What does it really mean to be a perfectionist? It sounds good at first, right? Being perfect all the time seems like it would be a positive thing. Maybe you think of someone with a perfectly clean home, a productive daily routine, someone who exudes overall energy and has their life in order. These might be common stereotypes of perfectionists, but perfectionism isn’t just about success. In fact, many people who are perfectionists may not even realize it!
Perfectionism is often considered a positive trait. After all, many people associate perfectionism with success. However, perfectionism can lead to negative outcomes like burnout, depression, and anxiety if left untreated. Constantly pushing yourself to be perfect may actually sabotage you rather than help you in the long run.
Pushing to be perfect, all of the time can alleviate challenging feelings that can be confusing or upsetting to you, like shame or fear. Trying to make everything perfect can be one way you can control things, especially when you feel vulnerable and out of control emotionally. It can often be more comfortable to put your energy toward making things perfect rather than to figure out your feelings.
What is Perfectionism?
Perfectionism is defined as “a disposition to regard anything short of perfection as unacceptable.” To put it as simply as possible, a perfectionist is someone who will only accept perfection from themselves and hold others hostage to the same high standards. Often, perfectionists evaluate themselves very critically, even when they are successful. But there is a delicate balance between pushing yourself to do a good job and punishing yourself for anything less than perfect. If you have always operated through perfectionism, it can be hard to see that line or set that boundary. You may actually be pushing yourself too hard, spending too much time on something, or exerting more energy than you need to.
It’s likely that being a perfectionist has contributed to your success in many ways! – in school, at work, in your personal life. Your high standards for yourself have probably supported you in reaching your goals, even when the process leaves you emotionally drained. However, the constant pressure to be perfect is what is so dangerous about perfectionism. It’s usually only a matter of time before the pressure leaves you feeling burned out, unmotivated, uninspired, and potentially rob your self-worth.
Perfectionism can become a vicious cycle. You start with impossibly high standards for yourself, and then you struggle to meet them. For example, let’s say that your boss asks you to work on a new project. If you do well on the project, you could be considered for a promotion. This might feel like a reason to celebrate, but from a perfectionist’s point of view, it can be a nightmare.
A perfectionist would probably put off working on a project until they can get it exactly right. While preparation is always nice, perfectionism often turns the need to prepare into endless procrastination to avoid making a mistake. The more vulnerable a perfectionist feels about a task the more likely they will avoid it. The risk of making a “mistake” or “failing” can make it a daunting project to get started. So to eliminate those risks, we avoid the task altogether. Perfectionists often fall into the “If I can’t do it perfectly, I won’t do it at all,” mindset.
Many can get stuck in this mindset. The evasive behavior can permeate into all areas of your life, creating limitations that interfere with living fully. The fear of trying new things, meeting new people, pursuing passions and dreams are too risky when failure can be around the corner.
The cycle will leave you feeling burned out and possibly depressed from your efforts to be perfect.
What causes Perfectionism?
Often, perfectionism is rooted in shame and fear. These feelings can be very powerful and influence our thoughts and behaviors. Failure is something that happens to all of us at some point, but it can be a devastating emotion to deal with because most of us are never taught how to deal with failure. Many of us are taught that failure isn’t an option–sometimes explicitly, or sometimes through punishment that teaches us that failure is wrong and to be avoided at all costs. The truth is failure is an inescapable part of life. Expecting yourself to escape it is setting an impossible standard for yourself. Failure, after all, can be a pathway to success.
Early childhood experiences can also contribute to the development of perfectionism, especially if parents were demanding and had unrealistic expectations. If your parents constantly pushed you to have exceptional grades, be the best at everything or were extremely critical, you may have internalized the message that nothing but perfection is good enough.
Signs You May Be a Perfectionist + Perfectionistic Behaviors
You tend to procrastinate – Procrastination is a classic sign of perfectionism. You put things off because you’re afraid of making a mistake, so you leave tasks for the last minute forcing yourself to complete them, even if you don’t have time to do them right, which can lead to perpetuating feelings of failure.
You are a people-pleaser – Sometimes, perfectionism stems from caring greatly what others think of you. You may feel like you’re not good enough and try to make up for that by making everyone like you.
You think in all or nothing terms – This type of all or nothing thinking is common for perfectionists. If you can’t do something perfectly all the way through, you simply won’t do it at all.
You focus on results over the process – For perfectionists, the end result is all that matters. The journey to get there, and anything learned along the way gets lost because you’re focusing so much on the end result.
You are overly hard on yourself – People who feel pressure to be perfect are often extremely critical of themselves. You may refuse to allow yourself to make mistakes and if you do make mistakes, you can’t get past them. You fixate on your mistakes and beat yourself up about it instead of focusing on the positives of what you did achieve.
You do everything yourself – If you don’t like to hand over control to others, you may be a perfectionist. This may come across as micromanaging to others.
“Should” is your favorite word – You are always thinking of the things that you “should” be doing, instead of the things that you actually have done. Nothing is ever good enough, and you always have to push yourself to do more. If you can’t do more, you feel ashamed and worthless.
You are terrified of failure – Failure is not an option for you. You feel so much pressure to avoid failure that it impacts your daily functioning.
Treatment for Perfectionism
If you are reading this and realize that you may be a perfectionist, don’t be alarmed. The first step to dealing with any problem is realizing it exists in the first place. It’s okay to push yourself to achieve your goals, but it’s also important to acknowledge all of the hard work you’re doing and to go easy on yourself.
This may sound impossible, but know that it really does get better with practice. It may be hard to break your old habits, but be patient with yourself and remember that you’re allowed to make mistakes. It’s part of being human! This can also be a great topic to explore in counseling, to help you identify patterns in your behavior. A therapist can help you figure out new ways to achieve your goals, while still allowing yourself to be humanly imperfect.