Perfectionism is a personality trait or mindset characterized by setting extremely high and often unrealistic standards for oneself, accompanied by an intense desire to achieve flawlessness in various aspects of life, such as work, relationships, personal appearance, and performance. Often underlying perfectionism are deeper beliefs of “not being good enough” or being “unlovable.” When we are gripped by perfectionism it is difficult to see the “good enough” aspects in our performance. These underlying beliefs often drive scripts for our behaviour, how we analyse and filter information regarding our performance, self-judgement and criticism. Perfectionists tend to have the following key characteristics:
- High Standards: Perfectionists set exceptionally high standards for themselves and often for others. They may strive for perfection in areas like academia, career, creative pursuits, and even personal relationships.
- Fear of Failure: Perfectionists are often deeply afraid of making mistakes or failing to meet their self-imposed standards. This fear of failure can lead to procrastination and avoidance of tasks or challenges.
- All-or-Nothing Thinking: Perfectionists tend to see things in black and white, with no middle ground. If they can’t do something perfectly, they may choose not to do it at all, leading to missed opportunities.
- Self-Criticism: Perfectionists are highly self-critical and tend to focus on their mistakes or perceived flaws. They often struggle with self-esteem and self-worth issues.
- Overworking: Perfectionists may overwork themselves in an attempt to meet their high standards. This can lead to burnout, stress, and health problems.
- Procrastination: Out of fear of making mistakes, perfectionists may procrastinate on tasks or decisions, which can lead to increased stress and missed deadlines.
- Perfectionism in Relationships: In personal relationships, perfectionists may set unrealistic expectations for their partners, friends, or family members, leading to strain on those relationships.
- Difficulty Accepting Criticism: Perfectionists often have a hard time accepting constructive criticism, as they may interpret it as a personal attack on their character.
- Isolation: Some perfectionists isolate themselves from others because they fear judgment or vulnerability. This can lead to loneliness and further emotional distress.
Types of Perfectionism
It’s important to note that there are two main types of perfectionism:
- Adaptive Perfectionism: This is a healthier form of perfectionism where individuals strive for high standards and excellence without being excessively self-critical. They can handle setbacks and failures in a more balanced way, using them as opportunities for growth.
- Maladaptive Perfectionism: This is the more problematic form of perfectionism characterized by extreme self-criticism, fear of failure, and a negative impact on mental and emotional well-being.
Perfectionism can be both a strength and a weakness. While it can drive individuals to excel in their pursuits, it can also lead to significant stress, anxiety, and mental health issues when taken to extremes. High levels of perfectionism can often be seen in people experiencing eating disorders, anxiety, depression and burn out, OCPD and OCD, and Austistic Spectrum disorders. It’s important for individuals who struggle with maladaptive perfectionism to seek support, such as therapy or self-help resources, to address and manage this trait in a healthier way.
How Perfectionism Plays Out
The Perfectionists Script for Self-Defeat was written by HH Burns way back in 1980. It highlights how perfectionistic traits can come at a cost. For example, in order to attain an 80% grade we might put in 15-20 hours of work. In order to attain 85% we might then have to put in an extra 5 hours work. It doesn’t have the same pay off. The problem lies when we place a huge amount of time in to something that doesn’t really pay off. We might drill down so deep in to the details that we lose sight of the task. This article highlights how it is our negative thought patterns and behaviors that lead to dysfunctional perfectionism. I have highlighted some ways that perfectionism might play out below
- The Perfectionist and Self-doubt: “I must do everything perfectly. If I can’t do it perfectly, I shouldn’t do it at all. I’m terrified of making mistakes because they reflect badly on me. I’ll just procrastinate until I’m certain I can do it perfectly.”
- Fear of Failure and The Inner Critic: “What if I fail? Everyone will think I’m a failure, and I’ll think I’m a failure too. I can’t handle the shame and embarrassment of not being perfect, so I’ll avoid taking risks altogether.”
- Overworking and The Overachiever: “I have to work day and night to meet my impossibly high standards. I’ll sacrifice my health, sleep, and relationships to get everything perfect. I’ll never rest because there’s always more to be done.”
- Comparison and The Envious Perfectionist: “Look at all those people who seem so successful and perfect. I’m not as good as they are. I’ll constantly compare myself to others and feel inadequate.”
- Avoiding Feedback and The Defensive Perfectionist: “I can’t handle criticism; it’s a personal attack. I’ll become defensive and avoid feedback. After all, if I were truly perfect, there would be no need for criticism.”
