Perfectionism, anxiety and learning to be kind to yourself. 完美主义,焦虑,学会善待自己。

                                                                                   —— 选自HBR网站节选(吉玛译)

“If an interviewer ever asks you what your weaknesses are, just tell them you’re a perfectionist”.


This was the advice given to me by my boss in my first ever job in IT. It is the kind of statement that makes eyes roll across the board, interviewees and interviewers alike know it as a cop-out answer. The view is that you’re not really revealing any weakness because employers want to hire perfectionists, perfectionists do great work right? The best work! Perfect work! It never occurred to me at the time, as I naively accepted this older and more experienced man’s instruction, that I’d grow to learn the real truth behind this statement.


“Perfectionism, in psychology, is a personality trait characterized by a person’s striving for flawlessness and setting high performance standards, accompanied by critical self-evaluations and concerns regarding others’ evaluations.” — says Wikipedia. Sounds great! If I were an employer I’d want to hire someone who strives for flawlessness, sets high standards and cares about others’ evaluations, they sound like a real achiever. However, perfectionism can often be a blocker to achievement. Imagine that you are constantly aiming for perfection. Not greatness, not excellence, actual perfection. You can’t help but set yourself up to fail. Achieving perfection is not something that happens often. Perfectionists measure their own self worth by how able they are to achieve this perfection, by how much they can accomplish. If accomplishments aren’t attained then they can be very harsh on themselves.


I was ‘diagnosed’ as a perfectionist with anxiety last year. It was actually a relief to finally have a name to put to the stress I was feeling. Every time I made a mistake or had a mental block on a piece of work I spiraled into depression and paralysis, making the mental block worse and my disgust with myself greater. One time, the anxiety I felt over my own failure was so bad that it manifested itself into crippling neck pain and doctors eventually put me on Valium to force me to relax and take time out.

去年我被诊断为是一个焦虑的完美主义者。终于有了一个名字来缓解我的压力,真是一种解脱。每次我犯了一个错误,或者在工作上有了一个心理障碍,我就会陷入抑郁和麻痹,使心理障碍更严重,我对自己的厌恶也更强烈。有一次,我对自己的失败感到非常焦虑,这种焦虑转化成了严重的脖子疼痛,最后医生给了我我开了安定,迫使我放松下来, 暂时停止工作。

The way that I could (and should!) have avoided these black holes is by asking for help, or giving myself time away from the problem that I had hit. Unfortunately the tech industry, and capitalism as a whole doesn’t encourage us to do those things.


There are parts of the tech industry that I love, sure, but there are so many parts that discourage us from living healthy lives. Tech lauds the creator, the achiever, the ‘genius’. These people seem to be able to do everything right, know everything, continuously churning out new ideas and new products. They can instantaneously pick up new languages and new frameworks, hell they’ve written a new, popular framework while you were still struggling over learning the previous one. They are also constantly working, they never seem to need to take a break. We put these people on pedestal and endeavor to be like them, but we never hear about their foibles. We don’t know if they also have creative blocks, or how often they need to ask for help. It is also often easy to forget that they are specialists, they don’t know everything, they do know a lot about one thing in particular. We can’t all be this person, the genius. The average person is, well, average, but because of social media and this idea of the ‘tech celebrity’ we hear a lot about others’ accomplishments and not much about their hardships. We see people succeeding and creating and being excellent, but they don’t broadcast their mediocrity, or the times when they made mistakes.


Tech employers will often encourage the unhealthy belief that we should constantly be striving to work harder, create more, learn everything. Capitalism wants us to be productive, make more money so that you can spend it. Perfectionist employees will pressure themselves into tiredness, depression, paralysis and burnout all while probably continuing to turn in excellent work, never daring to ask for help because that would be admitting that they can’t do something.

技术雇主经常会鼓励不健康的信念:我们应该不断努力工作,创造更多,学习一切。资本主义希望我们多产的,赚更多的钱,这样你就可以花钱。完美主义者的员工会把自己逼入疲惫、沮丧、麻痹和精疲力竭的状态, 但是他们还会继续从事优秀的工作,不敢寻求帮助,因为那将意味着有些事情是他们做不了的。

So what can we do both as perfectionists and friends of perfectionists to make the tech industry a safer place to work?


