The Downsides Of Perfectionism And How To Control It

By Chong Seow Wei

Five creatives from the Gen.T community share how the chase for perfection can be counterproductive and why it's important to know when to let go

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Cover  Peter Dazeley / The Image Bank / Getty Images

Being a perfectionist is typically seen as a positive and sometimes desirable trait. This is further backed by the fact that about 87 percent of the world’s gifted people are one. From Serena Williams to Steve Jobs, many of the most prominent geniuses and talents we know today have either proclaimed that they are a perfectionist or have been described as one by those around them. 

Perfectionism may manifest as a healthy, internal motivation to do better and be more creative, but it also has its downside. Experts say our perfectionistic tendencies reflect the way we think about ourselves, and this can be seen in instances where we define our strengths and self-worth based on our performance. 

Signs of unhealthy perfectionism, or what is called maladaptive perfectionism, may include putting ourselves down when something doesn’t go according to plan, worrying what others think or say of you, or relentlessly pursuing an unrealistic standard or goal at the expense of something else such as our health or relationships with others. 

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When left unchecked, maladaptive perfectionism can have detrimental effects on our self-esteem and mental health, including causing insomnia, depression and OCD behaviour. There are numerous studies to prove this.

This idea of perfectionism may resonate with creatives, who spend their years pursuing their ideal level of perfection in their craft. Case in point: French impressionist painter Claude Monet, who was known to destroy and burn paintings of his own that he felt weren’t up to standard.

Nearly a century after Monet’s death, reports say we may be developing greater perfectionistic tendencies over time. Here, we speak to four creatives from the Gen.T community about their own perfectionistic ways and how they try to manage them.

Strike A Balance Between Time And Ambition

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Gabriel Tan
Above  Gabriel Tan

Like the consumer tech industry, the design industry is fiercely competitive and all about timing. For designers such as Gabriel Tan, who is the creative director of Gabriel Tan Studio, the ability to push out a product before others is key to surviving in a cut-throat sector. At the same time, this sense of urgency has also become a means for him to manage his perfectionistic personality. 

“As a creative professional working on products, furniture and spaces, I try to perfect as many details as I can before the end result is put out into the world,” shares the 2019 Gen.T honouree. “But being first to the market is also important when we’re working on new products with clients. There have been occasions when I had to cancel my project because other designers with a similar idea to mine were faster to bring their products to market. We ourselves have done this to others as well.”

He instead tries to strike a balance between spending enough time to “deliver a design that deserves existence” and spending too much time on trying to perfect it. 

A believer in the Japanese “kaizen” philosophy of constant and continuous improvement, Tan also doesn’t think the life of a product ends when it’s launched or sold. “I’ve learned over the years that design is a never-ending process,” he says. “What may seem perfect at this moment in time could be bettered in a year or decade later with the emergence of new technology or manufacturing capabilities.” If possible, improvements can be made to his next batch of products, especially if he knows what can be fine-tuned through customer feedback. 

He also sees the benefit in not always indulging his idea of perfection, particularly when it will affect his relationship with his partners and stakeholders. “I’ve come to realise that the working relationship with my client, supplier and craftsmen is just as important as the end product itself,” he says. “I’ve learned to be a little more flexible and also to try to put myself in their shoes, as the design and fabrication of a product or space is not a unilateral process, but a collaboration between multiple parties.”

See also: 5 Artists You Need To Know In Singapore

Let Teamwork Outweigh Your Perfectionist Tendencies

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Revano Satria
Above  Revano Satria

Indonesian architect Revano Satria, who co-founded interdisciplinary design firm MSSM Associates and is the CEO of engineering consultancy RSI Group, says he was a perfectionist in his early days as a one-man show, until he realised it hindered his ability to work in a team as his businesses grew. 

“It was easier for me to express my perfectionistic tendencies when I was just starting out because I mainly worked alone,” he says. “It became more difficult when my team became bigger and I started to work with a lot of talents with different ideas and working styles. I had to try to manage my expectations towards work, although this doesn’t mean that the work quality dropped. It just grew in different directions—and in a good way.”

His years of experience leading two companies have also taught him that he can’t make everyone happy all the time. When it comes to completing a project on time, he says he always tries to achieve “a beautiful equilibrium; a state that everyone can accept.”

Stop Comparing Yourself To Others

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Esther Goh
Above  Esther Goh

Esther Goh’s story may resonate with creatives who find that their biggest professional hurdle is themselves. “It may sound weird but most times, I feel ambivalent about my work,” says the Singaporean illustrator who has collaborated with brands such as Kenzo and Tiger Beer. “I tend to go back and forth between being satisfied with how an illustration turned out and thinking it’s not as good as I thought it to be.”

She relishes the idea of completing a project, but it’s this same thought that compels her to pick it apart. “It’s especially so with projects that I’ve grown attached to. I could go on tweaking it and still not be happy because really, when does it end?”

Looking at the works of other creatives for inspiration—and inevitably comparing her work to theirs—is one of the traits she says is perpetuating her sense of perfectionism. “The more I’m exposed to good work, the more I’m aware of the limitations of my own skills.” As a result, she’s kept quiet about some of the works that she wasn’t fully satisfied with, but had to push out due to obligations to her clients. “There’s a whole bunch of commercial projects that I’ve been unsure about and therefore couldn’t publish on my website or social media accounts.”

Acknowledging her thoughts and behaviour has helped her to be more mindful of how she manages them. “I would try to come to terms with the fact that I’ve created the artwork to the best of my ability and judgement at the time, while keeping in mind what I would do it differently the next time round.” 

She also finds it helpful to divert her attention to her next project or spend time learning something new. “I understand that as long as I stay curious, keep working at it and don’t stop reinventing myself, eventually there’s going to be better illustrations to replace what I’ve done so far. By then, [my past worries] won't matter anymore.”

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Force Yourself To Take A Break

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Suhaili Micheline
Above  Suhaili Micheline

Ultimately, changing the way our brain is wired is an uphill battle. For self-professed workaholic and perfectionist Suhaili Micheline, who runs her own dance academy, Aurora School of Dance in Malaysia, this is one of the latest challenges she’s given to herself. “I don’t usually have days off from work; I like to grab hold of opportunities, sometimes so much that I have too much on my plate,” she says. 

Micheline’s diligence and high standards for herself were formed during her days as a young professional dancer. “When I was studying dance in Melbourne at 17 years old, I taught myself to be very disciplined with my schedule, progress and goals. I soon realised that routine is so important and that shaped my perfectionistic mindset towards all things dance-related.”

Her strong sense of responsibility is seen in her passion for nurturing the next generation of dancers. “As a teacher to children and young adults, my responsibility is to drive their passion with a purpose to make a difference to the community, the country and eventually, the world,” she said in a past interview with Gen.T.

It was only in the last few years when she started learning to take a breather. “I used to take work trips and extend them for a few more days, and call that my holiday,” she says. “Then three to four years ago, my boyfriend encouraged me to go on a holiday with him. I had such a difficult time letting go of my responsibilities, as my work routine always has to be perfect, but it was so gratifying to be able to disconnect and go with the flow.”

Since experiencing the effects of a “real break” from work, she’s been telling herself to “not overdo every day and be more flexible, because with all that I’ve worked hard for and put in place, things won’t collapse if I took one break”. 

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