When I was younger, I used to think perfectionism was a good thing.
The word “perfect” is in it, after all.
But I never thought I was a perfectionist. I only had heard other people say it about themselves, wearing the term like a badge of honor.
“Oh, it’s just because I’m a perfectionist” someone would exclaim, after they had just created something utterly amazing.
So in my mind, it meant striving for the utmost. Doing your absolute best work.
I surely wasn’t one of those, I thought. I just did what felt normal to me. The standard I set for myself is what I’d always known, so I wasn’t aware that it was actually a struggle. That I was actually draining myself to the point of burn out, disguised as just being very thorough.
It wasn’t until later in my career did I realize the plague that perfectionism really is, and that I had been stuck in it for most of my life without even realizing it.
The experience of perfectionism for me is a ruthless attempt at control and a nagging anxiety when something threatens that control. It’s also like turning up the volume knob on your focus and attention to detail. You take in every last drop of information (to reduce the risk of doing something wrong).
If you’re like me, you’ve likely been doing this your whole life.
If you’ve ever worked on some kind of feature at your job, taking 100% ownership of it, and then felt triggered by another developer “stepping into your territory”, it’s likely you have a similar issue with control and perfectionism.
When I sit with it, I can see it really comes from fear.
Fear that something will go terribly wrong. You may not have realized it at the time, but you put so much intensity and focus on getting it right all on your own, that the idea of someone else stepping on your perfect sand castle brings you into turmoil.
One of the things I’m having to learn though, is that you can’t do it all on your own.
You can try, but you can only get so far, and you’ll eventually burn out.
It’s a success barrier.
When you work on a team, you have to develop trust in others, and you have to be okay with differences in skill, interpretation, attention to detail, and style.
You have to be able to share the workload and let things go.
If you’re like me, you’ve likely grown up thinking you’re all on your own. Thinking you can only depend on yourself. That no one else will help you, so ya might as well become superhuman and figure it out alone.
If you don’t become aware of this pattern, you will continue to burn yourself out over and over and over.
You don’t have to do it all on your own.
Let your teammates learn some things on their own. Give them the opportunity to try and succeed or try and fail.
Now, looking at it another way, learning how to be okay with some amount of uncertainty and mess is something to continually work on, but so is acceptance of who you currently are.
Despite it being born out of necessity as a child, your attention to detail is certainly a powerful advantage, so don’t be ashamed of it.
I sometimes catch myself feeling like the controlling tyrant when my precise awareness has me wagging my finger at my less detailed cohorts.
Of course, you don’t want to be judging others as if they are less than, but it is absolutely 100% okay and valid to express your concern and opinion based on your hyper-detailed experience.
There’s a dichotomy at play.
Be okay with some amount of mess, the human variance, yet don’t be afraid to use your advantage to maintain order and prevent the always impending chaos.
Orderliness and attention to detail are powerful strengths, yet when they sink into anxiety from loss of control, it becomes perfectionism, and perfectionism controls YOU.
Learn the difference.
If this resonated with you, I encourage you to take a look at my article on boundaries to deepen your understanding of other personality traits that could be affecting your growth as a person and as a developer.