The perfectonism trap: when being perfect can trip you up

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When Happy Blackburn pulls out his old high school trumpet to play, he sounds good.   But Happy isn't interested in "good." He wants to be flawless.

"I can play and entire musical piece,” Blackburn says. “But if I make one mistake, it's not perfect. Even though somebody may not have even noticed."

And it's not music.  Happy is an umpire for youth baseball, meticulous with his equipment, and his calls.  He agonizes for days if he thinks he missed a call.

"I could make a call and I felt like it's right,” he says. “And for some reason it sticks in my mind and I keep thinking about it.  And then I realize, well, maybe it wasn't. And then it bothers me for days One of the older guys had to tell me, 'You've just got to learn to let it go!"

Emory internist Dr. Sharon Bergquist says the drive to be perfect can be really good thing, but it can also trip you up.

"People who have that need to be perfect every single time can actually cross that line where it becomes self-destructive,” Dr. Bergquist says.

They call this the perfectionism trap.

"I try to do everything a certain way. And it has to be a certain way, or it slows me down,” says Happy.

"Sometimes you can do something really well, but trying to get from 'really well' to what you perceive as 'perfect' takes a lot of rework and extra time,” says Dr. Bergquist.

At Happy's fulltime job, as an emergency department nurse at Rockdale Medical, he’s a stickler about details.

"If something is not right, and I am trying to set something up, I can't go forward,” he says. “I have to stop and fix it first."

He treats the exam room supply closets like his umpire equipment -- everything has to be just so.  So, he finds himself restocking items his coworkers have stocked, his way.

"And I go into each one of their rooms and I take everything out that they've just put in,” Happy says. “ And I have to fold it and put it in a certain way.  I’ll be talking to the patient while I'm taking everything out and folding it up.  Just because, just because it's not where I want it, it's not just how I want it."

The problem is you can't be perfect all the time.

"If you fear making mistakes, and you view yourself as less worthy when you make mistakes, you've crossed that line where perfectionism is not serving you well,” says Bergquist.   "If you always fall short of the expectation you have for yourself, then perfectionism actually destroys your self-esteem and self-confidence."

So, Dr. Bergquist says, prioritize, realizing -- that  sometimes "really good" is good enough.

Happy Blackburn says he's trying.

"It's something that I want to do better.  But that's the perfectionist in me,” he laughs.

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