment.

Then, in College, at least at William & Mary, we sustain those perfectionism “messages” by normalizing and even popularizing long hours at the library, all-nighters, perfect resumes, perfect grades, perfect this, perfect that. Yet, we deny or defend our perfectionism in a number of ways:

  • by saying that “everyone else is doing it” (Really? Everyone else is getting straight A’s? Uhh…pretty sure that’s not possible, if only because it would throw off the bell curve.) 
  • by saying that “we need it to get into grad school” (Really? If you get even one B you can’t get into grad school?)
  • by saying that we don’t have “a refusal to accept any standard short of perfection”…we just have “high standards”! (OK, I have a hard time refuting this one. But I’ll try in the next section.)     
Further questions

How can we have high standards without having perfect standards? How can we work hard and do well without feeling like we have to work hard and do well? Is it even impossible? I think so. I’m just not sure yet how.

I’m reminded of this diagram that I once saw:

A lot of perfectionists fall into either “habits” or “fear of failing.” We put in lots of work because it will impress our parents/professors/employers/admissions committees but not because we’re personally invested in the work, winding up with habits (just “going through the motions”). Or we’re personally invested in the work such that we couldn’t stand the thought of failing at it, so we self-handicap by putting forth little effort.

Based on this diagram, the solution is “love of the work.” As the saying goes, “Do what you love and love what you do.”

I understand sometimes that doesn’t seem possible. Sometimes we all take boring classes or work less-than-appealing jobs. But, whether we like what we’re doing or not, we can put our heart into it. And whether we feel good at it or not, we can put forth effort.

So….”love of the work” may be one way to have high standards without perfectionism.

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