Perfectionism: Why it doesn't need fixing and how to embrace it as a 'gift', according to a psychotherapist

Serena Williams
Serena Williams, who won 23 Grand Slam titles, serves during her second round match against Margarita Gasparyan of Russia at the 2020 US Open in September 2020. "I'm a perfectionist … That's been really the story of my life," Williams said after her win. Photo credit: Getty Images

By Jessica DuLong of CNN

Editor's note: Jessica DuLong is a Brooklyn, New York-based journalist, book collaborator, writing coach and the author of Saved at the Seawall: Stories from the September 11 Boat Lift and My River Chronicles: Rediscovering the Work That Built America.

Worried that perfectionism is holding you back? No wonder, given all the messaging out there that demonizes the tendency, advising us to give it up in favour of finding balance.

Psychotherapist Katherine Morgan Schafler rejects that approach, upending the whole notion that perfectionism is something to overcome. Getting rid of it won't work because it's a fundamental component of who you are, Schafler argues. Instead, it's time to recognize perfectionism as a gift and a source of power. 

It's fine that perfectionists are not balanced people, Schafler writes in her book, The Perfectionist's Guide to Losing Control: A Path to Peace and PowerWhat's more, changing by "subscribing to prepackaged notions of balance and generic wellness when they don't fit who you are isn't being healthy."

Instead, Schafler advises people to celebrate their ceaseless drive to bridge the gulf between reality and the ideal. Too often, counsel issued under the guise of self-care - especially to women - is more about suppressing "expressions of ambition and power seeking" that could help people live full, big lives.

She says it's time to reclaim the term perfectionist along with all the advantages brought by an insatiable desire to excel.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

CNN: What is perfectionism?

Schafler: Perfectionism is a natural impulse that's unique to humans. We all have the cognitive capacity to see reality and project onto it new and improved versions of things, noticing differences between what now exists and the ideal. Perfectionists, meanwhile, are those who not only see that gap but feel an active compulsion to try and bridge it. They carry the impulse to explore the bounds of possibility, without being constrained by what's realistic.

In mental health, compulsion is often talked about in a negative way, as a marker of dysfunction. But to say that something is compulsive doesn't automatically mean it's unhealthy. In my view, perfectionism is the energy that makes the world go round. Societies need people with the drive to strive toward ideals. The tension that perfectionists carry is where their power lies. The key is to apply this power with intention, constructively and consciously.

CNN: What does applying perfectionism consciously look like? 

Schafler: When you direct something consciously, you're not attached to the outcome in the same way as when you're trying to control it. People who are aligned with their power have a self-defined version of success that's internally rather than externally based. For perfectionists, that means you remind yourself you're already whole, check in with yourself as you would a friend to see how you're feeling and give yourself access to goodness freely, without evaluating your performance to determine how much goodness you "deserve."

There's no healthy version of attaching your self-worth to achievement. Love, freedom, joy, connection and dignity are birth rights. You don't need to do anything to earn them.

While healthy perfectionists play to win, unhealthy perfectionists play to not lose, which comes from a compensatory place where you already feel like you're not enough, so you'd better perform your ass off to make up for the holes you have. The goal is to harness the power of perfectionism to help and heal you. Healthy perfectionists recognize that ideals are meant to inspire, not to be achieved.

CNN: How does the need for control tie into perfectionism? 

Schafler: You'll hear perfectionists say, "I can't help myself." That immediately gets flagged as problematic by people who think you should be able to just lower your standards or enjoy relaxing "like a normal person." We don't necessarily want to minimize our perfectionistic tendencies; we just want to be conscious of them. Perfectionism does not have to be a struggle, and you do not have to give up being a perfectionist to be healthy. I recommend this reframing question: What if your perfectionism exists to help you?

CNN: What are the implications of today's societal push toward what we call balance?

Schafler: In its original construct, balance is about energetic equilibrium - about feeling that you're meeting your energetic needs for curiosity, play, intellectual stimulation, sensuality, rest, whatever it is. Today, balanced means being really good at being really busy. When we say someone is balanced, what we mean is they can keep juggling more stuff without dropping the ball. That has nothing to do with health. Zero.

When we encourage people to find balance - a dictate that's overwhelmingly broadcasted at women - we're making the misogynistic suggestion that there is a way to be all things to all people at all times. There is no way to do that. This reductionist concept of balance focuses on doing, rather than on one's internal state. 

When men express ambition and power-seeking, they're considered alpha males and visionaries. When women express ambition and power-seeking they are viewed as "too intense" and power-hungry. They're told they need balance to be healthy.

This directive to find balance is ironic because it's not saying: "Slow down, check in with yourself. Do you feel like you've hit your sweet spot of energetic equilibrium?" It's saying, "You need to get better at being all things to all people and once you do, then you can call yourself balanced."

The push for increased balance is not a response to the state of women's health; it's a response to the state of women's power.

CNN: How can perfectionists tell the difference between working ourselves into the ground and embracing our drive in a healthy, energising way?  

Schafler: That's where pleasure comes in. Leading the kind of life you want feels good. Too often we deny ourselves pleasure in the name of responsibility and discipline, but there's nothing responsible about not attending to what makes you feel good. The trouble comes if we can't recognize the difference between immediate gratification and actual pleasure.

Immediate gratification often creates anticipatory anxiety, something like, "Oh, I hope I don't drink too much tonight." Then, our memory of the event might be tinged with regret: "Last night, I went overboard." But pleasure is not loaded. It's a direct, joyful satisfaction. Pleasure will feel good in anticipation, in the moment, and in recall.

Women are trained to focus so heavily on mastering immediate gratification that they don't get the chance to graduate to exploring pleasure. Pleasure teaches you about who you are, what you like, and what you do and don't want. That's how to tell if you're on the right track. The right job, relationship or working style will feel good.

CNN: What does healthy life balance look like?  

Schafler: A healthy, balanced life looks different for everyone. It's when your actions are in line with your values.

The tricky thing about values - honesty, integrity, a sense of humour, kindness, reliability, etc. - is that they all sound good. It can be daunting to choose what values you want to prioritize, but that decision can really help clarify how you spend your time.

Here's a technique to help tell which values are most important to you: The compliments that mean the most to you reveal what your values are. For example, if someone tells me I look pretty today, that's nice. I don't hate that compliment, but it's also forgettable for me. It doesn't emotionally resonate because beauty is not a top priority of mine. When people tell me they cried when they read my book, however, that moves me. One of my top values is connection, and if you're crying while reading the book, I know you're connecting to it. So, consider this: What are your favourite compliments to receive?

Lastly, understand that these are your values for this season; you don't have to commit to prioritizing these values forever. Identify three to five values and filter your actions and choices through them: Does this honour my value of _____? If the answer is no, it's not right for you.