Understanding Perfectionism: Do you recognise yourself here?
Perfectionism is a little misunderstood. Most perfectionists will say “I’m not a perfectionist, I don’t have everything perfect!”, however that’s not what it’s about. You might be surprised to read what perfectionism looks like, and perhaps the following might seem eerily familiar…
What perfectionism really is, and the behaviours you might recognise in yourself...
What is perfectionism?
Perfectionism is characterised by:
Constant striving for extremely high, unreasonable, or unrealistic standards
Judging your own worth based on whether you are striving for and achieving these extreme standards
Experiencing problems, suffering and costs to life as a result of these extreme standards, but continuing to pursue them regardless
Extreme ideas of ‘success’ and ‘failure’ and nothing in between
Constant lack of satisfaction regardless of performance (Assessing oneself as never good enough)
Overly negative reactions to perceived mistakes and setbacks
Judging oneself way more harshly than others would
Perfectionists are stuck in a cycle that's hard to get out of
Their self-worth is dependent on achieving standards that are unrealistically high
They are constantly on the look out for ways they are failing to meet these extreme standards
They focus on their mistakes and shortcomings, and rarely their strengths and achievements
They judge themselves harshly for these mistakes and shortcomings
Their self-worth takes a nose dive, so they are driven to work even harder (rather than questioning the unrealistic nature of their standards)
Or… when a perfectionist does manage to meet those tough standards, they tend to discount the achievement and decide the standards were no big deal, weren’t stringent enough, or that it was sheer luck!
... cycle starts again from the top...
How perfectionists think
Perfectionists often engage in black and white thinking (“My presentation was a complete failure”), shoulds and musts (“I must be the best”, “I should always get top marks”), catastrophising (“That interview was a disaster”, “I’ll probably lose my job”) and jumping to conclusions or assuming others are thinking the worst (“My boss is going to think I’m completely incompetent”).
You might be wondering, “But isn’t perfectionism a good thing?!”
You might think that such high-level striving will lead to an amazing life, however the paradox is that perfectionism messes with our performance and life satisfaction. Check out the perfectionistic behaviours below and you’ll see how perfectionism limits us so we don't actually perform our best, and how it increases the struggle in our lives…
The Behaviours of Perfectionists
Decision making challenges
Struggling to make decisions in a reasonable amount of time, second guessing decisions you’ve made, putting off decision-making for long periods due to a fear you’ll get it wrong.
This is a classic behaviour for perfectionists. Putting off doing things (like a project or assignment) to the last minute can be a way to avoid the fear that you won’t do it well enough.
Do you find yourself checking a spreadsheet repeatedly for errors, constantly checking your hair is sitting ok, or checking a basic email three times before sending? Perfectionists have trouble trusting themselves, and see their mistakes as so unforgivable it drives this incessant checking.
Extreme need for organisation
Many perfectionists write multiple lists, and re-write them. Perhaps they look too messy, or there's an error, or the order is suddenly wrong, and you find yourself re-writing the to-do list instead of just doing it. There’s a lot of time taken by this extreme organisation and can tip from efficiency to time sucking.
Inability to delegate
Do you dread delegating anything to others – even experienced, competent people – because you worry that the task won’t be done properly? Many perfectionists find themselves overloaded because they prefer to do everything themselves.
Not knowing when to stop
Have you ever kept editing and editing your work to a point where you can’t even imagine how you’ll finish it? Do you finish a ‘final edit’ only to go over it again? Perhaps you practice your presentation repeatedly until you’re almost hoarse and dreaming about it in your sleep? A perfectionist is never really finished because the work is perceived as never perfect enough, and there’s a fixation on the room for improvement.
You don’t need to have rooms full of stuff to be participating in hoarding. Perhaps you refuse to throw away your tax documents after the legally required time (in case something goes wrong)? Perhaps you hoard 30 shades of red lipstick so you always have the exact right shade you need? You spend a lot of energy and effort trying to avoid things going wrong or being less than ideal.
Avoiding trying new or challenging things
One of the paradoxes is that perfectionism doesn’t always create an overachieving, striving person. The fear of failure can be so extreme for many perfectionists that it is much less stressful not to try for that dream job, or attempt a challenging goal. It can keep people stuck in the status quo.
So you can see that perfectionism isn’t a desirable trait that lifts our standards, it actually stifles our performance and abilities. Perfectionism is not to be confused with a drive to achieve, conscientiousness, or being highly organised - which involve attainable, flexible goals and appropriate expectations. Perfectionism is not just the desire to do things well, or having high standards.
Where your perfectionism might be expressed
Your perfectionism may not be expressed in all areas of your life. For example you might have unrelenting high standards at work or in your study, whilst having completely flexible standards in other areas of your life. Domains in which you might see your perfectionism play out include: work, study, fitness, eating habits, appearance, weight/shape, domestic chores, parenting, sport, social media… It can pop up anywhere.
The risks of perfectionism
Perfectionism has been associated with depression, anxiety, self-harm, social anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, eating disorders, insomnia, chronic fatigue syndrome, interpersonal problems, reluctance to seek help, and suicide.
Leaving perfectionism behind – is it possible?
Yes! You can challenge your perfectionistic thinking, reduce your perfectionistic behaviours, and find a new way to relate to yourself and your goals. Keep an eye out for a future post where I’ll share some ways to start healing from perfectionism. One of the most powerful tools is self-compassion.
If you would like support for recovering from perfectionism please get in touch as I'd love to help you experience the freedom and relief of leaving it behind.