- Paralysis and the Perfectionism: “I can’t make a decision. I’m paralyzed by fear of making the wrong choice. I’ll never move forward because I can’t be sure it’s the perfect path.”
- The Isolated Perfectionist: “I can’t let anyone see my flaws or vulnerabilities. I’ll isolate myself from others to avoid judgment and maintain the facade of perfection.”
- The Burned-Out Perfectionist: “I’m exhausted, physically and mentally. My perfectionism has left me burned out and anxious. But I’ll keep pushing myself until I completely break down.”
- The Awakening Perfectionist: “I’ve come to realize that my perfectionism has been my own worst enemy. It’s time to break free from this script, accept imperfection, and embrace personal growth and self-compassion.”
Remember, this script is a fictional representation of the self-defeating thoughts and behaviors associated with perfectionism. In reality, perfectionism can be a challenging mindset to overcome, but self-awareness and a willingness to seek support, such as therapy or self-help resources, can be valuable steps in addressing and breaking free from perfectionist tendencies.
Overcoming perfectionism can often be an ongoing process. Perfectionism is often a very inbuilt trait that runs deep. It has likely been shaped and reinforced by a familial value system. Typically shifting these traits involves gradually changing and challenging our mindset, behaviours, and beliefs. Here are some steps to help you overcome perfectionism:
- Recognize that you are a perfectionist. Self-awareness is the first step in addressing this trait.
- Identify the areas of your life where perfectionism is most pronounced. Is this in hobbies, relationships, or work.
- Are your standards difficult to shift and let go of?
- Challenge Your Beliefs:
- Question the belief that perfection is attainable. Understand that perfection is sometimes an unrealistic and unattainable standard.
- Challenge all-or-nothing thinking and replace it with a more balanced perspective.
- Set Realistic Goals:
- Set achievable and realistic goals. Break larger tasks into smaller, more manageable steps.
- Focus on progress and improvement rather than perfection.
- Embrace Mistakes:
- Understand that making mistakes is a natural part of learning and growing. Accept that you will make errors and that it’s okay.
- View mistakes as opportunities for personal growth and learning.
- Practice Self-Compassion:
- Be kind to yourself. Treat yourself with the same kindness and understanding you would offer to a friend facing similar challenges.
- Replace self-criticism with self-compassion. Practice positive self-talk.
- Manage Perfectionist Thinking:
- Challenge negative thoughts and replace them with more realistic and positive ones. For example, replace “I must be perfect” with “I’ll do my best.”
- Use cognitive-behavioral techniques to reframe perfectionist thinking patterns.
- Prioritize Self-Care:
- Take care of your physical and mental well-being. Get enough sleep, eat healthily, and exercise regularly. Often when we are tired our perfectionism can ramp up. Sometimes we need to take breaks to recuperate and come back to a project with a fresh mind.
- Engage in relaxation techniques like meditation and mindfulness to manage stress and anxiety.
- Set Boundaries:
- Establish boundaries in your life to prevent overworking and overcommitting.
- Learn to say “no” when necessary and prioritize self-care and balance.
- Seek Support:
- Consider seeking support from a therapist or counselor who specializes in perfectionism or related issues.
- Join support groups or connect with others who are working to overcome perfectionism for mutual encouragement.
- Break Tasks into Manageable Steps:
- Divide tasks into smaller, achievable steps. This makes tasks more approachable and reduces the pressure to be perfect in one go.
- Celebrate Progress:
- Celebrate your achievements and progress, no matter how small they may seem. Acknowledge your efforts and improvements.
- Practice Imperfection:
- Purposefully engage in activities where you don’t strive for perfection and where perfection isn’t required. Allow yourself to make mistakes and enjoy the process.
- Set Realistic Standards for Others:
- Recognize that others have their imperfections and limitations. Don’t hold them to unrealistic standards.
Remember that overcoming perfectionism is a gradual process, and it may involve setbacks along the way. Be patient with yourself and keep working on these strategies. It can be helpful to track your progress and seek professional guidance if perfectionism significantly affects your mental and emotional well-being.
In conclusion, overcoming perfectionism is a journey that involves recognizing and challenging self-destructive beliefs and behaviors. It requires self-awareness, self-compassion, and a commitment to change. By setting realistic goals, embracing mistakes, practicing self-care, and seeking support when needed, individuals can gradually free themselves from the burdens of perfectionism. Remember that it’s a process, and setbacks are normal. With time and persistence, you can learn to replace the pursuit of perfection with a healthier pursuit of personal growth and self-acceptance.