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Why we pursue perfection

(Kris Dobie Photography)
By Karen Weintraub
Globe Correspondent / September 5, 2011

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Jeff Szymanski

Szymanski, executive director of the International OCD Foundation, has just written a book, "The Perfectionist's Handbook: Take Risks, Invite Criticism, and Make the Most of Your Mistakes," which is coming out tomorrow.

Q. In the book, you talk about how perfectionism can be both good and bad, helpful and a stumbling block.

A. We all use perfectionism in both connotations: striving for an ideal that probably isn’t very helpful to us, but also striving for ideals that are motivating and really push us. [The book is about] what are the healthy pieces of your perfectionism that you want to hold on to and build on? What are the parts of your perfectionism that aren’t working and how can you shift around?

Q. What distinguishes healthy versus unhealthy perfectionism?

A. If you’re a healthy perfectionist, you tend to set goals for yourself that push you to the next level, but are achievable. If you’re an unhealthy perfectionist, you’re someone who sets these very far, very out-of-reach goals and wonder why you never reach your goals. If you want to start an exercise program after not exercising in years, a healthy perfectionist would say: “My goal would be to get to the gym two or three times a week, for maybe a half an hour each time.’’ An unhealthy perfectionist will say: “Now that I’m motivated, I’m going to go to the gym for two hours a day, six days in a row.’’

Q. Perfectionists set themselves up for failure and then beat themselves up for failing?

A. The belief is if I’m hard on myself, if I punish myself, that will teach me a lesson and I won’t make that mistake again.

Q. You suggest that it’s more effective to see mistakes as learning experiences rather than failures.

A. It’s looking at what worked, what didn’t work, learn a new way of dealing with that mistake - not in this beating-up way, but “my weaknesses are the keys to how I need to improve.’’ That doesn’t mean be happy about it. I’m a perfectionist. I’m the executive director of an international nonprofit. I didn’t get here by being blasé about mistakes. I take them seriously, I just don’t club myself over the head with them.

Q. What do you tell someone whose perfectionism is getting in their own way?

A. What I counsel them to do is use the 80-20 rule. Learn to distribute your time and resources smartly, and keep the big picture in mind.

Q. Is a perfectionist born or made? Is it in our genes, our environment, or both?

A. Almost everything is a little of both. We’re born with temperaments. By temperament I’m fastidious, I like things in their place, I’m probably more anxious [than most people], I’m more shy. Perfectionism as a trait runs through many psychological disorders - you see people with eating disorders with a lot of perfectionism, depression, OCD. As a personality trait, it’s on a continuum for all of us. At the end of the spectrum, it can get caught up in a disorder.

Q. If you’re a perfectionist, does that color everything you do? Are you a perfectionist about everything?

A. Most people, myself included until I read this research, thought you were either a perfectionist or not. People have pockets of perfectionism: [You’re] a perfectionist around appearance, or at work, or in social situations, or in sporting activities. The things that are important to you are the things you end up being perfectionistic about.

This interview has been edited and condensed. Karen Weintraub can be reached at

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