1.Be kind to yourself. Sometimes you just cant tackle a problem, that’s ok, it doesn’t mean that you’ll never be able to, it just means that you can’t right now. Give yourself some time and don’t let feelings of guilt or shame take over. Take a half an hour walk, or even a whole day or two away from the problem, but schedule in a start time for when you will try again in the future.

1. 善待自己。有时你只是不能解决一个问题,没关系,这并不意味着你永远也不能,它只是意味着你现在不能。给自己一些时间,不要让愧疚感和羞愧感取而代之。花半小时的时间散步,甚至把问题晾在一边一到两天,但在开始的时候就安排下次尝试解决问题的时间。

2.Set deadlines/goals/targets/schedules that are realistic and tell someone about them. Too much freedom can often be stifling to perfectionists, we need something to aim for and improve upon. Given a blank canvas we’ll panic or procrastinate, or start and abandon multiple projects. Setting achievable goals will allow for striving for excellence while removing the paralysing nature of open ended tasks. Telling someone about a goal makes us feel more concretely about that goal. It is much easier to renege on a promise to yourself than a promise to someone else.

2. 设置最后期限/目标/行程/计划是从实际出发,并告知他人你的计划。太多的自由往往会让完美主义者感到窒息,我们需要有目标和改进的东西。没有计划,我们会恐慌或拖延,或者开始并放弃多个项目。设定可实现的目标可以让你追求卓越的同时消除开放式任务的自然麻痹。告诉别人目标会让我们对这个目标有更有实感。违背自己的承诺比违背别人的承诺要容易得多。

3.Remember that ‘Perfect is the enemy of great’. How many projects have you thrown away because they weren’t perfect, or because you were worried about how others would judge them? Getting something out is better than abandoning your hard work.


4.Acknowledge that you are your own most harsh critic. Most people don’t expect perfection from other people, perfectionists only think that they do. No one is going to judge you as harshly as you judge yourself. It is ok to make mistakes, everyone does! It is ok to release imperfect code. It is even ok if someone calls you up on a mistake you made, thank them, learn from it and you’ll both move on with your lives, the world will not end.


5.Try to see yourself as you see your friends. It is easy to start putting yourself down when you don’t meet your own unachievable expectations. Consider how you’d react if someone said the things you’re thinking about yourself about one of your friends.


6.Think your fears though to their logical conclusion. Perfectionists often think catastrophically, ‘If i make a mistake in front of my colleagues then that will be the end of everything’, without really thinking through what ‘the end of everything’ would actually look like. Consider the worst possible outcome of your fear, then be honest with yourself about how likely that scenario actually is. Then you can start to consider how such an event would actually play out and how bad or not it would actually be.


These are all still things that I am learning for myself. I’m starting to recognize when I’m engaging in black and white or catastrophic thinking, learning to be kind to myself, learning to ask for help. I think these are things that we should be encouraging our colleagues to do too.


The tech industry needs to get better at encouraging developers to ask for help and teaching that no one knows everything. You can make it easier for your junior colleagues by asking if they need help with anything and by doing code reviews and pair programming sessions. We should endorse a healthy work life balance and time away from the keyboard. We should acknowledge that everyone has a bad day occasionally and that we should treat mental health issues with the same weight that we do physical health issues. If you have the flu you take the day off, if you can’t face the office then don’t force yourself to be there.


If you’ve ever canned a project, or suffered from paralysis or depression or anxiety because of perfectionism, please talk about it. I’d love to talk to you about it!


The more I’ve spoken about my experiences with perfectionism, the more people have told me about their own similar problems, with the tendency for intelligence and achievement in tech industry employees, it is perhaps unsurprising that so many people suffer from perfectionism. The more open and communicative we are about it, the more pleasant a working experience we can create for everyone.